The Colonial Frontier
On February 5th, 1805,2 Temperance Thomas gave birth to her only child, William Holland Thomas, in a small house on the western mountainous frontier of North Carolina.3 The birth had been a brief but welcome respite from recent troubles plaguing the small family.
While the woodland mountain landscape of the Southern Appalachians conveyed a natural presence of serenity and majesty for centuries to explorers and passing travelers, the region’s rugged features remained a constant reminder for the thirty-year-old mother that life on the frontier was as perilous as it was beautiful. Having immigrated to the Virginian colony with her family from England’s Newcastle on the Tyne, Temperance Thomas (born Temperance Colvard in 1775)4 was familiar with the trials and troubles of relocating to unfamiliar locale, but unlike the predominantly urbanized rolling green countryside of Virginia, much of North Carolina had never been formally surveyed at this time, much less been traveled by anyone other than seasoned hunters, trackers, adventurers, and members of the receding native populace.
Likely lured by the promise of “A country, whose inhabitants may enjoy a Life of the greatest Ease and Satisfaction, and pass away their Hours in solid Contentment,”5 in the summer of 1804 the newly wedded couple of Temperance and Richard Thomas had moved from the relatively urban state of Virginia to the untamed North Carolina outback. With Temperance already several months pregnant, the couple planned to carve out a prosperous future for their new family in the seemingly idyllic land. However, rather than finding a utopia populated by 1709 adventurer John Lawson’s6 advertised “Darlings of an English Nature,”7 the couple settled into a stark landscape replete with wilderness hazards and the inherent cruelties of frontier society.
The “savage and less than civilized” region* was populated by frontiersmen, rogues, and native tribes. Far from the advertised land of leisure, the countryside was bereft of such basic amenities as a regional post office (by comparable standards, the State of Virginia already held a fully functional and expansive postal service) and a network of commercially navigable roads.8 Stripped of ready communication to the outside world, the expectant couple was deprived of reliable support from close and caring family members for the preparation for the birthing and raising of their new child. The spartan life grew vastly more difficult for the wife when Richard Thomas died in a wilderness accident shortly before the birth of their son.9 Apart from a few of Richard’s friends and shared relatives, Temperance and her newborn son, William Holland, were left to their own devices in the wilderness.
Contrary to the appealing images promulgated by both intrepid adventurers and the state’s resident aristocracy (clustered along the coastline), North Carolina’s largely uneducated populace, undeveloped infrastructure, and underutilized land gave reason to label the region “the poorest state in the union.”10 The seemingly luckless territory held an abundance of inland-resources that, under other circumstances, would have attracted several lucrative investors,11 but since there were negligible means of reaching the exploitable areas by water (few of the state’s numerous waterways could accommodate the larger vessels that would make the site commercially feasible) or by roadway (many of the state’s roadways had been supplied to service either military needs or already-established short distance civilian commerce between cities, towns, and states). Even the region’s most highly prized commodity, the sticky, smelly sealant tar (made possible by the abundance of pine trees), barely managed to maintain the interest of visiting high volume traders.
As limited outside interest in the colony’s resources had stagnated the growth of North Carolina’s economy, first by the British and later by the region’s victorious colonial gentry13 whose sole focus was on short-term gains, instead of investing deeply in the meager profits of early western expansionism, generations of wealthy businessmen and overseas capitalists relegated their meager liquid capital towards the greater potential returns of an expanded coastal port and refinery production facilities. Deprived of attention and the defense of a watchful militia guard, the area’s native Cherokee tribes and a lawless collection of frontier farmers, hunters, and traders called the Over-Mountain Men retained dominion over Western North Carolina, the then-poorest region of the poorest American state.
