Betsy Walker: the “Cherokee” great grandmother who doesn’t exist

As with so many things in my great great grandfather’s life, and in this history we’re writing, figuring out simple truths is a complicated mess. Myths and lies have been built up over time and repeated through generations till people come to accept them as historical fact. For instance, Will Thomas had an illegitimate son named William Pendleton “Penn” Hyde with a white woman named Catherine Hyde whose (white) family and lineage is known. This is a simple and undisputed fact. Nevertheless, over time, the white Catherine Hyde has been given the fake Cherokee name, “Kanaka,” and a full-blood Cherokee grandmother named “Betsy Walker” who married a white man named Edward Leatherwood. And generations of Hydes and Leatherwoods have been told about “Kanaka” and the Cherokee “Betsy Walker” and believe it is true family history.

Here is our research untangling of how that myth got started.

It started with money

In 1901, the attorney Belva Lockwood filed suit against the US government to get them to pay the Cherokees the remainder of the money due them – with interest – for the purchase of Cherokee lands in the east. She did not do this as the official legal counsel of the Eastern Band of the Cherokees. Instead, it was instigated by a smaller group of about 1,000 Cherokees led by the Anglo-Cherokee James Taylor. Taylor lived in Cherokee County, had worked closely with Will Thomas in Washington on Cherokee claims, and was later in Will’s Cherokee Legion. He knew Will and Will’s family, including, significantly, Will’s son, Penn Hyde. Taylor got the Cherokees he was working with to sign a Power of Attorney to Lockwood so she could represent them in court. In 1905 she argued the case before a lower-court judge, Charles C. Nott. He agreed that the United States had “broken and evaded the letter and spirit of their agreement.” But he did not award the full amount of interest due, which, after so many years, amounted to several times more than the original purchase price. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court and, in 1906, she won the case, and the Cherokees finally got the per-capita payment. The award was about $5 million, to be divided among the enrolled members of the Cherokee tribe. By 1907, Penn Hyde retained Belva Lockwood to represent him in his application for tribal enrollment.

In the 1907 claims, one of the Betsy Walker claimants, Harvey Moody (he was a cousin of Penn Hyde’s through marriage into the Leatherwood family) wrote,

“I never heard what kind of Indian blood Betsy Walker had nor how much Indian blood…. I never heard my mother say this. Never heard my grandfather say this. I have heard William P. Hyde say so. I do not recollect anybody else having said that Betsy Walker was a Cherokee Indian except (Wm.) Penn Hyde. I heard him speak about this first six or eight years ago.” [Emphasis mine.]

We will look more closely into the relationship between James Taylor and Penn Hyde. But Penn Hyde was, to put not too fine a point on it, generally a grifter. The existing evidence suggests that the “Betsy Walker” claim was one more grift. It appears that Penn Hyde started the myth of “Betsy Walker” when the Taylor/Lockwood case was getting started in hopes of getting in on the possible payout. He spread the rumor around, likely for future corroboration.

As a side note, in his claim, Penn Hyde not only made up the story of “Betsy Walker” as his Cherokee great grandmother, but he also invented the identity of “Kanaka” for his mother, Catherine Hyde. The “Kanaka” myth is one that has taken on its own life (often now separated from Catherine Hyde) as the basis for his Cherokee wife and children. (Will Thomas may have had children with a Cherokee woman, but not through the imaginary “Kanaka!”)

The Betsy Walker Myth

Two Cherokee children – Richard and Betsy Walker – were orphaned during the Removal, discovered by soldiers, and given to Felix Walker (1753-1828) to raise. According to the story, Betsy Walker grew up and married a white man, Edward “Ned” Leatherwood (1754-1808). All the “Betsy Walker” claims of Cherokee descent are based on this story and from this supposed marriage.

Recounting of the myth in 1907 tribal enrollment applications:

Penn Hyde:

“Mi grand mother name was Elis a Beth Hyd maden name Elis a beth Lether woode who was of Indian Bloode[.] I sent the Af fi da vides [affidavits] of some five or six who was well a quainted with mi grand mothe to the [Lars?] commity[.] as to mi father was W H Thomas who clame Indian Bloode a was Indian agent for years by who I was adopted to[.] I claimte none whether I could prove blood by father or not but I has prove hit by mother.

I love if you would send me som Blanks [illegible].”

Penn Hyde Grandparents names: 

English is Leatherwood. Indian name” is Kanak-at-ah.

(This is where the name “Kanaka” first appears as a “Cherokee” name for Catherine Hyde. This spawned the myth of Will Thomas’s affair with a Cherokee woman named Kanaka).

 “Were they ever enrolled for annuities, land or other benefits?”

 Penn Hyde: “They were given land by the Indians.”

(This is, of course, demonstrably not true for either Catherine Hyde or Will Thomas. In fact, WHT was buying land FOR the Indians.)

Laricie[sp?] Emeline Rose:

“Dick Walker and Betsy Walker was brother + sister and Betsy Walker daughter Elisabeth married Edward Leatherwood + her daughter married Ben Hyde Sr. and Ben Hyde is my father. Dick Walker took reservation in Haywood Co., NC * Betsy Walker registered for reservation in many places.”

“Through Ben Hyde, to my father and my grandmother Elizabeth Hyde nee Leatherwood + through my great grandmother, Elizabeth Leatherwood nee Walker + my great great grandmother Betsy Walker + her brother Dick Walker.”

Give name of father and mother…

English name: Ben Hyde

Indian name: Qua-nee-gar-na-gar

Grandfather and grandmother:

Ben Hyde – Qua-nee-gar-na-gar

Elizabeth Hyde – Lee-see-gar-na-gar

(NB that “Lee-see” is simply a phoneticization of Elizabeth. Similarly, in Chinese, my name is Yi-Lee, also a phoneticization of Elizabeth. It doesn’t make me Chinese!)


Dick Walker – Di-ga-a-do-he

Betsy Walker – Qual-si-a-do-he

Elizabeth Walker – Lee-see-a-do-ha

Edward Leatherwood – Na-dee-gar-na-gar-a-dor

John Raby:

“So as I understand, when the Eastern Cherokees was wanted to be moved … west, those two little Indian Children were caught by the soldiers and given to an old citizen by the name of Felix Walker, and afterwards they was allotted land and enrolled.”

Eliza Seay, Bryson City (#4555):

“Betsy Walker is on the roll of 1835, as I am reliably informed.”

Harvey L. Moody, 69 years of age, testifying at Whittier, N.C. in behalf of himself and his wife states:

“… I never heard what kind of Indian blood Betsy Walker had nor how much Indian blood. I hear others say she was a full blood Cherokee. I never heard my mother say this. Never heard my grandfather say this. I have heard William P. Hyde say so. I do not recollect anybody else having said that Betsy Walker was a Cherokee Indian except (Wm.) Penn Hyde. I heard him speak about this first six or eight years ago.”

Historical basis of the myth

This myth is built on some vague historical facts. We find them expressed in passing references in testimony from two much earlier lawsuits (both suits involving different parts of my family!). The first reference is from an 1812 deposition by John Dobson in the Walker v. Avery (Felix Walker v. Waightstill Avery) lawsuit. John Dobson says,

“He received information from Indian Dick raised by Felix Walker that the old Town at the mouth of Ocon or Big Creek of Tuck was called the Twelve Mile Town – and where there it was called twelve mile to the next Town below the junction of Tuck & Cowee forks of Tennessee and the Town there was called also Twelve mile Town.”

The second mention is from a deposition by Dillard Love, March 13, 1840, for the Love v. Belk lawsuit. Love says,

“There, I first became acquainted with Betsy Walker, alias Chickaleece, and have known her ever since until she went to the west. She was a very good interpreter and I frequently got her to interpret for me when buying cattle and other produce from the Indians. She was an Indian woman but talked very good English. I think she could make an Indian understand who did not understand the English language that by signing a deed of conveyance he thereby parted with his property for the reasons that during the two last treaties at this place she and her brother Dick Walker were interpreters for the reservees.

