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: http://toto.lib.unca.edu/ 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: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:l:33S7- 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: http://cmdc.knoxlib.org/cdm/re:Ucollection/p15136coll4/id/1624. 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.

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.

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.” http://tangledhistories.org/cherokee/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


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).


The glitch in the Matrix


As the family story keeper – the one who receives and passes on family tales – I have always been fascinated with the moments when the story doesn’t quite add up – the jump in the film, the glitch in the Matrix. I remember, as a kid, annoying my mother repeatedly by interrupting her and saying, “But Mama, that doesn’t make any sense!”  I’m still at it. And what I’ve learned from researching this book is that the moment where the story jumps is also where that treasure called the truth lies. Because that is what your people are afraid of facing and that is often who they really are.


In my family history, we seem to emerge, like Athena from Zeus’s head, full grown in the 18th century as well-to-do frontier gentry using the term “Scotch-Irish” to cover over a multitude of things – some of them sins, but and some of them just the hard-scrabble white-trash history of who we were before we became the cultured educated people we are now.


In our family history, my fourth great grandfather, Robert Love, is remembered as a well-to-do member of the elite. He was the “founder” of the town of Waynesville, NC and donated the land for the Haywood County courthouse. Within the family we remember proudly that the Loves brought the first piano into western NC. We are founders, we are cultured, and how we got to be those things is not examined.


But Robert Love did not start out as either of those things. He was the grandson of a poor Scotch-Irish immigrant and he was born in a border settlement in the Shenandoah mountains, known as “the drunken tract,” where the Scotch-Irish had been shunted off by the English coastal elites. At the age of sixteen he set off, like so many poor sons, to make his fortune in the world by joining the army. The year was 1776 and Robert was a wagoner in an armed campaign to “chastise” the Cherokee. It was an ugly, vindictive campaign, purposely attacking innocent noncombatants. Its purpose was not reprisal or retribution, but instead a warning to all the Cherokee not to ally with the British in the American Revolution. It was essentially a bloody message saying, “See what we can do to your most distant and protected of your people? We can do worse to you.” This warning, timed just before harvest to ensure maximum suffering, entailed the mass burning of Cherokee towns and fields of unpicked crops as well as the murder of any Cherokee – regardless of age or gender – they encountered. The whites had far superior firepower, so most of the population hid in the mountains surrounding their towns. Among them was another sixteen-year-old boy. His name was Yonaguska. This was the second time his town – the sacred mother town of Kituwah – had been destroyed by white armies. The first time was when he was one year old. He wouldn’t remember that attack, but he would have been told of it by his mother, in whose arms he had then been carried to their hiding place in the hills. But he might remember the widespread hunger afterwards, and the work of rebuilding their home and town in the following years. What he felt watching his home burn, watching the council house on the mound at the center of town be desecrated, isn’t known. What young Robert Love did is not known either, but one of his fellows left this account:


“[Some men] found an Indian squaw and took her prisoner, she being lame, was unable to go with her friends; she was so sullen, that she would – as an old horse is – neither lead nor drive, and, by their account, she died in their hands; but I suppose they helped her to her end.”


I think often of those two sixteen-year-old boys: one watching the cruel and unprovoked destruction of his home, the sacred mother town of Kituwah, from the hillside above it; the other somewhere below, lighting a match, holding a gun, destroying a world. That is the moment where my family history became inextricably tangled with the history of the mountain Cherokee. Yonaguska, the helpless witness of white destruction, would go on to become a “peace chief” – one who eschewed violence and pursued negotiation. He would also lead the only successful resistance to the Trail of Tears. The tactics he used were those he used on that day – withdrawing deeper into the mountains, camouflage, evasion. Some of it done with the help of a young white boy named Will Thomas that he later adopted as a son.


