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.

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.

Hi, my name’s Elizabeth and I’m a moron


Right now I wish more than anything that somewhere, in some dingy church basement, there was an Academic-Morons Anonymous support-group meeting I could go to tonight. I’d stand up in front of them and say, “Hi, my name is Elizabeth and I’m a moron.”

They’d all say “Hi Elizabeth!”


Then I’d say, “Guys, I need help. It’s only been three hours since I realized I’ve been stuck in another moronic assumption about our collective American history. I’ve only just realized that the heartwarming story of my great-great grandfather’s adoption by the Cherokee chief took place at a crisis point when white incursion had become an unstoppable tide, the Cherokee were frightened and angry, there was violence on both sides, and the Cherokee were looking for white allies to manage their increasing legal problems. This was precisely when the head chief of the mountain Cherokee just happened to decide to adopt a white kid who was literate, numerate, fluent in Cherokee, and had a brilliant encyclopedic mind.”


“How,” I would ask the other Academic Morons before me, “could I have not seen the obvious connection? The white boy who lived and worked in Cherokee territory needed protection from justifiably pissed-off Cherokee and the chief who was looking for white allies probably thought that having a white son could be pretty useful! I mean, DUH.”


And then I’d tell them that I’m feeling shaky about whether or not I’m up to this task. They’d all nod supportively and murmur encouragement. I’d sit down and someone else would come up to the front of the room and admit their struggle with moronic assumptions and I would feel better about the fact that now I have to go back and totally rewrite chapter four, just when I thought I was done revising it. Maybe I could even have a sponsor I could call at two in the morning when I felt an uncontrollable urge to relapse into my old comfy and intellectually sloppy white-person assumptions.


But, seriously, unlearning everything I thought I knew, and getting Kirk to unlearn all those years of believing in the sanctity of documents created by white people, has been the hardest thing we’ve had to do. I’ve always prided myself in not buying into my family’s white, Southern narratives. But working on this project I have had more I can’t believe I didn’t SEE that before! moments than I would have thought possible.


Here is a short list of things I’ve had to unlearn and learn differently:

  • My Scotch-Irish ancestors weren’t “fiercely independent” pioneers who wanted to replicate their lives in the mountains of Scotland and Ireland. They were people who had been ethnically cleansed, multiply displaced, and in North America were simply desperate for any land anywhere.
  • The adoption of my great-great grandfather by Chief Yonaguska is a heartwarming cross-cultural story. But it is also a story taking place in a less than heartwarming desperate and violent political context. (Duh.)
  • The North Carolina Cherokee weren’t saved by my great-great grandfather. They were a collectively governed group who decided, with their chief, to save themselves. My great-great grandfather helped them with their plan and was the interface between them and the white legal system.

Anyway, I’d like to think that every one of us is some kind of recovering moron – whether we’re recovering from gender, race, or colonialist assumptions – and that if we take it day by day, page by page, we can overcome our addiction to safe, unexamined assumptions. And if we are tempted to fall off the wagon, we can always turn to that higher power, people who are part of the dispossessed group we’re trying to write not-stupidly about.

John Hyde and “Negro Frank”

In the first years of the 19th century a Scotch-Irishman named John Hyde settled on the Oconalufty River very near where the Oconaluftee Visitors Center to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands today. He’d bought the property from a speculator, Felix Walker, who was locked in an epic lawsuit with Elizabeth’s 4xggrandfather Waightstill Avery over who had better title to the land. By the time the case wound its way to the North Carolina State Supreme Court in 1820, John Hyde had already packed off for Missouri with its prospect of cheaper, better land for his large family.

           On the night of October 13, 1818, just two years after he had arrived in Missouri, Hyde was killed by one of his enslaved people, a 17-year-old known as “Negro Frank.” We know nothing of the circumstances, except that they were camped out on the Gasconade River working on Hyde’s property. Frank lit out but was eventually found the next year and delivered to the jail in St Louis, the largest city by far in the region. With nearly 10,000 people, as well as a thriving slave market, St. Louis presumably had a very strong jail, especially for offenders who were enslaved. But then word came in the Missouri Gazette, a full year after the killingthat somehow Frank had broken out of jail and was again at large. The news came in a reward posted for his capture. This “runaway” notice included an amazing description of him, noting that he “speaks without embarrassment” and “has a remarkable habit of closing his eyelids in rapid succession when in conversation” (reminding me of some of the language in contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s brilliant series of runaway prints, based on his own friends’ descriptions of himself.)