Those two passing mentions in 1812 and 1840 – and whatever historical truths they refer to – are the basis for the myth. They tell us a man called “Indian Dick” was “raised” by Felix Walker. It does not identify which Indian named Dick it was, and also doesn’t explain what “raised” means. This testimony in 1812 was given when Felix Walker was alive and would have heard it. So, it must be based on some bit of truth. But the fact that Felix Walker, in his self-laudatory memoir, does not mention raising an orphaned Cherokee boy (or girl) in his household is significant and suggests that Walker may have had a far more brief or casual involvement in “Indian Dick’s” life than the term “raised” suggests to us. We simply don’t know. But we do know from the census that in 1800, 1810, and 1820 there were only white people and enslaved people in his household. No Native people.

The 1840 deposition mentions that Betsy Walker had a brother named Dick Walker. But what has been overlooked and/or ignored by many is that the deposition specifically identifies this Betsy Walker; she was the Betsy Walker who was married to Chickaleece.

Logical inconsistencies with the myth:

 1. Felix Walker: The most fundamental problem is that Felix Walker Sr. died in 1828 (in Missouri) long before the Removal. He could not have been given children orphaned by the removal because he was dead.

2. The children: This story implies that these supposed children would have been under 10 during the Removal. So, they would have been born around 1825 +/-.

3. The Leatherwoods: The claims trace lineage through the mother of Elizabeth Rebecca Leatherwood (b.1783-d.1841) identifying her as Betsy Walker. Her name is unknown as there is no documentary evidence of it. It could have been Elizabeth Walker. But the latest that “Elizabeth Walker” could been born would have been 1770 (that would have made her 13 years old when she became pregnant with her daughter, Elizabeth Rebecca Leatherwood). So that woman, whom many descendants are claiming was a child orphaned by the Removal in 1838 would have been at least 69 in 1835!

Finally, Edward “Ned” Leatherwood, who was the husband of the “Betsy Walker” of the claims, is shown per the census of 1790 as living with a wife and children in Burke County and both are listed as “white.” And in 1800 they were living in Buncombe County and the entire family of 10 was listed as white.

Actual Betsy Walkers:

There are three documented Cherokee Betsy Walkers. Their stories of these historical women have been sampled and mixed up to create the identity of the “Betsy Walker” of the claims.

Betsy Walker #1 – daughter-in-law of Judge Richard Walker:

Per Brett Riggs: Richard Walker, aka Indian Dick, aka Tuckasegee Dick was an English-speaking fullblood, who was instrumental in the 1819 treaty, which provided him a reserve at Dillsboro at the mouth of Scott’s Creek, adjacent to the reserve of John Walker, who was his son. R. Walker removed to Walker Branch of Brasstown Creek at the GA line (which became known as Tuckasegee). He was a Judge of the Cherokee Supreme Court in the late 1820s. He married Caty (also a fullblood) and they had many children, at least some of whom were adopted. He appears on the 1835 census and died in 1836. The later claims include a Betsy Walker who was the widow of John Walker. (In 1819, the reserve list John Walker – #236 – and his wife Betsy lived on Scott’s Creek, so there were a lot of Walkers, and at least a couple of Betsys living on Scotts Creek. Very confusing.)

Brett Riggs believes Judge Richard Walker’s Cherokee name was Oolaohee. Per Riggs,

Oolaohee, a fullblood householder of Brasstown Creek, maintained six black slaves, a number equal to John Welch, the wealthiest man in the region. Parallel records suggest that Oolaohee was synonymous with Richard Walker, an officer in the Creek War, respected judge of the Cherokee Supreme Court, signatory to the 1827 Cherokee constitution, and patron of the Valley Towns Baptist Mission.” It was inference on my part that the Oolaohee entry corresponds to Richard Walker (I know of no other source for his Cherokee name), but the household was next to Richard Walker’s son, Jo Walker. The attached .pdf includes Walker’s heir claims, which indicate that Richard died in 1836 or thereabout. It also included the property valuation of Caty Walker, widow [sic] of Richard Walker, dec. Army surveys indicate their home on Walker Branch of Crawford Creek, just off Brasstown Creek. That locality of Brasstown Creek was known as Tuckasegee,


None of the various Betsy Walkers associated with Judge Richard Walker could have been the Betsy Walker of the myth. If this Betsy Walker was Judge Walker’s sister, then she was a full-grown woman long before Removal. Similarly, the daughter-in-law of Richard Walker, was grown and married to his son John Walker by 1835 (and they had kids). Further, all evidence suggests that Richard Walker’s family, including his wife Caty, his son John and John’s wife Betsy all removed to Oklahoma (they appear on the Page Roll) and remained there. They left behind no orphan children.

Betsy Walker #2: “Tennessee Betsy Walker”

This is the Betsy Walker appears on the 1835* Cherokee census. In 1819 she got a reservation at Pumpkin Town in Tennessee. She stayed in Tennessee into her old age. She was incorrectly conflated by several claimants with the Betsy Walker of the Leatherwood claims. She was actually George Lowry’s sister and the mother of Jack Walker and Margaret Morgan. She was far too old to be the Betsy Walker of the myth. Before Removal, she ran a boarding house at Fort Cass, and was exempted from removal by special dispensation. She died in 1839 at the boardinghouse near the Cherokee Agency in Tennessee.

*This is the Betsy Walker that one of the claimants, Eliza Seay[sp?], conflates with her Betsy Walker and says “she is on the roll of 1835, as I am reliably informed.”

Betsy Walker #3 – translator and wife of John Chickaleece:

In the 1840 deposition, Dillard Love refers to “Betsy Walker alias Chickaleece” – who is bilingual and translates for the whites – and says she’s the sister of a Dick Walker. (Dillard Love knew Judge Richard Walker who lived on Scott’s Creek near the store where Love worked, so he was surely referring to Judge Walker. However, there is no other evidence – thus far! – that Judge Richard Walker had a sister named Betsy. He certainly may have, but without further confirmation we can’t know for sure.) What’s very clear, however, is that Betsy Walker Chickaleece is not the “Betsy Walker” of the myth. Simply because she was too old and married to Chickaleece!

(To further complicate things, Dillard Love said he knew Betsy Walker Chickaleece from Scott’s Creek, where Judge Walker also lived, so perhaps there is some kin connection between them all that we haven’t figured out yet. But it’s clear that none of them are the Betsy Walker of the myth.)

Documentation of Betsy Walker Chickaleece:

In 1835 John Chickaleece (Chick-leece) and his wife lived on Tusquitty Creek (NC) in the Cherokee Nation. It lists:

 4 Cherokee fullboods in his household –

(1 farmer, 1 weaver, 1spinster)

2 males over 18

1 female under 16

1 female over 16 (this would be his wife Betsy)

In 1820, Betsy Walker Chickaleece interpreted the deed of purchase when John B. Love bought Big Bear’s property. (In the Love v. Sally Belk suit, people were being questioned about Betsy Chickaleece’s ability to translate.) The depositions were taken in 1840.

  • James Blythe: In his deposition she is referred to as “Betsey Chickaleece, formerly Betsey Walker.” Blythe says he’s known her since a few years before treaties of 1817 & 19.

    • Elizabeth Welch: says she knew her “when she was in this country” — suggesting that Betsy Walker Chickaleece moved west.
  • John Bryson: “Knew Betsey Chickalease since about 30 years ago, spoke Cherokee well and interpreted for him [Bryson] before he learned the language.”
  • Goldman Bryson: “He heard Betsy Walker alias Chicoleece interpret a handbill written by General Scott to the Indians on their removal.”
  • Dillard Love: Says he first became acquainted with her at the Scotts Creek store (1817-1822). “I have known her ever since until she went to the west…. she was an Indian woman but she talked very good English….she and her brother Dick Walker were interpreters for the reservees.”


Betsy Walker Chickaleece was well known to many in the community. She was an adult in 1835, was married to Chickaleece (not Edward Leatherwood), and went west during the Removal. She is not the Betsy Walker of the myth.

(Thanks to Brett Riggs for helping me sort out the many actual Cherokee Betsy Walkers.)

Final Conclusion

The myth of Betsy Walker as a Cherokee woman, orphaned by the Removal with her brother Dick, raised by Felix Walker, and married to Edward Leatherwood simply does not stand up under even the slightest scrutiny.

