The project

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

16 thoughts on “The project”

  1. I did not know that Kirk also had a blog and I will be reading it too, since it goes so well with my own work as a docent at the National Gallery of Canada. I think your project is a marvellous idea.

    1. Thanks so much Laurent. It’s good to be blogging again, and wonderful to have some of my old blogging friends show up here!

  2. On coffee break yesterday, I updated my family tree. I read an obituary on file for the first time of a 3rd-cousin only to learn that she had written a book for children. Curious, I went in search of info on the book. I found scanned pages posted on Flickr by her daughter who was not in my database. Made a note to self to write to thank the daughter. On coffee break today, I looked for Avery photos online. How remarkable to find a pair of them posted by the very same woman in a fascinating blog about family and social history. Elizabeth, newfound fourth cousin, thank you for sharing images, stories, and research. It is a real treat to read the experiences of others learning social history facing the same truths that genealogy reveals. I wish you both all the best in this interesting endeavor.

  3. Would love info on WHT’s descendants, especially illegitimate ones. I have a brick wall on Susie Julia Thomas, supposedly Cherokee. Orphaned before 1900.

    1. Hi, sorry to take so long in responding. We’ve worked very hard to identify the children WHT fathered outside of his marriage. Surprisingly, many people who thought they were descended from Will turned out not to be! DNA shows that he is the father of Demarius Angeline Thomas and William Pendleton Hyde. Will was actually very good about taking care of his biological kids and keep them in his life. I have not come across and Susie Julia Thomas so my guess is she’s not Will’s child. As I know all too well, Thomas is a very common name and that makes it hard to find people. Good luck!

      1. Your findings with great I’m also looking into the same bloodline truth is very important to me you have done a great work thanks

    2. Your findings with great I’m also looking into the same bloodline truth is very important to me you have done a great work thanks

      I would love to compare that information also I want to get legitimate Whts

  4. Hello again Elizabeth you’re blocking is excellent I find your discoveries in line with what I found
    I am so glad to see and you as an understanding person do you have photo do you have a photo of your grandfather or your father I would love to compare them with a photo I have I look forward to hearing from you so thanks Rebekah

    1. Hi Rebekah, So sorry it took so long for me to see your comments! I do have photos of most of the various family lines. I’ll email you to figure out whose picture you need to see.

  5. This website is wonderful “Thank you”
    Looking for any information on the John Avery family.
    Listed in 1900 Federal Census in Mitchell , Roaring Creek Dist 0100
    John listed as Black was born in March 1840 (could he have been enslaved by the Avery family?)
    Also listed in his household are Margaret Avery born 1877 (daughter) my great grandmother
    Addie born 1893 my grandmother ( Addie also used Moses, or Eldridge as last name Eldridge because an Eldridge may have been her father.)
    The census also listed a Raymond Avery and Sam Avery as children of John and Margaret Avery. My grandmother may have had a different father.
    Any leads that would help fill in my family tree would be appreciated.
    Thanks for your help with this.

    Claude A. Schrader
    54 W. Tulpehocken St.
    Phila. PA 19144
    267 250 6031

  6. Searching for information on Thomas’ Legion, I have just discovered your impressive collection of work here, which I find not only totally fascinating but refreshing in its no-nonsense, warts-and-all approach to historical realities.

    I was wondering what the status was of your book project. I just subscribed to this web-log, so can watch here for news, I guess.

    I serve as a volunteer in Resource Education in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the North Carolina side, so I love digging into (and de-bunking, when called for) aspects of the region’s cultural history — “warts and all”!

    TOM POWERS / Waynesville, NC

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