Robert Love would move to “pacified” territory in Western North Carolina, become a merchant, slave owner, and a wealthy man. He would mentor a young man named Will Thomas, just starting out his life as a merchant. They were deeply involved in each other’s lives. Robert Love chose Will, who was exceptionally personable and capable, above his own sons, to be executor of his estate. Will, taking the tactics he’d learned from his adopted father, used charm and evasion to persuade Robert to write letters attesting to the harmlessness of the local Cherokee to legislators who were trying to oust them. I like to imagine this too: Will saying, “Oh, don’t worry, they’ll leave eventually. They’re just not quite ready to do it now.” And Robert, wanting to please the young man, writing to his friends in the legislature that the Cherokee were very civilized now, model citizens, and would no doubt join their people in Oklahoma … eventually. And so, Yonaguska, who watched his world burn and learned from it, and exacted justice from the young wagoner who helped burn it.


Later Yonaguska’s devoted white son would marry Robert Love’s young granddaughter. The mingled descendants of these men would choose to erase this part of the story. They’d focus on Robert Love’s wealth, Will Thomas’s heroism helping “those poor Cherokee.” But there would be a jump in the record, a glitch in the story, discernible to anyone, willing to look hard. And as one who always chooses to take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole, unravel the comfortable lie and see how far the uncomfortable story goes, I want to urge any of you who are willing and interested to do the same. You might not love what you find, but I guarantee you that you’ll know yourself, your family, and your nation better. And the ride is wilder than any rollercoaster and incredibly fun! Go ahead, take the red pill.

List of people/families enslaved by the Avery family of Morganton, NC

This is where the unmarked graves of enslaved Africans/Americans are. I hope to add a marker in this area.
This is where the unmarked graves of enslaved Africans/Americans are. I hope to add a marker in this area.

This is a listing of poeple enslaved* by the Avery-family. I’ve divided them into family groupings. I hope it will help their descendants in their searches for their family history. I’ve also added a brief history of the Avery family to help put these enslaved Africans and Americans in a wider historical context and timeline.

*A note on the terms I’m using. Race and racial slavery are such painful and difficult issues in our collective history that I am trying to do my small part by reexamining even the terms used to discuss it. The words we use reflect our beliefs; using different words can undermine those beliefs. So, for instance, rather than calling the people on this list “slaves,” they are “the enslaved” – which describes what was done to them but does not define them by it. And it places culpability squarely where it belongs – on those people like my ancestors who engaged in the enslavement of other human beings.

I also use the term “racial slavery” for slavery as it was practiced in the U.S.  Slavery, of course, has been practiced, and practiced in different ways, throughout human history. The Cherokee took those defeated in battle as slaves, but then often eventually adopted them into the family with full familial rights. Slavery as practiced by whites in the U.S. was an institutionalized system of degrading, devaluing, and using people of African descent. Our economy was built on it and an entire field of pseudo-science was created to justify it (e.g. different races were believed to be different species).


The Avery family of Swan Ponds, Burke County, NC

Waightstill Avery, who founded the Swan Ponds plantation (I don’t say he “built” it because, of course, it was built by enslaved people), was born in 1741 in Groton, Connecticut. He was educated at Princeton University. In 1778, in New Bern, NC (on the east coast) he married a young wealthy widow, Leah Probart Franks. After a few years in eastern N.C., Waightstill and Leah moved to Burke County, N.C. in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in western N.C. Swan Ponds plantation, just outside Morganton, was established. They had four children – Polly Mira Avery, Elizabeth Avery, Isaac Thomas Avery, and Selina Louise Avery. Leah and Waightstill lived at Swan Ponds until their respective deaths. Waightstill Avery died in 1821 and Leah died in 1832.


Their son, Isaac Thomas Avery (1785-1864), inherited the plantation and some portion of the enslaved population. In 1815 he married Harriet Eloise Erwin (1795-1858). The Erwins were a wealthy local family. They owned a plantation called Belvidere and, presumably, some of those enslaved by the Erwins went with Harriet to Swan Ponds. They had ten children (that survived into adulthood): William Waightstill Avery, Isaac Erwin Avery, Mary Martha Avery, Justina Harriet Avery, Alphonso Calhoun Avery, Laura Myra Avery, Willoughby Francis Avery. Three of their sons – William Waightstill Avery, Clark Moulton Avery, Isaac Erwin Avery – died in the Civil War, fighting on the wrong side of history. Their father died in 1864 after hearing of the deaths of William and Clark.