  • None of these historical Betsy Walkers were young enough to be orphaned in the Removal.
  • None of these historical Betsy Walkers were raised by Felix Walker.
  • None of these historical Betsy Walkers were Penn Hyde’s great grandmother or had any association with the Leatherwood family.
  • Penn Hyde’s great grandmother was born no later than 1770. None of the existing documents record her as Indian.
  • She could not have been raised by Felix Walker because she was full grown and married by the time Felix Walker was in Haywood County (1810).
  • Felix Walker died in 1828 so raised no children after the Removal!

So, to recap, Penn Hyde may, in fact, have had a grandmother named Elizabeth who was married to Edward Leatherwood. Her maiden name is not documented. It could have been Walker. However, none of the existing evidence shows her to be anything but a white woman. Further, the timeline of the claims and the evidence from the white claimants indicates is that the myth of “Betsy Walker, the Cherokee great grandmother” was begun by Penn Hyde around 1901, at the same time James Taylor hired Belva Lockwood to pursue the Cherokee claims in court. Penn Hyde – who knew Taylor and retained Belva Lockwood to represent him (which he wouldn’t have had to do if he had a just and documented claim) – created the false Betsy Walker to try and get a cut of the possible future claims payouts.

On the Trail of Tears

Buried in an unexpected corner of the National Archives – in the “Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury” – are some of the most detailed eyewitness accounts of the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” on which about 12,000 Cherokees were forced by a fraudulent treaty to leave their ancestral home in the southern Appalachians and march a thousand miles west to Oklahoma.

These long-overlooked documents describe in granular detail the difficult conditions of that cruel trek across the country in the winter of 1838-1839 – harsh cold and snow, sudden melts and flooding rivers, delays, and food shortages. They’re tucked away in the records of the Treasury because, unsurprisingly, the costs of moving, feeding, and ensuring the safety of thousands of people on a forced march in winter escalated far beyond what the federal government had budgeted. Chief John Ross and his brother Lewis, who were permitted by the US to in charge of the Removal in hopes it would make the Cherokees more willing to remove, were initially denied payment for the cost overruns. They appealed the decision and made their case through depositions by eyewitnesses.

One of the most dramatic depositions came from Thomas B. Emmerson, a white man from east Tennessee hired by Lewis Ross to be the “commissary agent” for one of the dozen wagon trains, called “detachments,” that led the Cherokees to the west. This detachment (led by an Anglo-Cherokee named James Brown) was made up of about 800 people and half that many animals – horses and oxen that hauled the wagons. Emmerson, with no storage capacity, had the difficult job of keeping all the humans and animals fed each day.

Even though he bought only three basic foodstuffs – corn meal, wheat flour, and bacon – his deposition tells of shortages and the extravagant prices he had to pay on the road due to harsh weather, local crop failures, and price gougers. His statement also offers a devastating account of the conditions the Cherokees had to endure on the long march, even when those in charge were doing their utmost to try to make the journey safe.

Emmerson started his narrative when they left their camp near Chattanooga, Tennessee on October 25, 1838. Dozens of wagons carried food, blankets, camp supplies, and those Cherokees who were too aged, weak, or young to march. They took a northern route through Nashville Tennessee, Hopkinsville Kentucky, and up to Illinois. Along the way they had to cross three major rivers (on ferries) – the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi – and to ford innumerable streams and smaller waterways. In perfect conditions it took them two and a half days simply for the whole detachment to cross the Tennessee; the Ohio took more than a week due to high winds and a burst boiler on one of the ferry boats. But that was nothing compared to what they would face in southern Illinois as they neared the Mississippi River. On Christmas day, winter crashed down on them with a blizzard that stopped them in their tracks. Emmerson wrote:

“The snow being very deep, the conductor deemed it dangerous to travel as the roads were in the most desperate order & the dangerous places thus covered with snow, which rendered it impossible to see them. The Detachment consequently remained in camp until the morning of the 3rd of January up to which time the most excessive cold weather was experienced.”

When the weather warmed a bit, Brown ordered the march to continue, but this was done, Emmerson said,

“at the imminent hazard of the lives of those who were in the wagons. The road being entirely covered with frozen snow & ice, several of the wagons were upset [i.e. turned over] by sliding from the road in steep places. The next day the conductor thought it best to remain in camp as the roads were no better, the snow & ice still remaining.”

Meanwhile, Emmerson wrote,

“I had great difficulty in procuring the regular supplies. Nothing but the most extravagant prices would induce persons to haul [food] to us, so cold was the weather & so bad the roads. By constant exertion & extravagant offers I was enabled to furnish regular supplies…”

Eventually when those supplies ran out, he had to buy “corn on the stalk as it stood in the field,” which turned out to be strangely plentiful in Illinois in early January. Then the weather suddenly turned warm – good news you would think, except that it released an avalanche of ice in the Mississippi River.

“The ice in the river above us gave way & on the morning of the 7th was coming down in such quantity as to render it impassable. The ice continued running for several days which prevented our crossing until the evening of the 9th when crossing was again commenced. The last of the Detachment finally got over on the evening of the 11th.”

That was not the end of their ordeal, however. Next came the rain.

“For two days, after we crossed the river, it continued to rain so incessantly that the conductor did not think it prudent to leave the camp. [On the] 14th, the ground having become so thoroughly wet, rendered traveling almost impossible, several wagons having sunk so deep in the ground as to make it impossible for the teams to draw them. Others mired down on the road & remained all night in that condition. So muddy was the road that up to the 19th the Detachment had only been able to travel 16 miles [from the Mississippi].”

Eventually the road got easier. But Emmerson had to pay ever steeper prices as they moved through Missouri to the Arkansas territory. Finally in early March they arrived at their destination in present-day Oklahoma.

The horrific conditions in December and January must have taken their toll in human life. On their own ancestral land, the Cherokees had generational knowledge of how to survive harsh weather and even famine conditions, but they did so with a deep knowledge of their local environment and forest resources that could carry them through the disasters of war and nature. The Trail of Tears, however, was unlike anything they had experienced. They were herded into wagon trains, unable to freely hunt or forage, dependent on official suppliers for their diet and their medicine. And, even if they had been allowed to forage and hunt, the terrain and plants were unknown to them.

 It is impossible now to know how many Cherokees succumbed to exposure, fatigue, and illness along the way. The stated numbers are unreliable. For example, Emmerson reported over one hundred more Cherokees on the detachment than the figure usually cited – which tells us that the official numbers were significantly off. As demographers have demonstrated, the overall death toll of this forced march into exile was far larger than the official statistics show. The toll on the survivors, likewise, is immeasurable. But documents like Emmerson’s help us understand, at least a little better, what they experienced.

William Holland Thomas and the Myth of the White Chief

Memorial of Qualla and Buffalo Indians, January 1, 1845, Record Group 46, National Archives. Note the enumeration of first, second, and third chiefs for each town.

With permission from the Museum of the Cherokee, we are posting our article from the most recent issue of the Journal of Cherokee Studies (vol XXXIV, Summer 2019): 36-47. This is a preview of sorts of our book to come; stay tuned for much more.

By Elizabeth Avery Thomas and Kirk Savage

In 2015, Michell Hicks, the former chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indi­ans, wrote a preface to a novel about my great-great grandfather, which began, “Wil­liam Holland Thomas has long held a place of honor among our people, but what we know of his life is a blend of fact and fiction.” For Hicks the most problematic fiction was the elevation of Thomas to the status of “white chief.” The myth effectively put the Cherokees in a subservient role, “as though our friendship with him was valid only if he held that title.”2

As a child I was raised on myths about Will Thomas, the more fantastical the better. There was one about Will taking twenty bags of gold to Washington to pay for the Cherokee lands and how we would be millionaires if the government ever paid us back. There was another about us being part Cherokee and how my lawyer grand­father had destroyed all the evidence because of anti-miscegenation laws. And, of course, there was the myth about Will Thomas being the chief of the Cherokees. I believed them all because I was a kid and because that was what loved and trusted grownups told me. There are, in fact, important truths to be found in these long-held myths, but usually these truths are less about the story’s subject than its teller.

In researching and writing a new history of Will Thomas and his world, I have come to see how the white-chief myth was born in my family, took root in a world that was eager to believe it, and erased not only the truth about the Cherokees but also the truth about Will Thomas himself. In deconstructing the myth, I have begun to know the complex man my great-great grandfather truly was and to see more clearly the fascinat­ing world in which he lived.