With the conclusion of the American Revolution, control over the backcountry began to gravitate eastward. Realizing the large taxable income an immigrant populace could bring to their state coffers and affiliated businesses, the now independent state’s victorious coastal Patriot leadership was eager to change the Tories’ indifference and neglect of the western region into stately profitability. Where their former British overlords had failed to secure permanent settlement with survey reports and published travelogues, the southern elite succeeded, enticing adventurous masses to make the Tar Heel State their new home with incentive offers of inexpensive and occasionally free land grants. Facing pricier land in the more developed coastal territories,14 within a few short years, Scotch Highlanders and Lowlanders, French, Huguenot, and German immigrants joined a steady stream of poor and middle class men and women like Richard and Temperance Thomas from neighboring American colonies in taming the wilderness lands in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains.15
Although the record is unclear as to the motivations or circumstances of his crossing,* the future father of William Thomas had immigrated to the American colonies prior to the onset of the American Revolution. When the war came, young Richard enlisted in the Continental Army for a standard three-year term at Culpeper County, Virginia.17 Although many details of his years of service remain a mystery, the Welsh-born Thomas was assigned to the riflemen of the Eleventh Virginia Regiment.18
The Eleventh Virginia Regiment (formed shortly after the fall of New York in September 1776) was assigned to the Continental Army on December 27th, 1776. The contingent consisted of five companies containing remnants of the Maryland and Virginia Rifle Regiment, four other companies mustered from Amelia, Loudon, Prince William, and Frederick counties, respectively, and Colonel Daniel Morgan’s renowned Independent Rifle Company.19 While briefly held under the command of the proven and now legendary guerrilla war--fighting tactician Colonel Daniel Morgan,20 the man left his mark of swift and steady combat effectiveness on the regiment throughout its many reorganizations and redesignations.21
During his service to the Patriot cause, Richard Thomas was taken prisoner on August 1st, 1776, in an unspecified action, and he remained in British captivity until September 1st, 1777.22 Whether the colonial escaped or was released by his captors is ambiguous, but records clearly indicated that, rather than remain on the sidelines for the remainder of the conflict, Richard Thomas rejoined the Eleventh Virginia (reconstituted and restructured several times since his first enlistment) and took part in their march against British-contested North Carolina and the region’s rising tide of Tory dissonance.23
With the betrayal of General Benedict Arnold at West Point in September of 1780, many in the occupied sector of the northern and southern regions began losing hope that the colonials might ever achieve a decisive victory against their British occupiers. Instigated by the propagandist machinations of British major Patrick Ferguson,24 North and South Carolina’s Tory militia ranks swelled with new recruits.
Conversely, as the month progressed, the long anticipated “sudden disintegration” of the warring rebel forces before the might of the British Empire seemed less and less imminent among the upper echelon of the occupying red-clad army. Consequently, as progress in the war’s prosecution slowed, the well-respected Major Ferguson’s southern duties became of greater necessity to the war effort. In discharging his duties with characteristic zeal, however, the British officer had in due course provoked the ire of regional colonial forces and neutral disinterested residents alike by threatening the region’s Over-Mountain Men (who had previously chosen to remain neutral during the War of Independence) “that if they did not desist from their opposition to the British arms, and take protection under his standard, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders and lay their country waste with fire and sword.”25
Thus, when their Virginian colonial brethren marched into the region, the two forces linked up and swiftly moved across the rain-soaked countryside to neutralize Ferguson’s faction. Acting in consonance, they trapped the enemy at North Carolina’s Kings Mountain, and, under Colonel William Campbell’s direction, Richard Thomas and his companions surrounded the mountain.
There they waited.
At approximately three o’clock on October 7th, 1780, the combined might of the Continentals and the Over-Mountain Men was then brought to bear against the ill-prepared mixed British and Tory force exposed at the mountain’s top. The enemy was forced to endure a withering hail of fire from all quarters as the rebels and mountain men ascended the mountainside time and again in an ever tightening ring. A few of the besieging units were briefly rebuffed by enemy bayonets, but, after several minutes of sustained fire, the British-Tory lines buckled, fell back, and, minutes later, Major Ferguson, outmaneuvered and outgunned, was shot from his horse and died in an apparent escape attempt.
Ignoring cries of surrender from the decapitated enemy force, the colonials and Over-Mountain Men, mindful of the “mercy” the British had shown surrendering Continental forces at the Waxhaws, reportedly offered a group of survivors “Tarleton’s Quarter” and laid waste to the enemy’s ranks.26 Colonel Campbell’s Virginians suffered the most severe Patriot loss of the engagement (thirteen reported officers killed or dying), but the total of ninety killed or wounded Patriots had been deemed well worth the elimination of Major Patrick Ferguson’s complement of 1,125 men from the theater of operations.27 On May 12th, 1780 the Eleventh Virginia Regiment was captured by the British Army at Charleston, South Carolina, and the contingent was officially disbanded on January 1st, 1781.28
After the war, Richard Thomas returned to Virginia, where he engaged in business29 and fell in love with a lady twenty-five years his junior, Temperance Colvert, and on May 6th, 1804, the two were married in Richmond. With few prospects in the increasingly economically demanding state of postwar Virginia, Richard and a now pregnant Temperance accepted North Carolina’s veteran-aimed land grant reward (offered in the postwar years to those who had defended North Carolina during the War of Independence),30 and traveling with fellow veterans and cousins John and George Strothers, the couple crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains into North Carolina within the year.