After emancipation, many of those who had been enslaved (having few options) stayed in the area. There are still many Avery descendants, both black and white, in the area around Morganton.


The people the Avery family enslaved (and who died before emancipation) are buried in unmarked graves near the small Avery family cemetery. I hope to raise enough money to put a permanent marker of some kind near or on the place where these enslave people lie, and on it all their names.


Slave cabins were on this ridge along the tree line.

Swan Ponds in 1900, more or less as it would have been during the time of slavery.
Swan Ponds in 1900, more or less as it would have been during the time of slavery.

Enslaved family groups on the Avery plantation

Tina [from Franck family, with Leah]

Son Lenoir, b. 1766



Daughter Ester, b. 1766

Son Jon b. 1769

child Benna, b. 14 May 1772

 Balaam, b. 11 April 1774

Jim, b. 10 April 1776

Pete born 3rd Nov. 1778

Diana born 13th Dec. 1780

Adam born 25 Dec. 1783

Sarah born Dec. 1785


Children Lilph & Rose b. 15 April 1770



Son Ben, b. march 1788



Son Owen



Son Perry


Manual (Emanual?)

Two sons


Mary (purchased Sept 6, 1814)

son Jim, b. April 1816



Daughter Chassey, b. August 1816


Romeo & Big Luie have 9 children at home Dec. 1815

  1. Mara       7. Eliza or Liz
  2. Pat          8. Dashee
  3. Jacob      9. Mimee
  4. Nan
  5. Vinee
  6. Jos. (or Joseph, and possibly given to Harriet Avery Chambers in Isaac Thomas Avery’s will)


Eliza [possibly daughter of Romeo & Big Louie becayse she named a son Romeo?]

Twins, Jacob & Mary, b. 12 Sept. 1829, d. Sept. 1840 from fever

Daughter Luann, b. 18 Aug. 1841

[same as Eliza?]


Twins, Romeo & Sully



July hath 8 children 1815

  1. Hampton
  2. Dick
  3. Henry
  4. Peter
  5. Chenee
  6. George
  7. Sally
  8. Ginny

Monday hath 7 children living at home 1815

  1. Stephen
  2. Luie M.
  3. Will
  4. Anthony
  5. Emperor
  6. Sue
  7. Jack


Diana hath 6 children living at home 1815

  1. Ab (Abraham, Abner, or Absalom?)
  2. Li
  3. Isam
  4. Balam
  5. Celia
  6. Cinthia

[Same Diana? Son Cyrus, b. 10 Jan. 1838 “bought by Forney and paid.”]?


Bet hath two children (could be Betty or Elizabeth)

  1. Abe  (Abraham?)
  2. Rose


Felix hath 3 children

  1. Tina
  2. Lip
  3. Primus

And one grandchild

  1. Sam



son Jim



Daughter Chiney



Twins, Two smart healthy daughters, b. Sept. 1818




Son Moses



Son Billy “being a Mulatto” b. 2 Jan. 1805


 15 August 1837



Boy child b. 28 March 1838



Child (no name) b. 8 April 1838, d. 4 weeks old



Boy child died soon after birth



Boy Child b. 24 August 1838, d. same day


16 April 1829


Child Robert Ad___ b. 14 May 1829



Son b. August 1829, d. 4 days after birth



Daughter Polly, b. 19 Nov. 1841



Linda and Abnus

Daughter Hulda, b. 20 Sept. 1854


Caty & Alfred

Daughter Milly, b. Swan Ponds in January

Son Anthony, b. 22 Oct. 1854



Son Balaam, b. 22 Oct. 1852, d. 1852


Jenny (& Cathe?)

Son Willoughby Francis, b. 18 March 1855 (the fact that her son is named Willoughby Francis could indicate that the child was fathered by Willoughby Francis Avery)

(mentioned in Willoughby Francis Avery’s will in 1876)




Daughter Jane

Daughter Lovina, b. Nov. 17 1856

Son Ephraim, b. January 26, 1861, d. Dec. 4, 1862


March 25th 1855


Daughter, Mineva (Minerva?)

two boys, b. Dec. 15th 1860 died soon after the birth


Mary Esther

Son John Carson, b. June 24, 1855? (The Carsons were also a well-to-do local family who had many enslaved Africans/Americans. This boy could have been fathered by one of them.)