From this point on, the case seems to have disappeared from the papers. We can only hope that this young man Frank, who spoke without embarrassment, eyelids fluttering, made his final escape from slavery.

Word of John Hyde’s fate no doubt filtered back to his relatives in North Carolina, particularly his brother Benjamin, who had lived just upriver from him. Ben’s daughter Catherine had a liaison with Will Thomas in the early 1840s, resulting in the birth of son who would be named William Pendleton Hyde. Pen Hyde, as he came to be known, maintained a life-long relationship with his father and got some land from him on the very same river where Ben and John Hyde had once lived. In the last surviving letter we have from Will, written from the insane asylum in 1892, a year before his death, he told another son to “let W P Hyde retain possession of the little farm on Oconaluftee if he wants it.”

In my great-great grandfather’s mountains

Dragon dancing along the ridge yesterday evening.

I arrived in Cherokee a week ago hoping to hear some good gossip/oral history about my great-great grandfather Will Thomas or his adopted father, Yonaguska. As happens so often in life, I didn’t get what I was looking for. I got other things entirely, things whose value and meaning I’m only just coming to understand.


One thing I didn’t grasp at all before this week was the pull of the mountains. I remember an aunt once remarking, “I hate going to the mountains. I mean, what do you DO once you get there?” And that’s pretty much how I felt. But this week, the doing was taken care of for me. All I had to do was show up in a classroom from 9 – 5, Monday through Friday. The rest of the time was just being here. So every day I’d come back to our rented house in this mountain valley – very much like the valley my great-great grandfather lived in one hundred and fifty years ago. And as in most country towns, there’s not a lot to do here in the evenings (unless you like casinos and gambling, which I don’t), so after supper, we’d sit on the porch and watch the day end. Probably much as Will Thomas once did. At first I didn’t even notice that I was noticing the slow changes of the sky beyond the mountain ridge. But a couple of days in, I began to look forward to seeing how the sky changed slowly from pale blue to turquoise to indigo; how the clouds, so much closer here, shifted shape and meaning so quickly – now a curling dragon, now bright streaks of calligraphy in a language as old as the world. And then, unexpectedly, I realized I’d fallen in love.


When my great-great grandfather was in the lunatic asylum in Morganton – which is in the foothills of the mountains, so hardly a desolate plain – he’d write yearning letters home saying how much better he was doing and how he was sure he’d be able to go home to the mountains soon. He never did. He died in Morganton far from these nestled mountain valleys and the ever-changing drama of the mountains beyond. I understand now what a loss and sadness that was for him – like being kept away from someone you’ve loved your whole life. I wish I could go back in time and, before the end, magically transport him home so he could see the mountains before him, feel their embrace all around him, as he died.

It’s not fun trashy gossip, but it’s something very deep and real I’ve learned about my great-great grandfather, and, because of it, I know him better now than I did a week ago.

Sunset over the ridge this evening.

Lost Ancestors: people enslaved by the Coman family

JimComan_WHTaccount_1860s?One of our goals for this blog is to provide documents we have come across in our own researches that might help others, especially those looking to find family who have been lost by enslavement or by other kinds of social disruption. Here is the first installment in what we expect to be a regular feature. We have included it in a new category, “Lost Ancestors,” which you can click on to the right to see similar posts as they are added.


Today we focus on the people enslaved by Elizabeth’s fourth great grandfather, James Coman (1767-1842), an affluent merchant who had a store and house in Raleigh, N.C. and a farm outside the town. Coman was a Scotch-Irish emigrant from Ulster who got caught in a scheme to defraud Revolutionary War veterans of their bounty land, but managed to escape trial and go on to become a “respectable” citizen (admittedly, the bar was low). He died without a will in 1842 and his three children divided up his considerable estate of land and enslaved human beings.


The name Coman (pronounced, in my family at least, as “common”) has its origins was originally Comyn (derived possibly from either the cumin plant or the Breton word “Cam,” meaning bent or crooked).  There are many variations of the name. Some are: Cummings, Cumming, Cumin, Cumins, Comin, Comins, Common, Camon, Kamon and many more.