William Holland Thomas, born to a penniless single mother in Buncombe County, North Carolina in 1805, had, over the course of his long life, many identities: he was poor and rich; a country boy and an urbane gentleman; a white man and an adopted Cherokee. But of all the things he truly was, the identity that has adhered most firmly to him is something he never was: the white chief of the Cherokees. In its fully elabo­rated form, the story claimed that Will succeeded to the chiefdom at the urging of his adopted father, Yonaguska, on his deathbed, after the Cherokee chief had successfully led his band to evade removal in the late 1830s and to stay on their ancestral land in North Carolina. The myth took shape long after these events of 1838-39 had  passed, in second-hand accounts written by whites for white audiences. Once in print, these accounts were transformed from hearsay to “documents” and from documents into fact. To tell a more authentic history of the Cherokees, we have to deconstruct these kinds of “documents” and look at other sources, starting with the voices of the Chero­kee people themselves.

It is telling that the one surviving eyewitness account of Yonaguska’s death, which can shed so much light on the subsequent myth, has never been published and never even been seriously examined in histories of Will Thomas and the Eastern Band –  although it is preserved in the archives of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This beau­tiful brief account of Yonaguska’s life and his death comes from Yonaguska’s brother Wilnota, and was transcribed into English in 1844. It ends with an extraordinary vision of “God” sitting at Yonaguska’s deathbed and, as it comes to a close, we get a glimpse of Yonaguska in his world:

He then became speechless & departed with adding “now, now, now,” and shook hands with his daughter & then handed his hand all around him in like manner & with a smile raised his hand towards heaven and breathed his last.3

What Wilnota does not say – and what Yonaguska does not do – is highly significant. Nowhere in the entire account does Yonaguska give any orders of succession, for anyone. Nor is any mention made of Will Thomas, who at the time Yonaguska died was probably at the Cherokee agency in Tennessee doing what he did best – business for the North Carolina Cherokees. In Wilnota’s eyewitness account, the myth of the white chief is nowhere to be found.


The white-chief myth was built over time by three white informants who had known Will and talked to him about his life with the Cherokees. In each of these sources it is not easy to disentangle what Will may have told them from what they embroidered or even fabricated outright. Like a game of historical telephone, we can see the story shifting over time, taking agency away from the Cherokees and transferring it to the white man, Will Thomas.

The first source, and the only one published in Will’s lifetime, was Charles Lanman’s popular travelogue, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains (1849). Lanman was a jour­nalist, and it is clear from reading his account that both Will and the Cherokees orches­trated virtually every detail of Lanman’s visit. It was an elaborate show of assimilation designed to camouflage the Cherokees’ real goal of maintaining their traditional life on their ancestral land. Lanman was delighted by this show of “civilization,” but in his ac­count we can catch oblique glimpses of the careful line Will and the Qualla Cherokee were treading in this bit of public relations:

The Indians of this district, having formed themselves into a regular company, with appropriate regulations, they elected an old friend of theirs, named William H. Thomas … to become their business chief, so that the connection now existing between the two parties is that of father and children.4

The sentence starts by acknowledging the local Cherokees as a self-governing group, but ends with the reassuringly paternalist formula of Will as their father.5 In between, the term business chief limits Will’s role and suggests that the Cherokee have some independence, but not too much.

The first time, however, that Will was claimed, in print, to be a full-fledged political chief of the Cherokees is in a short biographical article published in 1899 by Will’s daughter, Sallie Thomas Avery. She wrote that sometime after Will’s adoption her fa­ther became “the adviser in all the business of the tribe, and was soon declared to be their head-chief.”6 While Lanman had conflated Will’s business role with the idea of the chief, Sallie Avery separated the two. In her formulation, the role of “head-chief” clearly exceeded and superseded his business role as advisor.

The next and most influential iteration came from James Mooney’s landmark book, Myths of the Cherokee, first published a year after Sallie’s essay, with an acknowledge­ment to her.7 As an anthropologist working for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnol­ogy, Mooney spoke to both Cherokee and white informants, but he was most pro­foundly affected by a long conversation he had with Will in the insane asylum where Will had been living for almost twenty years. Mooney actually left us two texts to consider: the notes he took while interviewing Will, and the book he wrote from those notes. At times the two versions are in conflict.

In his notes Mooney wrote that, at  his death, Yonaguska  “left word  for Thomas to advise  [the]  Indians  in  his  place.”  This vague  statement  can  be interpreted in a number of ways, but it does point firmly to Will as an advisor. In his book, however, Mooney extravagantly embellished that modest account:

Extended on a couch, [Yonaguska] made a last talk to his people, commending Thomas to them as their chief and again warning them against ever leaving their own country. Then wrapping his blanket around him, he quietly lay back and died.8

In Wilnota’s first-hand account, Yonaguska made none of these declarations; his vision was spiritual, not political. Mooney’s version not only strays markedly from the eyewitness account but also transforms his own notes in two key ways: first by changing the message from a communication to Will into a directive to the Cherokees; and then by changing Will’s role from trusted advisor to the more exalted status of chief. Mooney underscored this transformation by adding that, after Yonaguska’ s death, the Cherokees “knew no other chief than Thomas until his retirement from active life.”9 Mooney’s claim of “no other chief” is all the more stunning given that he talked to Cherokees who actually were chiefs, and that he did know something about how the Cherokee governed themselves. But his version of events is even less plausible if we look more closely at the world Yonaguska and his adopted son knew.


Yonaguska was, first and foremost, proudly and almost militantly traditional. He was born before the American Revolution at the mythic heart of the Cherokee world, in the sacred mother town of Kituhwa, at a time when the only whites who dared to enter their world were traders. Just as he refused to leave his ancestral land, he steadfastly refused to speak English or adopt Christianity.

Yonaguska made it his life’s work to keep his people on their land and to protect and promote the Cherokees’ right to continue to live according to their ancient customs. According to Cherokee origin stories, the Great Buzzard had made the valleys and the mountains where they came to be as a people. For the Cherokee, and specifically for Yonaguska, Cherokee traditions of place, language, belief, ritual and governance were all inextricably bound together into their collective identity. This is why he – and after him, Will – worked so desperately hard to keep the mountain Cherokee on their ancestral land and to reestablish a version of traditional Cherokee town governance.10

The primary unit of Cherokee governance was the town, which was governed by a council that was, effectively, the people of the town. The chief presided over the town council, in which all could participate. Council decisions were made by a formalized process of coming to consensus. Everyone could discuss and de­bate until there was general agreement among them. While an important func­tion of the chief was to speak, and sometimes even try to persuade, ultimately his job was to articulate the will of the council, which was indivisible from the will of the town and its people. “His authority [never] extended beyond specific instruc­tions issued by the council on each occasion,” according to  the leading scholar on the subject. Headman was the term the Cherokees themselves used, which represents much better this position that had no coercive power and answered to the collective will.11

By all indications, Yonaguska’s mountain-dwelling Cherokees – later known as the Qualla Cherokees, the forerunners of the Eastern Band – took this gover­nance system very seriously. The Qualla Cherokees were considered, even by other Cherokees, to be the most traditional and “backward” of the tribe because they were the least assimilated into Anglo-American culture.12 Yonaguska would most certainly not have betrayed all he believed in, lived by, and worked for in or­der to run roughshod over consensus governance and autocratically choose a new chief for his town. And even if he had, his people would not have accepted it.


Just as the Qualla Cherokees’ own beliefs and practices make the succession sto­ry implausible, the patterns of Will’s work life were also plainly inconsistent with the nature of a chief’s job. To fulfill the most basic requirement of that office, which was to preside over the town council, the chief or headman had to be pres­ent in the community and at councils. Will did participate in councils, particularly when he had business to present. But his attendance was, we know, intermittent at best. By the accounts in his own daily business diaries, he was constantly on the move. He often rode as much as twenty-five miles a day attending court ses­sions, overseeing his various stores, managing road projects, as well as working on Cherokee matters. His work on behalf of the Cherokees  also took him away to Washington, sometimes for years at a time. Although he always remained active in the life of the Qualla Cherokee, at the most basic level he could not have been their chief simply because he was not with them much of the time.