[same woman?]


Daughter Mary, b. March 10th 1862


Margaret (owner Isaac Erwin Avery)

Son Clingman August 2, 1855?

daughter Lititia, b. Dec. 6, 1862

[same Margaret as Isaac T. Avery’s Margaret?)


Cinthy (Abbi’s daughter) [same Abb as Abb Boy Child b. 24 August 1838, d. same day?]

Son Elisha, b. August 26 , 1855?



Daughter Matilda, b. December 20 1850


19th February 1857


Daughter Lila



Son Samuel, b. 10th March 1857 at Swan Ponds

[same as below?]


Son Capt. James Wilson, b. August 4th 1861, d. 26 April 1862

[same as above]?

Cecelia (in Yancey, NC)

Daughter Ann, b. December 1856



Twin sons b. 16th May 1857, William & The other died in October 1857



Daughter Missy, b. August 14


Margaret (owner Isaac Thomas Avery)

child named ___ , b. Nov. 23 (1855?) died at 5 months old

Daughter Elvira, b. October 12, 1860


Cindy was delivered of two boys, b. Dec. 15th 1860 died soon after the birth


Julia & Homer’s

Son Romeo, b. January 6, 1861




Thine had at the Crab Orchard (in Plumtree, NC) in Mitchel

Daughter Louisa, b. About the 20th of August


Mary  (Thines’ daughter)

Son Logan, b. 30 September 1861



bore three children on Jan 19, 1862 – two sons and one girl Rachel. Of the boys, one died in May & one in August



Daughter Sally, b. February 20, 1862


Surak (Sarah?)

Son Will Phifer, b. Sept. 11th 1862

(The Phifers were also a local white family. The use of the Phifer name could indicate that one of the Phifer men had fathered the child.)



Daughter called —— , b. & died October 24, 1862



Roxanna & Lige (Elijah)

(There are many stories about an enslaved man named Elijah or Lige, which I’ll post soon. He was – through the Avery family’s telling of the stories – the prototypical “faithful slave” of Southern myth. Obviously his own version of events would be different and fascinating! If anyone descended from Lige reads this, I’d love to hear from you.)

daughter Anna


Cecilia & Alfred’s

Daughter Delphy, b. in Mitchell [Crab Orchard in Plumtree?] in 1862

(Alfred possibly given to Clark Moulton Avery in I.T. Avery’s will, though Clark was dead by then.)



son called ________, b. July 26th 1864




From Isaac Thomas Avery’s will

(Isaac Thomas Avery, b. 1785, d. December 1864)


Bequeathed to W.W. Avery:


Poiter +


Daughter Delia

Son Balaam

Son Julius

Daughter Mary

Son William


Bequeathed to Harriet J. Chambers:

Jo or Joseph


Son Hardy

Son Nelson

? M___

daughter Minny


Bequeathed to Mary. M. Chambers:




Son William

Son Turner?

Son Stephen

Son Harris

Daughter Mariah

Unnamed baby






Bequeathed to Clark M. Avery:


A couple

Loress (or Louu) and Alfred


Elvira (died before 1865)

Daughter Linda

Son Joe

Daughter Emma

The first in a series of “True History” portraits of my ancestors


R Love in truth

For several years I’ve wanted to make faux-historical-style “engravings” that told the true stories of some of my ancestors. Here’s my first one! (If you click on the image you can see it larger.)


The standard histories will tell you that Robert Love (my gr. x 4 grandfather) tell you some version of this: “Colonel Robert Love (11 May 1760 – 17 July 1845) was an American Patriot, Frontiersman, Statesman, Benefactor and Founder of Waynesville. He would conduct the 1820 Robert Love Survey, establishing the North Carolina and Tennessee border.”


He did fight in the Revolutionary War. But in 1776, at the age of 16, he was a wagoner on the Christian Expedition that systematically destroyed Cherokee towns, burned all their crops, and killed any Cherokee who got in the way. After that he became a “frontiersman,” which means he moved into Cherokee territory, took their land, and killed the Indians who were defending that land. He was a “benefactor” because, after taking Indian lands, he became a slave owner and got rich on the exploitation of enslaved Africans and their descendants.