Here is a transcription of the inventory of that “property”:


Inventory and Account of Sales of the Property of James Comans late of Raleigh North Carolina Deceased [dated May 20, 1842]


…Two negroes sold because they were unmanageable and it was thought best to sell them by all the Distributors under all the circumstances

Anika a woman           Watten L Otay Cash  500

& Ingram a man           Note at Int                550


…Negroes belonging to the Estate to be divided between the Distributed, viz:

1. Turner   [JBL] 10. Caroline   [SJL] 20. Louisa     [MJC]
2. Sam       [JBL] 11. James       [?] 21. & child found dead
3. Henderson   [MJC] 12. Sally           [?] 22. Mary     [MJC]
4. Lucinda       [JBL] 13. Elizabeth   [SML] 23. Martha   [MJC]
5. Reddick       [JRL] 14. Marian     [MAL] 24. Jimm       [MJC]
6. Dinah           [JRL] 15. Mat           [MJC] 25. William   [MJC]
7. Emeline         [JRL] 16. Fanny     [MJC] 26. Rebecca     [?]
8. Prince           [JRL] 17. Child of Fanny     [MJC] 27. John     [JBL]
9. Marcus           [JRL] 18. “         “       “       [MJC] 28. George   [JRL]
19. Chloe     [?] 29. Dick   [?]


[Note: JBL= John Bell Love (spouse: Margaret Coman); MJC= Matthew James Coman; JRL= James Robert Love (spouse: Maria Coman), SJL=Sarah Jane Love, JRL’s daughter; SML=Sarah Malinda Love and MAL= Mary Ann Love, JBL’s daughters.]


And here is the distribution agreed to by the heirs:


State of North Carolina, Haywood County


To wit for John B Love’s wife Margaret E Love one of the heirs of Jas Coman decd, the following negroes, wit 12th Dec 1842

Negro John 40 years old valued at                              350.00

Negro Sam 25 years old valued at                               600.00

Negro Turner 20 years old valued at                          600.00

Negro Lucinda 16 years old valued at                          500.00


The following negroes allotted to MJ Coman both by the consent of MJ Coman and Jas R Love his Guardian

Mat a yellow man 40 years old valued at                   400.00

Fanny wife of Mat 35 years old two Girl children      550.00

Negro Girl Louisa 16 years old valued at                     400.00

Negro Mary Mat Daughter 10 years old valued at      350.00

Negro Jim Mats Son 5 years old valued at                   300.00

Martha Daughter of Mats 4 years old valued at          200.00

Wm Mats Son 2 years old valued at                             150.00

Henderson Mats brother valued at 23 years old          600.00


The following negroes allotted to J.R. Love & wife Maria A Love one of the heirs of J Coman decd wit

Reddick Negro man 50 years old valued at                 350.00

Negro Dinah & Child Reddicks wife aged 38 years    450.00

Prince Reddicks son 15 years old valued at                500.00

Marcus Reddicks son 5 years old valued at               300.00

Emeline Dinah’s daughter 25 years old valued at       350.00

George a boy 10 years old valued at                           400.00


The heirs all being present we have allotted to the several heirs the Negroes set under their name and we by the heirs consent have had a particular regard to arrange each lot agreeable to families all of which we do certify 12th December 1842. Signed W. [William] Welch, B. [Bannister] Turner, A. J. Davidson


[Original documents available online at “North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970,” images, <i>FamilySearch</i> (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-194-234299-1-39?cc=1867501 : accessed 29 January 2016), Wake &gt; Wills, Inventories, Settlements, 1841-1845, Vol. 25 &gt; image 59, 95, 96 of 320; county courthouses, North Carolina.]


Recently we came across some further documents relating to Jim Coman, the boy who was five years old and distributed with his father Mat to Matthew Coman. These are from Will Thomas’s undated accounts and memoranda, undated but probably in 1866-1867, after the Civil War and emancipation. I’ve transcribed it with the original line breaks, to preserve its mundane poetry:


Jim Comman Dr [Dr=debit, i.e. owed to Thomas]


Negro Jim & wife Josephine

1 pair of half soles for Jim

1 pair for Josephine

1 home made pair of shoes for Jim

1 pair of store shoes for Josephine (very good)

Let Josephine have five and a half yards

of spun cotton (which would be about one

fourth a bunch) bunch sells at $3.50

dyed two yards of deep blue and 2

yards of pale blue Indigo for Josephine

For the weaving, warping, and spooling

of 15 yards of striped cloth $1.50

flax thread to make pants 10 cents

Let Jim have a sheep skin raw

Let Josephine have a half worn

Linsey dress

Jim had a bed tuck cut up

and made into a pair of



Another sheet headed “Jim Comans colored” lists debits of $5.00 for 5 yards of [house?] jeans and 15 cents for thread “to make 4 yards and ¾ of blue jeans, one dollar and half per yard.” Below that he lists “cash paid you by WHT [Will Thomas] in the first month,” itemized as:


To [i.e. debit] cash used to purchase

To cash 4.00

Josephine 2.00


Josephine was making clothing, that is certain, and Will was advancing her cash and materials, but how the profits were distributed we can’t tell from here.