Furthermore, while we often see in the diaries that he was “attending to the busi­ness of the Indians,” or “making out claims,” or “buying land for the Indians,” he never noted that he presided over council meetings. He always “attended” them. On one emergency occasion, he “sent for the chiefs” and “started to call a coun­cil”; he noted the next day that they had “consented  to hold a council.” Even here in a personal document meant only for his eyes or his clerk’s, he was careful to distinguish his own standing from the chiefs’ and to observe the traditional procedures of governance that remained firmly in place.13

This pattern holds in all the public documents produced by Will and the Chero­kees themselves. Before his decline into insanity, Will never called himself a chief in public. When he introduced himself, shortly after Yonaguska’s death, to Hartley Crawford, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, he identified himself as “the constituted agent  or attorney in fact for most of the Cherokees  remaining in the States of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee authorized by them to settle all their business with the United States arising under the treaty of 1835 and 1836.” Crawford in turn treated Will as a legal representative and later as a disbursing agent working as a liaison between the U.S. government and the east­ern Cherokees.14 In Will’s various petitions to Congress he would call himself an “attorney” for the Cherokees east and an “adopted Cherokee.” In one such petition of 1846, he described himself as the “adopted son” of “a distinguished chief of [Qualla] town by the name of Yamaguska [Yonaguska].” Decades later, when he responded to a lawsuit filed against him, he asserted that he had acted for the Cherokees under powers of attorney that “were signed by the chiefs and head men and a great many of the prominent individual Indians on behalf of themselves and the balance of the tribe.”15

The Cherokees in turn never called Will their chief. In their various petitions and powers of attorney written in the 1840s and 1850s, they clearly laid out the na­ture of the relationship. In  1841, for example, the Qualla  Cherokees  submitted a power of attorney that Will delivered to the Office of Indian Affairs. In it they presented themselves as the “chiefs and heads of Cherokee families,” again put­ting the lie to Mooney’s claim that “the band knew no other chief than Thomas.” They referred to Will as their “long tried and worthy friend (or Willosteka), an adopted Cherokee.”16 One hundred and twenty Cherokees signed the document. The signatory at the top of the list was Flying Squirrel indicating his status as what we would call “head chief.” [See illustration at top of post for another example dated 1845.]17

When Will wrote to the Qualla Cherokees from 1839 into the 185Os, he often addressed his letters to “the Cherokee chiefs” or “chiefs and people.” After Qualla Town formalized its sub-towns, he would write “to the chiefs and Chero­kee Indians of Paint, Wolf, Deer, Bird, and Pretty Woman Towns.” These long letters did not condescend in any way to his Cherokee correspondents. He care­fully explained his activities on their behalf and the political negotiations going on in Washington – writing in great detail, as one member of a group does to others. He often did close the letters with advice, harkening back to the  theater of assimilation they all engaged in for Lanman’ s benefit. He advised them to be temperate, peaceable, honest, and industrious, and “lay by your corn in such a manner as superior to the whites.” Will was reminding them to be what we would call today a “model minority.” He did so because they still remained under threat of removal, from both the federal government and from local whites who con­tinually petitioned the state legislature to get rid of the Cherokees. Will did not want to give these hostile forces any additional ammunition.18 To maintain their language, customs, and governance, the local Cherokees found it increasingly necessary to present an exemplary face of good citizenship to the white world.

In  his relations with the tribe, it is clear that he knew his place among them and not only adhered to that place but valued and respected it. Among whites like Lanman, Will typically kept a low profile, letting the Cherokees and their accomplishments speak for themselves. But when it served the group’s larger interests, Will too would participate in the theater of assimilation by assuming a more paternalistic stance. For instance, in a lengthy 1845 newspaper article on the Qualla Cherokees that was reprinted nationwide, deep in the second column account Will inserted the nugget that Yonaguska at his death “assigned the care of his people” to “an orphan boy, who became an adopted Cherokee.” While the word chief remained unsaid, Will was clearly playing to a sentimental paternal­ism to reassure the publication’s national audience that the Indians were under appropriate white guidance. 19

The only time that Will – in his right mind – ever used the word chief in associa­tion with himself was in private correspondence to his bride-to-be, Sallie Love, in 1857. He wrote, “I look forward [to] the time when we will ride through [the Qualla Cherokees’] settlement on our way to our mountain home, when you will witness the affection of these people for their ‘so-called Chief.'” The Love family were among the wealthiest of the local white elite, and Sallie Love had led a very protected life. Though she spent her entire life in western North Carolina, she never interacted with the Cherokee before she met Will. When he brought her to a Cherokee dance, she was extremely uncomfortable. It seems likely, then, that by calling himself the “so-called chief” Will was suggesting a hierar­chical framework that would be recognizable and palatable to her, without fully claiming the title.20


The evidence is voluminous and compelling. No one – not Will, not the Chero­kee, not the Commissioner of Indian Affairs – saw or represented Thomas as the chief or even a chief. Why then has the myth proved to be so durable for so long?

An answer starts to emerge in the mindset of Will’s daughter Sallie, whose article was the first to declare Will the Qualla Cherokees’ “head chief.” Sallie was born in October 1861, five months after the start of the Civil War. The war was a dramatic turning point, a breaking point even, in Will’s life. Before he went to war for the Confederacy, he was a calm, affable, and non-confrontational man. Whether that was because he spent much of his life hiding his mixed Cherokee­ white identity from the world, or because he absorbed the Cherokee harmony ethic from his adopted people, we cannot know. But before the Civil War he was the kind of man who, watching hostile militia tear down his store during the Cherokee removal, stayed utterly calm and treated his aggressors “with friendship.”21

Sallie Thomas Avery never knew that man. He went to war before she was born and, when the war ended, he was insane. One of the ways his insanity manifest­ed itself was in delusions of grandeur. In an 1868 letter to the Cherokee Nation, he signed himself “Will Ooh-coo-wi-you-hih” (in Cherokee, “u gv wi yu hi”), which translates as chief.22 That same year he claimed to be “a lineal descendant of Pocahontas[,] the King of the Cherokees of which tribe all others were but tributary.”  That was the man that Sallie Thomas knew – a man who could be wild, unpredictable, and given to insane flights of self-aggrandizement.23 It seems likely that she, and Mooney after her, chose to believe at least one part of his delusion, his assumption of the mantle of white chief.

But this begs the question why she did so, knowing that her father was insane. Her own life and its social context can help us understand. She came of age after Reconstruction, when elite white Southerners reestablished their power by en­forcing racial segregation and black disenfranchisement, which they justified on an openly stated platform of white supremacy. In 1888 Sallie Thomas married Alphonso Calhoun Avery, a former slaveowner, Confederate officer, and leader of the North Carolina Ku Klux Klan.  By then he was also a State Supreme Court justice.24

Though unable to vote herself, Sallie Avery was deeply involved in the politics of white supremacy. She wrote letters exhorting the men in her life to stay true to the Democratic Party and the white supremacist rallying cry. She joined the United Daughters of the Confederacy and was involved with them in refram­ing the cause of the Civil War from slavery to “states’ rights,” and in erecting Confederate monuments to codify that new history.25 Sallie, whose father had been the devoted son of a Cherokee man and member of the tribe, had to find a way to fit that aspect of his life into her world view of strict racial hierarchy. The only way she could do that was to see her father as their leader. Will Thomas, adopted Cherokee, was recast as Will Thomas, Chief of the Cherokees and benevolent savior of a backward benighted people. That new Will also fit nicely with the white-supremacist rhetoric that Sallie and her husband shared, of the “good master” who brought Christianity and civilization to enslaved Africans and to “suffering Indians” as well.


In 2015, I attended a reenactment of the final skirmish between Will Thomas’ Legion and the Union troops of Lieutenant William Bartlett, which had led to the (supposed) “last shot fired” in the Civil War. As I was waiting for the reen­actment to begin, I wondered if the Will Thomas we would see would be the true Will as he appeared on the day of the surrender – deranged, stripped to the waist, and smeared with war paint.26 Unsurprisingly, the Will Thomas the reen­actors presented was the sanitized Colonel Thomas, fully dressed, fully sane, gal­lant, and brave. That Will Thomas, the Confederate Colonel and White Chief, is beloved in the white imagination: he gives them (us) an unthreatening model of interracial relations, with whites in power and brown people grateful and subser­vient; he tells us we are benevolent civilizers rather than rapacious colonizers.