The couple settled on a 228-acre plot near Raccoon Creek,31 where they lived in relative peace in the shadows of the Smoky Mountains until Richard’s untimely death.
As with much of the history concerning William Thomas’s parentage, there are conflicting accounts as to how the family patriarch met his end. One story relates that the man drowned in a flash flood, which had suddenly engulfed the Big Pigeon River he and one of his cousins had been crossing, while a second story reports that he drowned somewhere in the northern region of Georgia in the conduct of some business.32 A third family story just claimed Richard Thomas was trying to return to Virginia when he drowned.33 Regardless of the location, Richard Thomas’s demise left his pregnant wife an empty grave (as her husband’s body had never been recovered), an inherited farm to run, and an expectant child to birth and (should the two survive the ordeal) clothe, feed, and educate.
Removed from the comforts of her family’s Virginia home, Temperance Thomas raised young William in the remote mountain landscape of the Upper Piedmont. Richard had chosen a good home for his family, and granted clean mountain air and water, the two led healthier early lives than most city families. Above the stagnant insect-ridden waters of the Lower Piedmont, but below the area’s mountain primary snow belt, the Thomas family farm held protection from the more severe weather patterns. By North Carolina standards, the soil was modestly arable and well situated to produce an even annual yield capable of supporting the small family throughout the year and, if fortunate, a modest surplus for bartering or storage.
Beyond each settler’s day-to-day concerns remained the persistent fear of the unknown and concerns for the security of oneself, one’s family, and one’s property. While mother and son could always flee to the safety of the Strothers brothers or Temperance’s brother-in-law, David Nelson (living on nearby Jonathan’s Creek), in case of unforeseen trouble, the distances involved and the intervening physical obstacles that needed to be crossed made such an eventuality only a remote possibility.
While a number of dangerous two- and four-legged animals continued to roam the Appalachian Mountains as William Thomas learned to crawl and walk, luckily for the widowed mother and her son, the hopes of North Carolina’s coastal leaders were slowly becoming reality34 with the rise of settlements throughout the state’s interior, and “persons of the meaner Sort”35 who had long inhabited the region were diminishing in the face of the nation’s expanding frontier. Hoping to discourage a reoccurrence, many of Western North Carolina’s newest neighbors assisted in the formation of several tracts of land into allotments such as Mount Prospect County (which would later be reshaped and renamed into Haywood County36 and, later still, become the county seat of Waynesville37). Given defined boundaries, the leaders then elected to fill such essential bureaucratic administrative posts with a sheriff, court clerk, county constable, coroner, and register of deeds necessities.38 These civil servants then, in turn, fostered the promulgation of documentation as dictated by the local elite (largely in the form of business contracts, marriage certificates, land deeds, and treaty documents) and, consequently, spurred the erection of such needed public facilities as jails and courthouses in order to encourage the frontiersmen to either settle down and grow educated in the ways of civility or remove themselves to parts less traveled.
William took up tending to his mother’s home and farm property at an early age, but beyond the potential of a farming life, there seemed little prospect for betterment in the young boy’s future.39 For most children of Western North Carolina families, formal education and social refinement were considered unattainable concepts. Indeed, to compensate for their deficit in funds, books, schools, and formal teachers, period parents and associate workers followed the old practice of apprenticeship, allowing children in just a few years to learn a trade that would provide future fiscal stability for themselves and, at the same time, grant the community the continuance of much-needed services after the master had retired or died.
Temperance taught the small blue-eyed boy the foundation of his education in reading, writing, arithmetic, and the rites of his Christian heritage. While Thomas remained a poor speller and an occasionally illegible writer for the extent of his life, William’s mother soon discovered the young boy was a quick study with a particular affinity for numbers and complex equations. Whereas most rural boys were apprenticed to carpenters, tailors, weavers, or blacksmiths or served as tenant farmers with their families, somehow young William remained apart from the county seat’s clannish craftsmen. His own chance of escaping the hand-to-mouth existence of an Appalachian farmer would lie in William’s own talents, helped by some generosity and a bit of luck.
Encouraged by the boy’s mathematical abilities, as young William approached adolescence, Temperance Thomas honed her son’s skills into marketable assets that eventually attracted the attention of one of the region’s more successful store owners, Felix Hampton Walker Jr., whom William Holland Thomas would watch, listen, and learn from, possibly to grow into a man of similar accomplishment.
Copyright © 2004 by Paul A. Thomsen