So this is my true portrait of Robert Love.

In which much of what I thought I knew about Scotland turns out to be completely wrong

Since my mother’s dna is largely Scottish – 37% Highland Scots (Irish and Scandinavian dna), 56% lowland Scots, aka Scotch-Irish (a mishmash of Picts, Gauls, Saxons, and Anglos), and that mystery 6% thrown in for fun – I’ve been studying my Scottish history and have learned that most of what we assume to be Scottish isn’t!


  1. The kilt, as we know it, was invented in 1730 by Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman from Lancashire. He had an iron-ore smelting business in Inverness, Scotland. The men who worked there wore the traditional “great kilt,” a long piece of cloth wrapped sort of like a sari and belted around the waist, with the extra length draped over the shoulder. It was a fire hazard, so he hired a tailor to design something safer for industrial work. So the short kilt (skirt separated from top wrap) was born and became ubiquitous.  So highlanders would have dressed more like this….wild irishman


than like this.kilt


  1. I also learned there were no distinct clan tartans. Early descriptions of Highland dress describe the men wearing wraps or cloaks of varying shades of brown, which blended in well with the heather so would be better for hunting or battle. The chieftain’s clothing was distinguished by being dyed bright with saffron. The “tartan” – which was simply a cloth woven in a geometric patterns including stripes – appeared later, and was associated with districts and weavers rather than with particular clans. Specific clan tartans did not exist until the 19th century and came about through a hoax. Two brothers from Surrey fabricated an “ancient” book they called the Vestiarium Scotium creating Tartans and assigning each to a clan. This hoax book was republished in various forms and then taken up by Scottish cloth manufacturers.
  1. Finally, my lowland Scots ancestors, who lived on the border of Scotland and England, were generally considered to be thieving scum. Many were “reavers,” or cattle thieves. The reavers raided both sides of the border with impunity and made life there unstable and passage through it dangerous. James I, who first unified England and Scotland, moved these troublesome lowland Scots to Ireland thereby solving two political problems at once; he pacified the border and established a bulkhead for colonization in Ireland.


So my highland ancestors were really Irish who sailed to the Scottish coast, mixed with Vikings, and didn’t wear kilts of have specific tartans. While my lowland Scottish ancestors were cattle thieves. Thereby further proving my belief that if you want to admire your ancestors, it’s best not to research them too deeply!

Rendering unto Caesar


As I write this I’m sitting on my front porch looking at a tidy row of houses on precisely surveyed plots marked by hedges and fences. It’s a scene I take for granted and a marking of the land that seems normal to me. If I close my eyes and think beyond this porch and this street, I can see this grid of habitation and ownership extending, with variations and some interruptions, in all directions across this country like graph paper blanketing the land.


Four-hundred years ago this was not the case. North America, at that time, was settled as much of the world was, by various peoples who moved around as they needed to and did not answer to centralized authority. John Winthrop wrote, “The Indians … have [no] settled places, as Townes to dwell in, nor any ground as they challenge for their owne possession, but change their habitation from place to place.” And “They inclose noe Land.” Their non-ownership of individual pieces of land, more than anything else, marked the native population as “savage” in the eyes of the colonists.


Over two hundred years ago – when New England was already full of “settled places” and “townes” – tens of thousands of Scotch-Irish, including many of my ancestors, moved into western North Carolina, which was then the western frontier of white settlement. Land was cheap and the new nation needed white bodies to displace the natives, who were oddly inclined to do things like “challenge for their owne possession” people trying to take their land. My ancestors had originally been lowland Scots who lived near the border between Scotland and England and raided both sides with impunity. To pacify the border, James I moved many of  them to Ulster in the 17th century, where they were to colonize the native population there on behalf of the English crown. Ireland was made up of multiple kingdoms or “tribes,” and like the Native Americans, the “wild Irish” were semi-nomadic. Many of them lived by “creaghting” – migrating seasonally with their cattle – and, as a result, they didn’t need permanent habitations. Cattle roamed rather than being fenced in, and the people roamed rather than being boxed in. Roaming, of course, was understood to be barbaric and wasteful, but it also made the population more difficult to control by a central authority. One of the first things the colonizers did in Northern Ireland was build stone houses and “bawns,” or stone walls, surrounding them, delineating their land and keeping the wild Irish out.