Sallie’s statement that her father was “declared head chief,” and its embellishment soon after by James Mooney into “the only chief they knew,” took root in this collective white imagination and was then repeated so often that it has erased the truth. Will Thomas was many things to the Cherokees: he was taken in as a son, a member of their tribe and their kin networks; he was their agent and attorney; and most importantly, he was the tireless defender of his adopted father’s vision of keeping his people on their ancestral land. The term that sums all that up best is the quiet, unassuming description that the Cherokees themselves used – their “long tried and worthy friend.”


1 Though both authors worked equally on this piece, we have chosen to narrate this from Elizabeth’s point of view since it is about her family and her reckoning with them.

2 Robert Conley, Wil Usdi: Thoughts from the Asylum, A Cherokee Novella (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015), xi. More recently, Andrew Denson has chal­lenged the “white chief” myth and asserted  that it would be more accurate  “to describe him as their legal representative and interlocutor when dealing with non-Indians”; Denson, Monuments to Absence: Cherokee Removal and the Contest Over Southern Memory (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 42-43.

3 Wilnota, “The Life and Memory and Death of my brother Yonah Guskah,” February 21, 1844, Catalog No. 815, National Park Collections Preservation Center, Townsend, TN. The handwriting may be that of Samuel Sherrill, clerk for Will Thomas at his Qualla Town store.

4 Charles Lanman, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains (New York: Putnam, 1849), 94.

5 While the term “father” was often given to the U.S. President in treaty language and petitions, the Cherokee did, in fact, use familial titles such as “father” as expressions of inter-generational respect within their own community; William Harlen Gilbert, Jr., East­ern Cherokee Social Organization (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1934), 41, 82-83.

6 Sallie Thomas Avery, North Carolina University Magazine, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 5 (May 1899): 292. One additional early textual source we have found is a little-known his­tory of the Cheraw tribe published in 1867, in which Will Thomas is identified as the “head man, or chief” of a small group of Catawbas in western North Carolina who had left South Carolina and joined with the Qualla Cherokees; Alexander Gregg, History of the Old Cheraws: Containing an Account of the Aborigines of the Pedee (New York: Richardson and Co, 1867), 3. Thomas did in fact help arrange the Catawbas’ move to North Carolina but did not call himself their chief or headman.

7 James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900), 162. Mooney corresponded with Sallie Avery about her father’s biographical details; Mooney to Mrs. Avery, November 19, 1890, William Holland Thomas Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

8 Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, 163.

9 Mooney, Myths, 161.

10 Yonaguska was non-literate, and reliable sources on him are scanty. Our biography uncovers some new material, but the outlines of his perspective can be seen in Lanman’s account of a remarkable speech he gave during the removal period, which was probably recited to Lanman by either Will or one of the local Cherokee  elders; see Letters from the Alleghany Mountains, 108-110.

11 John Phillip Reid, A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation (New York: New York University Press, 1970), 50-52 (quotation on 52). On Cherokee gover­nance, see also John R. Finger, The Eastern Band of Cherokees, 1819-1900 (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), 4-5, 67.

12 Finger, Eastern Band of Cherokees, 13-14, 42. The long-running federal agent for the Cherokees, Col. Return J. Meigs, wrote that the mountains were a “nursery of savage habits,” Meigs to Benjamin Hawkins, February 13, 1805, available at: https://www.fold3. com/image/260/205473910.

13 For example, January-February 1844, October 22, 1841, December 11, 1841, Febru­ary 18, 1852, April 1, 1852. The emergency council meeting is noted December 18-20, 1841. All diaries are in the Museum of the Cherokee, with accompanying transcriptions.

14 Thomas to Hartley Crawford, May 20, 1839, National Archives, M234 Reel 83.

15 “Memorial of the Cherokee Indians Residing in North Carolina,” June 25, 1846, Sen­ate Document 408, 29th Congress, 1st Session, 23, available at: booklets/memorial_cherokee/default_memorial_cherokee.htm; “Separate answer of Wm. H. Thomas to the Bill of Complaint of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians,” June 28, 1873, Equity Case 701 (1874), U.S. Circuit Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Asheville Term, Record Group 21, National Archives at Atlanta.

16 Will was sometimes referred to by the Cherokee name “Wil-usdi.” “Will-osteka” may be a variant of that [usdiga] or another name for him.

17 Thomas to Crawford, November 13, 1841, enclosing power of attorney from the Qualla Cherokee, National Archives, M234 Reel 85. See also, for example, Memorial of the Qualla and Buffalo Indians, January 1, 1845, in 28th Congress, 2nd session, Senate Document 90; original in Record Group 46, National Archives [see illustration at top of article].

18 Thomas to Chiefs of the Qualla Town Cherokees, January 11, 1840, Letterbook 1839- 40, University of Tennessee; Thomas to Cherokee Chiefs and people of Qualla Town, June 25, 1845, and Thomas to chiefs and Cherokee Indians, March 6, 1850, both in Eq­uity Case 701 (1874), National Archives at Atlanta; Thomas to the Cherokees at Qualla Town, July 12, 1839, Letterbook 1839-40.

19 Raleigh Weekly Standard, June 4, 1845, 1, reprinted from the Washington Union.Thomas to Sally Avery, January 4, 1857, William Holland Thomas Papers, Duke Uni­versity, Microfilm reel 1.

20 Thomas to to Sally Avery, January 4, 1857, William Holland Thomas Papers, Duke Uni­versity, Microfilm reel 1.

21 Statement of Capt. Moses Cunningham, enclosed in letter from Thomas to Governor Dudley, October 29, 1837, Thomas Papers, Duke University.

22 Letter to the Cherokees of the Cherokee Nation West, November 15, 1868, Thomas Papers, Duke University, Microfilm reel 3; the letter is signed by sixteen Cherokees and Will Ooh-coo-wi-you-hih at top. Many thanks to Bo Lossiah for transcribing this into Cherokee phonetics and translating it.

23 The Pocahontas claim comes from trial testimony recorded in Thomas v Everett, Jack­son County Civil Actions, 1891, at: 916D-37N?i= 704&cc= 1916185&cat=2013489. The testimony recounts many other examples of grandiose delusions continuing long after the Civil War.

24 Avery’s activism for the Klan in the 1860s and 1870s is proudly recounted in Josephus Daniels, ”Address by Josephus Daniels on Presentation of a Portrait of the Late Judge Alphonso Calhoun Avery,” April 11, 1933, published in North Carolina Reports 204: 824-825.

25 One representative letter to her husband urges her male relatives to hold the line for the Democratic party against the  “gold bugs” and explains that “I wanted you and Joe to stand by “White Supremacy and the white metal [silver]”; letter from Sallie to A.C. Avery, May 1, 1896, in authors’ collection.

26 Philip Gerard, “Little Will’s Cherokee Legion,” Our State, 80 (September  2012): 70; William Williams Stringfield, Memoirs of the Civil War, 75, manuscript, Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library, at: Will showed up for the surrender parley with twenty Cherokee warriors, and it is not entirely clear from the Stringfield memoir whether both Will and the warriors were bare-chested and painted. There is every likeli­hood, however, since it is clear that he was in a manic state at the time. Testimony from James Terrell in a later court case indicates that “he grew very much excited[,] vowed  he would never give up – that he was dictator of W.N.C. [western North Carolina] and intended to make a Switzerland out of it and be President”; Thomas v Everett, Jackson County Civil Actions, 1891. Testimony from that case also verifies that he did strip and paint himself on other occasions.

A Personal Act of Reparation

A few years ago, in doing research for the book, I stumbled across an 1870 deed in Haywood County written up by a Methodist minister who sold most of his land to an extended black family he and wife had once enslaved. Will Thomas was born about a mile from this property.

At first I had difficulty understanding the deed. Then slowly I assembled estate documents and genealogical data, and a picture began to emerge of a remarkable act of reparation and the backlash it generated. The result is this essay published in Lapham Quarterly’s Roundtable Blog. Many thanks to all the editors there who believed in it and worked so hard on it.