In the 1870 census for Culowhee township in Jackson County (near present-day Western Carolina University), James Commans age 34 appears with his wife Josephine age 23, both listed as “mulatto,” and, in the same household, a Henry Thomas. The nearest neighbors were also Thomases, Dick and Susan, age 62 and 64, listed as “black.” And their neighbors were Amanda and William Casey: Amanda had grown up as an enslaved person belonging to Will Thomas. All of this shows a strong connection between Jim & Josephine Coman and the African Americans who lived and worked in Will Thomas’s household and farm.


After 1870, Jim and Josephine disappear from the census records.


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.

The words we use, the stories they tell

In her post on “southern bells,” Elizabeth wrote about replacing, withholding, and silencing words. But sometimes words themselves do their own work of historical silencing.


As we write drafts of this book we find ourselves constantly inheriting the words of others who have created the historical narratives we know today. We have been thinking a lot about the power of these words to frame the accepted story and to marginalize or entirely erase unsettling truths that might challenge that story. The words we use color and shift the stories we tell, in ways that are often imperceptible to us. We’ve come to realize that, in order to tell a different and truer history of this time and place, we have to reexamine the building blocks we have inherited. We’ve come to believe that in order to change the story we must first change the words used to tell it.


Thus far we have been writing mostly about the interactions and conflicts between whites and Native Americans, so the words we’re considering here have to do with that history. As we move forward with the project, we will look more deeply at the language used to describe slavery in the United States.


Settler: Webster currently defines settler as “a person who goes to live in a new place where usually there are few or no people.” Here in a nutshell is the whole idea of the empty continent or “virgin land” encountered by white “settlers.” The word itself erases the Indian inhabitants who managed the land’s resources, farmed, hunted, and buried their ancestors in it.*


The etymology of “settler” goes back to setl, the old English word for seat or place of rest. If the ideal of “settling” a land meant to “sit” or “come to rest” on that land, then the mobile and collective occupancy native populations practiced could not even be recognized as settlement. Both the “wild Irish” and the American Indians had farmed collectively in shared fields and used less arable land, forests or hillsides, as free pasture on which their animals could roam and graze. These practices were devalued and eventually criminalized to make way for what was considered “civilized” practices – the private ownership of land with a fixed residence on it and the fencing in of animals. In fact, the Indians were sometimes compared to animals for the way they roamed the land. So the Scotch-Irish, themselves pushed off their land by economic crises, became the advance guard of British colonization, pushing others off their lands just as they had been pushed off theirs.


The term “re-settlers” would be a truer word to describe the activities of Elizabeth’s ancestors. She prefers “land pirate,” which is what Andrew Jackson once called her great-x4-grandfather Robert Love (it took one to know one). But that might be an insult to pirates!


* Academics have used the term “settler-colonialism” to describe the activities of whites who colonized areas like the U.S. and Australia. The problem with this phrase, for us, is that it doesn’t reexamine and critique the concepts of settler and white settlement.


Pioneer: Merriam-Webster defines this word as “One of the first to settle in a territory.” “Pioneer” carries all the same problems as “settler” but adds a new dimension, claiming the title of first or original settler in lands that were already held and valued deeply by others. The American-English connotation of pioneer adds to the first-settler meaning the subtext of Manifest Destiny. The word conjures up covered wagons moving westward across vast untended lands, sometimes being attacked by savage Indians. Which is very different from the actual story of these “pioneers” moving through and claiming a landscape that was the pasture, hunting, farming, and sacred land of long-settled peoples.