I wanted to understand these Scotch-Irish, my ancestors, who had colonized first the Irish and then the Cherokee. I dug deeper and found a description of lowland Scotland and its inhabitants, on the eve of the great migration to Ulster, from one of the standard sources, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (1962), by James Leyburn, himself a North Carolinian. “Agricultural methods were of an unbelievable primitiveness. The people were utterly ignorant of any improvement elsewhere … since the Dark Ages.”  Leyburn goes on to say disapprovingly, “There were no enclosures, no dykes or hedges between the fields, or even between farms….The cattle had to be … put into the care of a cow-herd or shepherd, who took them out every morning … and who chased them out of the unfenced fields of grain.” He adds, “The dirtiness of the hovels in which people lived was accepted … as one of the inevitabilities of life,” and, “some of the people had to be content to wear skins of animals for clothing.” So the lowland Scots, like the “wild Irish” and the Native Americans, had once been semi-nomadic “savages” who did not own or fence the land they lived on. They had their traditional life and land taken from them by the English.  And then the colonized became the colonizers.


Who brought “civilization,” central government, and colonization to the English? The Romans, of course, who invaded what we now know as England but which was then a land controlled by multiple tribes. So I looked into the Romans and found Tacitus’s fascinating account, not of England, but “Germania,” as the Romans “discovered” it when they invaded. He writes, “It is well known that none of the German nations inhabit cities; or even admit of contiguous settlements. They dwell scattered and separate, as a spring, a meadow, or a grove may chance to invite them. Their villages are laid out, not like ours in rows of adjoining buildings; but every one surrounds his house with a vacant space,  either by way of security against fire,  or through ignorance of the art of building. For, indeed, they are unacquainted with the use of mortar and tiles; and for every purpose employ rude unshapen timber, fashioned with no regard to pleasing the eye.”


He goes on to say, “Nor do they attempt to make the most of the fertility and plenty of the soil … in planting orchards, inclosing meadows, and watering gardens.” And they “live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty…. Their food is herbs; their clothing skins.” Once again we see a native population, living in a system of decentralized power and communal land use, characterized as ignorant and barbaric and in need of correction and control by those who are “civilized” (and who want land, resources, and the power civilization grants). So the English, like the Scots, were a colonized people who became a colonizing people.  How does that happen? How do a people forget what was taken from them by force and then use force to take those same things from others? Is it a kind of Stockholm syndrome where we identify with our captors.  Or perhaps it’s simply people doing what they must to survive.


Coming back to the present, to my front porch, and feel the touch of Caesar’s hand. Because in it I see Tacitus’s Roman village, “laid out … in rows of adjoining buildings” and “inclosed meadows.”  I see that my street, my world, is the result of the centralization of authority on the land, an authority that needs to commodify, count, and control the land and its people. And like my Scotch-Irish ancestors, we in America are both colonized and colonizers

The mysterious 6%

My mother lived with us for the last four years of her life because she had dementia. We had a rotation of agency in-home care givers to help us with the hard job of caring for an adult who could no longer care for herself. Much of the time caring for her – moving her, cleaning up messes – was more than one woman could easily do alone, so the care givers and I spent a fair amount of time together and became quite friendly. One evening, in the quiet, relieved minutes after we had at last wrangled my mother into bed, the aide – I’ll call her Mary – and I were standing there just looking at my mother asleep now on the bed. Mary, who was black, turned to me and said hesitantly, “She looks like my grandmother.”


“Hold on, “ I said. “I want to show you something.” I pulled out a photo album, leafed through it, and pulled out a picture of my mother’s grandmother when she was a girl. When I showed it to Mary, she gasped. “You know what she looks like….” She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t have to. My great grandmother had wild frizzy hair, black eyes, and non-Aryan features. Anyone looking objectively at the photo, not knowing who it was, would say that she wasn’t white – in the American one-drop definition of whiteness. She looks “high yellow.”