Mountain talk

A painted poem that my great grandmother Sallie Thomas Avery wrote about her early childhood in the mountains. “And I who passed that country way/ When life was yet at early day/ … Saw Earth as one vast Eden fair/ Pure as the bloom of crab hedge there.”

My great-great grandfather, Will Thomas, was born and raised deep in the heart of the mountains of North Carolina.  His daughter, my great grandmother, Sallie Thomas, lived there for the first 9 +/- years of her life, on a farm three miles away from the nearest (tiny) town. But when Will came back from the Civil War insane – sometimes violently so – her mother sent her away to live with relatives.  For her, the towns of Waynesville (NC), Jefferson City (TN), and finally Asheville, were big cities where the other kids made fun of her mountain talk. 

After being sent away from home, Sallie had a hard, sad life and became a prickly, difficult person.  She got rid of her mountain accent and became a bit of a snob herself.  But at the heart of her identity was that bereft little mountain girl who got made fun of and didn’t quite fit in anywhere.  Her maternal line, and mine, was pure Scotch-Irish. Writing this book, I’ve learned that the “mountain talk” she was so ashamed of was imported straight from Ulster. And that my Scotch-Irish inheritance is not only genetic, but also linguistic.  These are some of the things I’ve said all my life that come directly from Ulster.

1) The combination of “could” with “used to” or “might” – e.g. “You used to could do that,” or if someone asks me to do something, answering “I might could do that for you.”

2) The use of “done” as a helping verb or adverb: “We done finished up the chores” or “I was done wore out.”

3) The pluralization of “you” into “y’all” (or as they say here in Pittsburgh, “yinz” which is a version of “you’uns”).

4) The combination of “all” with other pronouns or even nouns: “I don’t know who all was there” or “I don’t know what all they did.” Occasionally “Mama and them all went to the store.”

5) “Till” added to expressions of time: “She said she’d be there at a quarter till eight” (rather than a quarter to eight). Also, the use of “till” meaning “to the point that” – e.g. “I was beating those egg whites till my arm about fell off.”

6) “Wait on” instead of “wait for.”  “I’ve been waiting on you since lunch!”

7) The prefix “a” on verbs: “a-runnin’” or “a-comin,” as in “Don’t worry, I’m a-comin’!”

8) “Piddle” meaning to waste time, as in “Stop piddling around!”

If you haven’t heard me talk this way, it’s because I say these things around my family more than I do around other people. But I say them all, and I love knowing that these phrases travelled with my maternal line from the Lowlands of Scotland, to Ulster, to the mountains of North Carolina. And it makes me feel deeply connected to that little mountain girl my great grandmother once was, before she was sent away from home and became a prickly snob.  Sallie would probably be appalled, but I’m delighted.

The long walk to Washington

Cherokee man c. 1838 wearing a turban and decorative sash.Smithsonian American Art Museum

During the writing of this book I’ve thought a lot about heroes – who gets to be one and who doesn’t, whose story gets told and whose doesn’t. We’ve come across so many amazing stories that will only be told in passing or in footnotes in our book. Like this one.

In 1815, Big Bear, the Headman of the mountain Cherokees, wrote a letter to President James Madison asking for someone who knew their regional issues and needs to be assigned as their federal agent. Reasonable request, right? Madison never answered it. So in January of 1816, he and the other chiefs wrote another letter. To ensure Madison received it, they got two men, Roman Nose and Junaluska, to volunteer to hand deliver it. Roman Nose was a local headman and Junaluska was a seriously badass warrior who had saved Andrew Jackson’s bacon (and maybe his life) during the battle of Horseshoe Bend!

Think about what those two men did and how they did it. This trip – in JANUARY, from the mountains of North Carolina to Washington DC – was 500 miles each way. On horseback it would have taken a *minimum* of 20 days to get to Washington. I say on horseback, rather than by coach, because it’s likely they weren’t welcomed on stage coaches, as well as at many taverns along the way. Most white people were terrified of Indians at that time (which meant the two men were also in danger of being attacked). Where did they sleep? In fields? By the side of the road? Where and what did they eat? And did I mention that this was in January?

And when they got to Washington, how would they have been received? People did pop in and out of the White House back then. But what happened when two Cherokee men marched up to the front door of the White House and said, “We have a letter for President Madison.” Imagine the butler or maid’s face when they said, “No, we won’t just leave it with you. We have to give it to HIM ourselves.” I like to think of them marching into the White House, into the Oval Office maybe, and handing him that letter they’d come 500 miles to deliver.

Now those are some heroes!
By the way, Madison didn’t answer that letter either.

The Cause of the Civil War

Here is a reminder, if anyone really needed it, of what whites in the South thought the Civil War was about. It comes in a letter from Bob Love, the brother-in-law of Will Thomas, written to his father in December 1860, on the eve of South Carolina’s vote to secede from the Union:


“Before tomorrow’s sun goes down, this great union of ours will be dissolved….In less than thirty days from now there will be war in this happy land of ours. When will it stop. The abolitionists say that the southern people are all fools and rascals in saying that they are better than a negro. They say that they will put the negro on an equality with the white man, if they have to do it at the cannon’s mouth. The south says they will die before they will be put on an equality with negroes. And so the fight commences…. Let it come. We will be ready for it.”


And so began the deadliest war fought in the continental U.S., on the grand principle of… absolute and unalterable white supremacy.


Family madlibs

Today I came across yet another narrative recounting how my extended family “settled” the frontiers of western Virginia and North Carolina. In this, as in every one of these stories, my ancestors were described as brave, doughty settlers taming the wilderness and bravely fighting off “warlike” Indians. We’ve written before in this blog, about reevaluating the language that we use, not in an effort to be “politically correct,” but to be historically correct.  If you want a serious thoughtful examination of those words, revisit the entry, “The words we use, the stories they tell.”


But if you want a frivolous but fun little exercise, read on.  Today, in a fit of annoyance, I decided to replace all the “brave settler” language with historically accurate terms and descriptions. The result was both silly and yet deeply satisfying.


So here’s a recap of some of the most common “brave settler” vocabulary with my replacement term.

Settlers and pioneers = “invaders”

To call a people “settlers” implies that they are moving into a land that is not already settled. I’m replacing those terms with “invaders.

Hardy or restless pioneers = “desperate”

My Scotch-Irish forebears are frequently referred to using words like hardy, restless, and independent.  What those terms really mean is that they were so desperate for land that they were willing to live in areas where they might be killed by justifiably angry Natives. I’m replacing those terms with “desperate.

Frontier = “Native homeland”

Implies the edge of OUR territory rather than the place where YOU fight to maintain your territory. Instead I describe what the land was being used for by the Natives or call is simply “Native homeland.”



Here’s the original:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia. This move was on the western frontier in an area then known as Augusta County.  The Dennis families were hardy adventurers, brave enough to move where few white men ever lived before.  These pioneers were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the fierce warlike Indians who continuously stalked the white invaders of their land.”


Here’s the translation:
“Soon after his marriage to Ann Johnson in December 1766, Martin Gash moved to Virginia.  This move was to an area then called by the English  “Augusta County,” but was situated along the Great Indian War Path and within a well-used tribal hunting ground.  The Dennis families were desperate for land, desperate enough to move to Native territory.  These white invaders were often forced to barricade themselves in a community fort for protection against the justifiably angry Indians who tried to push the white invaders from their homeland.”




Handy Glossary of replacement words: (Try it with your own family myths! It’s kind of fun!)


Terms describing slavery:


Plantation – forced-labor camp


Master/mistress – wardens


Slave – enslaved person, prisoner, forced laborer


Overseer – prison guard or labor-camp guard


Sex between owners and enslaved – rape



Terms describing colonial expansion:


Colony – usurped land


Settler – invader


Pioneer – invader


Hardy – desperate


Restless – forced to move


Indian fighter – Indian murderer


Frontier – native land


(military) expedition – violent invasion


Civilization – lifeways the colonizer values


Savages, barbarians, etc. –

Those who live on land colonizers want

Those who live in ways different from the colonizers

Those who worship differently than the colonizers


“No people. Only Indians.”