Interestingly, the word pioneer is derived from the older French, paonier or “foot soldier who prepares the way for the army.” (Peon and pawn are related words.)  American “pioneers” were often, in fact, the advance forces that made way for the larger Euro-American invasion. The old French shading suggests the military aspect of taking the land, while on the other hand the root word peon points to the lowly status of the squatters and land tenants who were the leading edge of colonization, preparing the way for more established interests to occupy the land. Sometimes these peons were even used as tools by land speculators to prove they had “settled” the land.


Frontier: Merriam-Webster defines it as “a region that forms the margin of settled or developed territory,” simplified as “a distant area where few people live.”


Clearly the word has the same problems as “settler” and “pioneer.” In old French and 15th-century English, the word could mean the front line of an army or the boundary of a country facing another – two concepts that were closely allied in both theory and practice.


The term has had a long and storied history in American studies. In the late 19th century, Frederick Jackson Turner forever reshaped the understanding of U.S. history with his “frontier thesis,” an origin story for “American” egalitarianism and democracy that traced these to the leveling experience of the frontier. Thus it was the frontier that could perform the magic trick of transforming a system of racist domination into a motor of equality and innovation. The term continues to carry enormous appeal in politics and popular culture, even though it has been eclipsed in academic circles by “borderlands,” which aims to deflect the lingering connotations of Turnerism and Hollywood westerns but which also removes the underlying military sense that once gave the word a more straightforward meaning.


Expedition: In the 18th-century the military invasions led by Britain and later the U.S. against the Cherokee were called “expeditions.” Expedition has its etymological root in the Latin word for foot; to expedite meant to free the feet from fetters. In a pretty literal sense these “expeditions” did free white militia men to enter and overrun Cherokee lands, and many of the men came back after the war to “settle” the lands they had earlier scorched and pillaged. Robert Love was one of them: at the age of 16, he drove a wagon for the revolutionaries on the “Christian Expedition” of 1776. The British were a bit more blunt about their expeditions: commander James Grant who swept through the area of North Carolina where Will Thomas was later born declared that his army was “chastising” the Cherokee.


Removal: What we now generally refer to as the Trail of Tears – the massive and devastating forced expulsion of the tribes east of the Mississippi that took place in 1838 – was, at the time it was occurring, called the “Indian removal.” It is one the central events of our story. (Our book focuses on the Cherokee and their expulsion from their ancestral homeland in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, but other tribes were forced on the Trail of Tears as well.)


In the nineteenth century, removal usually referred to voluntary migrations or changes of residence. Whites were often said to remove, from one “settlement” to another. To re-move, or move again, fit the pattern of many settlers’ lives, as they migrated further west or south in search of cheaper and more bountiful land, and less competition for resources. Will Thomas’s mother’s family, the Colvards, are a perfect example of this pattern, moving from central Virginia to southern Virginia across the border to upper North Carolina and then southwest to the Cherokee border. They had no ancestral ties to the land and little reason to stay in one place if they could get a better deal somewhere else. Ironically these migrants were less settled than the Indians themselves, who stayed in their ancestral towns as long as they could avoid the invasions of the expeditions and the pioneers.


By “removing,” the white migrants were exercising their own agency, which would be heroicized later by their descendants and by white artists and writers such as Frederick Turner as a noble design to clear the wilderness, “tame” the frontier, and pave the way for democratic civilization. With its connotations of voluntariness as well as tidiness, “removal” sanitizes the expulsion of the Indians, as if they would leave their ancestral land as readily as white settlers jumped from one place to another. “Emigration” was another term favored by the Jackson administration. Emigration is, of course, a voluntary action, while the Indians were literally rounded up, interned in camps, and sent packing. Although no single term does justice to the complexities of this story, “expulsion” captures the mostly involuntary character of the migration and helps us overcome the historical blinkers that have blocked us from recognizing the many varieties of Cherokee resistance.


Southern Bells

I grew up with the ringing of bells. Three times a day, breakfast, lunch, SouthernBelland dinner, my family would sit at the dining table, my mother would pick up the bell placed discreetly near her placemat, and she would ring it once, just a single chime. After a few seconds, the kitchen door would open and a servant would bring us our food. My father was a diplomat and I grew up in Southeast Asia. Looking back on it now, it seems surreal, alien, but then it was all I knew.