Sallie Thomas Avery with son Lenoir

Sallie Love Thomas as a girl

My mother had always said we were part Cherokee. She never said how that might have happened, or which ancestor slipped out of our well-documented history of white-to-white marriages to mix up our gene pool. Of course, many Americans claim to be part Cherokee. The Cherokee, now that they’re no longer inhabiting lots of land that we want, have the dubious honor of being the most popular native tribe for whites to claim relationship to. Now, given that my great-great grandfather was an adopted member of the North Carolina Cherokees, and given that no one knew precisely who his father, “Richard Thomas,” was, we had more basis for that belief than most. But still, was my mother implying that her great grandfather, Will Thomas, was actually illegitimate and the product of an affair his mother had with a Cherokee? Not at all; she liked, I think, the romance of the relationship without wanting to know the particulars. Me, I always want to know the fascinating, gossipy particulars.


So when we started this project, I had my mother’s dna tested. She is 94% Scottish/English/Irish descent and 6% mystery. Now, for my mother to be 6% something-or-other, she had to have inherited it from a great-great grandparent, someone whose name and history we know. Genetic tests determine ethnicity by comparing your genes to the genes of populations around the globe. 94% of my mother’s genes are similar to the genes of people who live in the British Isles and Scandinavia. But that remaining 6% is uncertain and interpreted differently depending on the testing service. My mother has been tested three times and had three different explanations for it. The first test said she was 6% Native American. The second test said Western European and Middle Eastern. The third interpreted it as Mediterranean, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian.


Interestingly,  some dna analysis of the Cherokee themselves, show them to be (by current limited testing definitions) part Mediterranean and/or Middle Eastern. Does this mean, as some people have speculated, that the Cherokee mixed with early European invaders and that what we’re seeing is the traces of that? It’s possible. Just as it’s possible that my 3rd great grandmother, Temperance Thomas, had an affair with a Cherokee before or during her marriage to Richard Thomas. (My fondest hope was that we would discover she’d had an affair with the Cherokee chief Yonaguska and that was why he’d adopted Will Thomas.) Again, not impossible but, given the social mores of the time for women anyway, unlikely. And having almost certainly identified Richard Thomas (an Anglo-American) I have no idea where that 6% came from.


Which leaves me thinking about race in America. We European-Americans invented the Frankenstein monster of race to justify the taking of land and the taking of humans, and so race is encoded into our national dna. “Whiteness” and “blackness” are constructs created when we left the tribal/clan boundaries – whether Celt, Gael, Viking, Mayan, Iroquois, or Yoruban – that had defined “us” and “them.” In North America, we had to find a new us and a new them. The Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery created the lumped ethnicities we now have of white, black, and Native American, and left us, in America, with an obsession with something we call “race,” which doesn’t really exist. What exists are shared geographic and genetic origins. My mother’s genes tell us she is a mix of peoples who came from Scandinavia (the Vikings), Scotland (which the Vikings invaded), and England. Not long ago these groups, that we see now as simply “whites,” would have forcefully denied any similarities; they all hated each other, warred with each other, and considered each other barbarians. So now, in the U.S., each of us – whether the majority of our genes are Native, Caucasian, or African – is a mix of once-warring tribes that saw only their differences and yet, are now mixed and unified in our American bodies.


It would be a beautiful thing if this newly widespread tool of genetics could bring us to the realization that race doesn’t exist. If Mary, standing with me looking at the worn out, sleeping body of my mother, could have said, “She looks like my grandmother,” and meant only that, without the ellipsis of unspoken racial identity hanging in the air. If she didn’t have to cautiously state it so that I could ignore or misunderstand it if I chose, or worry that I would take umbrage if I did understand. Someday I hope my children – who have varying geographic/genetic origins and various amounts of pigment in their skin – might begin to see a world where marking difference by skin pigmentation will seem as bizarre and arbitrary as the Scottish hating the Swedes who once, long ago, invaded them.


But, honestly, even in that imagined post-racial world, I’d still want to know who slept with whom and where that 6% came from. I’m just nosey that way.