HOO BOY! There’s a lot going on today and every day lately- and mostly I’m trying to hunker down and get as much writing done as possible. But this Laura Ingalls Wilder controversy (her name is being stripped from a prestigeous literary prize because of racial language and stereotypes) goes straight to the heart of what I’m writing about now – colonialism, its offshoot Manifest Destiny, their hierarchical view of both people and land use, and the linkage of all those things to white supremacy.

Ingalls wrote that the character “Pa” wanted to go where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” Ouch. But that bald, painful sentence goes right to the heart of the resettlement of North America by white Anglo-Europeans. “There were no people. Only Indians.” That’s a myth that is still active. I have been told, within the last six months, that America was “empty” when the settlers got here or that our ancestors took land that no one was using.

The truth is that the land was very much in use, but in ways that colonizing whites could not “see” – by which I mean they did not see it as of any value.  Land was hunted and farmed communally; fields were left intentionally fallow to regain fertility, complex ecosystems were stewarded to the benefit of the group.  The colonizers, on the other hand, were part of centralized states that needed bounded, taxable land in order to generate revenue through taxes. Communal land can’t be enumerated and taxed, just as hunted or foraged food can’t be easily counted and taxed.

By the way, this isn’t directly about whiteness. This was the pattern when the English colonized Scotland and Ireland and it continued in North America.  It’s not about “whiteness,” but it is about hierarchies of who and what is valued. Land use customs originally defined it, but skin color became inextricably bound up with it, and through that colonization became a tool of white supremacy.

So what about Laura Ingalls Wilder?  What do we do with these parts of our culture – books that use racial epithets to describe groups of people; monuments that lament the South’s loss of the Civil War; or even words like “boy,” “cotton-picking,” “pickaninny” that were once used without thought by whites and are now understood to be racist?

Many people say that we “shouldn’t erase our history.”  But that’s the problem; it’s OUR version of American history, but it’s not necessarily theirs – whoever “they” might be. And, all too often, “our” history erases “their” history.

Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t, by the way, being banned or erased.  She’s just not going to have a prestigious literary award named after her any longer.  Her books, thought problems and all, will still be on the shelves of your local library. Children will still read them and dream.  But we, as a nation, do need to reckon with what we did: we did not “settle” an empty land, we took land from people who were actively using it.  What we saw as pristine forests with no troublesome undergrowth, were actually territorial hunting grounds the Native population had carefully stewarded with controlled burns so they could hunt more easily.

Some of my family say we need to give up “white guilt,” and you know what? I agree. But I mean it differently. I mean we have to stop passing on the stories we’ve used to make ourselves feel better.  Many of these are stories my beloved mother told me, and that her mother told her –  that our ancestors were the “good masters,” that “a lot of slaves were happy,”  that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, or that the land was empty when we got here.  We need to accept the truth of what we as a nation have done, good and bad.  It’s the only way we can move on to the future.

Some myths – those that have been turned into literal monuments, do need to be reevaluated honestly by the communities they exist within. Some of them will be removed, some will remain.  Laura Ingalls Wilder and her myth of a land that was empty – because the Indians who lived there weren’t “people” – can and should stay on the shelf.  But the myth she romanticized so compellingly – the myth of an empty America waiting for white settlers to take it – does need to be questioned.  Literature is complex and imperfect, just like the people who create it. We should allow it to be so – by critiquing what is untrue or wrongheaded while valuing skill and artistry, and the joy they give us.

Laura Ingalls Wilder will not be hurt by the stripping away of her name from a prize. And her readers, those dreamy little boys and girls, wandering along the shelves of their public libraries, looking for worlds to escape into, certainly don’t care.

The story of Debby and Tom: a white man’s will, two enslaved people, two terrible choices

Marble panel from the Charles Avery tomb, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, 1860, showing a black family on the left, and a ship departing for Liberia on the right. Avery was a prominent funder of the American Colonization Society which sent thousands of newly freed people to the African colony in the decades before the Civil War.

As we’ve delved into  the complex racial and social history of whites, Cherokees, and blacks in western North Carolina, we’ve come across many amazing individual stories that we can’t include in the book (unless we want it to be seven volumes!).  But these stories have a lot to tell us about the complexities of race in America.  A trope that will be familiar to anyone who’s confronted a personal history of being descended from either the enslavers or the enslaved, is the myth of the “good slave owner.”  Many white people – many in our own families – cling desperately to any evidence that their ancestors were “good,” or at least better than those other enslavers.  Some use wills freeing the enslaved on certain conditions as evidence of the goodness of their ancestors. But in addition to the indefensible fact that these wills continue to enslave people until the owner’s death, they show us ways in which racism hides in such seemingly magnanimous gestures.  One such will was left by one of Will Thomas’s distant cousins, a man by the name of John Berry of Lincoln County.  Berry was a farmer and blacksmith who owned several valuable tracts of land and two black people, named Tom and Debby.


In his January 1833 will, Berry gave Tom and Debby a choice: after his death they could either remain in North Carolina enslaved, but to a master of their choice, or they could choose to be free, but only if they were willing to emigrate to Liberia – which meant giving up everything and everyone they knew, and taking a dangerous sea voyage to an entirely unfamiliar land.


“As to my two slaves, Tom & Debby, if they should choose to go to the land of Liberia or to the country provided by the colonization society for black people, in such case I appropriate 50 dollars toward bearing their expenses to said land & if that should not be sufficient to pay their passage there the said negroes to be hired out until they procured enough & then to be sent by my executors to said country[,] that if said slaves should not be willing to go to said land then in that case they together with the fifty dollars to fall back into my estate & the said negroes to choose their masters & be sold.”

It’s true that there were draconian manumission laws in effect at the time, making it difficult to simply free a person. Manumission  became much more difficult  in North Carolina after 1830, when the state legislature required owners to provide support for newly freed people and required the new freedmen to leave the state within 90 days. But it must be also understood that the group encouraging black emigration to Liberia – the American Colonization Society – was founded on ideas of racial purity and against race mixing.   Berry’s will was an early example of this manumission-and-deportation scheme. Eventually over 2,000 brave North Carolinians of African descent would choose to make the transatlantic voyage to Liberia, assisted by the Colonization Society.


Tom chose to remain in North Carolina, probably to remain with people he loved. We don’t know who he chose to be his master or what his fate was.  John Berry’s will bequeathed him a set of cooper’s tools (for barrel-making), suggesting that he was a skilled tradesman.  One can only hope he was able to hire himself out and earn the money to purchase his and his family’s freedom.


Remarkably, Debby chose Liberia. Berry gave her a “good suit of clothes” and ship fare. A document in his estate file indicates that not too long after his death the executors paid expenses amounting to $71.38 in all, for his headstone, coffin, funeral and other costs, and at the bottom of the list, these two items:


For suit of clothes for Debby: 5.00

For sending Debby to Liberia: 25.00

It was an extraordinary act of courage, for a single woman to embark on such a perilous journey into an unknown future — a testament to her determination to do whatever it took to be rid of slavery. This document is the last trace we have been able to find of her. We don’t know whether she completed the journey, much less how she may have fared in her new home.


A white descendant of Berry’s, reading the will, might be tempted to ascribe goodness to Berry.  But in circumstances like enslavement, “good” is an absolute term. To believe you can “own” another person is the negation of all that is good. We can say there were better or worse enslavers, but there could never be a truly good one; the only way to be a good enslaver would be to free the slaves immediately and without conditions.  Berry was among the “better” masters, but one must recognize that even in making that better choice, he chose not to inconvenience himself in life, either in the loss of their service to him, or in giving them better, more bearable choices. Any goodness in this situation can only be attached to the people he enslaved contending with the heart-rending choice they were given. One chose the pain of remaining enslaved, but with people he loved in a world he knew.  One chose freedom at the cost of everything and everything she knew. Both were heroically brave.


Berry’s will can be seen in the original on FamilySearch. His full estate file with the expense sheet (and an 1829 bill for a “cupping” treatment that he and Debby both received) is also on FamilySearch. We also recommend a book on black emigration from North Carolina to Liberia by Claude Andrew Clegg III, The Price of LibertyAfrican Americans and the Making of Liberia (UNC Press, 2009).