I inherited a number of those bells and they sit unused on shelves or in boxes of stuff I haven’t gotten around to taking to Goodwill. I never thought much about them. They were just part of the strange furniture of a life I once lived and that has very little to do with my life now. But as I’ve been researching this project – a social-cultural biography of my great-great grandfather William Holland Thomas – this inanimate inheritance has begun to haunt me: the bells, the dining table they sat on that was once at my family’s slave plantation, the two-hundred-year-old writing desk with its black spills from ink pots and quill pens that signed names and sold peoples lives away. My ancestors, the Averys, were the largest slave-owners in western North Carolina, and my mother and I come from a long line of women who rang bells that called people with brown skin to serve them.


In our lives, as in the lives of my ancestors, the bell took away the need for words: you didn’t have to yell crassly for your food; you didn’t have to poke your head in the kitchen, look in someone’s eyes, feel how hot it was for them cooking your dinner on a summer day; you didn’t have to speak to them, use their name. The bell did it all, and its chime made the unvoiced command seem sweet and sound pretty.


The women I descend from, the Southern belles, based their elegant, gracious lives on myths, on stories they told over and over again, that slavery wasn’t that bad, that they, the slaves, were inferior and needed white guidance. Those stories could only be maintained by inhibiting the words of the people they enslaved. Which is why slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read or write. The written word would have given them a permanent physical manifestation of their experience: the word made flesh or the experience of their flesh made into words. And that would have threatened the fragile stability of the system they all lived within. Because a system based on lies is easily threatened.


The bell was a mellifluous stand-in for an order the enslaved person had no choice but to obey. It allowed the white mistress to act out a masquerade of plantation life as genteel and hospitable. It was a world built on controlling words. It prevented black people from telling the true story of their lives, and whites from hearing the whip in their own voices. Words are dangerous things, because words make stories and the stories we tell create our reality.


I know all too well the stories we white people tell. I remember once, going through family papers with my mother, and coming across one of the plantation’s slave ledgers. She leafed through it and finally said, “Well, they bought them shoes once a year, so they must have been good slave owners.”  But, as I told my mother that day, the words “good” and “slave owner” are mutually exclusive. The simple act of “owning” another human being taints every other part of your life – in part because it is an absolute wrong, and in part because you must lie to yourself to make it acceptable. This “Gone With the Wind” version of life in the old South – relying on the silencing of some words and the assertion of others – is the story we whites have told ourselves and the world over and over again until we believe, against all common sense and human decency, that it’s true.


But, of course, the dissenting voices were not entirely silenced. Those who cannot speak subversion can, for instance, sing it. Using the codes of white culture as camouflage, the slaves sang of resistance and escape: “Tell ol’ Pharoah To let my people go!” or “Mary and Martha’s just gone along/Way over Jordan, Lord/ To ring those chiming bells.”


This project began as a fairly simple wish to tell the true story of my great great grandfather Will Thomas, the adopted son of a brilliant Cherokee chief – not just the heroism but the sex (and sex diaries!), the illegitimate children, the insanity, and all the other uncomfortable parts my family tried to suppress. But projects take on a life of their own, and this book will be not only about my great-great grandfather, Will Thomas, and his astonishingly complicated life. It will also be about the constructs we white people have made – about blackness, Indian-ness, whiteness, about manifest destiny and American exceptionalism – to justify the doing of whatever we wanted to do.


It’s important to remember that the myths we whites have spun cover up not only the truth about black lives and Indian lives, but also the truth about our own lives. Growing up, when one of us kids would mention some unsavory fact about a family member – their alcoholism or suicide – my grandmother would say, “We don’t talk about that.”  So we didn’t. And as in my family, in every shadowed corner of every “gracious” Southern plantation’s history, there are suppressed stories.  In my own family there is the baby daughter – of a slave woman raped and impregnated by the son of the house – given as a gift to her own white cousin, or the husband’s white mistress on the other side of town, to name only a few. These are all things those Southern belles, my great grandmothers, knew about, hid away, and never spoke of.  There is a cost to those lies too –  to the one who lives that lie, and to the ones lied to and lied about.


Looking at my mother’s bell now – its gold mouth resting silent against the polished wood of the table that once stood in the plantation house – I think about all the different bells: this small table bell that holds within it generations of stopped voices, black and white; the Southern belles, my grandmothers, who once held and used it; and the church bells that called people to gather, to sing out dissent, that rang out Judgment Day and a world where slavery would be undone.


With this book project and this blog, we hope to add our voices to the rising chorus of dissenting voices, to help ring not the bells of command and fear, but those better bells, the “chiming bells” that invite us to come together and sing out loud and clear.