This blog is the result of a simple project that got wildly out of control. The simple project was to write a new biography of my great-great grandfather, William Holland Thomas, known best for his long and complex relationship with the Eastern Cherokee. The book would include all the parts of his life that my family had tried to suppress. It would include all the sex he had (he noted when, where, with whom, and how many times in his business diaries!), all the illegitimate children he fathered, and the tragic insanity at the end of his life. It would also try to solve some mysteries, like the identity of his own father, Richard Thomas. Simple. I thought it would take a year or so of work.
Three years and countless hours of research later, we have a complex, rich, sprawling story that is anything but simple. Because no American family’s story, if you dig deep enough, is simple. We’re all a mix of peoples and nations that combined and clashed. In the U.S., we’re all either “settlers” or those unsettled by them, invader or invaded, enslaver or enslaved, pawn or powerbroker, and many of us, like me, are a mix of all of them.
My family has been in North Carolina for hundreds of years. We were at the front of the white tidal wave that started at the east coast and washed across the state and the continent changing it from a settled Indian “nation of villages” to a European-style nation. My family history is a microcosm of the history and invention of the United States of America. And it is not the elegant white family, descended from Charlemagne or Sir Somebody, that our tidy genealogy charts have described. Instead, my family was a messy tangle of white and brown, legitimate and illegitimate, scoundrels and good people. Each of these people is fascinating in and of themselves. Each could have their own book. This blog is where we’ll put some of their stories, as well as the inviting trails we par ventured part way down but couldn’t follow to their ends as well as the fascinating facts and stray thoughts that couldn’t fit into the book, in the hope that other people will pick up where we were forced to leave off.
Meanwhile, the book’s focus will remain on my great-great grandfather, Will Thomas, because his life, and the lives of his parents and descendants, intersect with so many of the people and events that defined what the United States would become. He was born near the beginning of the 19th century and died near the end of it. He started dirt poor in the remote mountains and became a wealthy man and power broker. He was born white, was adopted by the Cherokee, and lived in both worlds. He fought tirelessly for the right of the Qualla Cherokee to stay on their ancestral homeland and yet became a slave owner who assumed the inferiority of African/African-American people and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. His one life, containing as it does, so many different lives, and at such critical points in U.S. history, is a lens through which we can better see ourselves.
And, surprisingly to us, those back-of-beyond mountains of western North Carolina, where he was born and died, were similarly representative. Because those mountains were high, hard to get to, and hard to scratch a living out of, whites came to the region later. This remote backwater became the setting – in a later and more heavily documented time – for a reenactment of much of our colonial (and colonializing) history.
We hope that this blog will be not only a place to put our research and thoughts, but also a place to inspire and engage in dialogue with readers about race, family, documented and undocumented histories, and much more.
Elizabeth and Kirk