Printer-friendly page

Qualla Boundary

by Michael Hill
Research Branch, NC Office of Archives and History, 2006.

A 2012 photograph of the survey marker for the Qualla Boundary. Image from Flickr user Jimmy Emerson.The Qualla Boundary, the official name for the Cherokee Indian Reservation in western North Carolina, was officially surveyed and its present boundaries were established in 1876. The tract owed its creation to the alliance and efforts of the Cherokee people and to William Holland Thomas, the white Cherokee chief. Thomas pruchased lands for the Cherokee people under his name in the 1840s and 1850s, and in 1866 the United States recognized the right of the Cherokee to own and control the lands. Ten years later, the land was surveyed and demarcated as Cherokee land, outside of federal and state government jurisdiction.

Between October 1838 and March 1839 the federal government forcibly removed the Cherokee people from their lands in western North Carolina. About 11,000 Cherokee Indians were relocated in what became known as the Trail of Tears. Some Cherokee remained in North Carolina, however, including many who hid in the Great Smoky Mountains. In addition to those who eluded internment and forced migration, some Cherokee were free to stay because of earlier treaties, including the Oconaluftee Cherokee under Yonaguska. These individuals recruited Thomas to purchase land on their behalf, which he began doing in 1840.

William Holland Thomas owned three stores in Qualla Town and the surrounding areas by the late 1820s. Having worked and lived amongst the Cherokee people from earlier in his life, Thomas had a significant knowledge of the their language, and was a close friend of Yonaguska. He was well respected and trusted by the Cherokee people, eventually serving as their only white chief. After the Trail of Tears, Thomas acted on behalf of the Cherokee and acquired lands focused around the Oconaluftee River and Soco Creek. A large tract of land, consisting of around 50,000 acres, was eventually collected around Oconaluftee Creek, and this constitutes the majority of the Qualla Boundary today.

Thomas also struggled gain official permission for the Oconaluftee Cherokee to remain in North Carolina. In 1866, the Eastern Band of Cherokee were formally granted freedom to live in North Carolina, and were recognized as a separate entity from the Cherokee living in Oklahoma in 1868. In 1874, a board of arbitrators appointed by the federal courts found that Thomas’s land purchases had been on behalf of the Cherokee people, and the lands were placed in a trust for the Cherokee tribe.

Because the boundaries of the land were still vague, in 1876 a survey was completed by M. S. Temple, deputy U. S. Surveyor, and the boundaries of the Qualla Boundary were established. The surveying began in Soco Gap, an area that was the most important passageway through the Balsam Mountains for the Cherokee before the arrival of the white man.

A 1941 map of the Qualla Boundary, mostly in Swain and Jackson counties. Image from North Carolina Maps.


John Preston Arthur, Western North Carolina: A History (1915)

William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)

Fredrick W. Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico (1910)

John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (1988)

William S. Powell, North Carolina Gazetteer (1968)

Additional Resources:

"About the Qualla Boundary." Sequoyah Fund. 2007-2013. (accessed July 12, 2013).

United States Census Office. "Map of the Qualla Indian Reserve (Boundary) N.C." Map. New York: Julius Bien & Co. Lith. [circa 1890]. North Carolina Maps. (accessed July 12, 2013).

Coulson, E. H. "Qualla and 3200 Acre Tracts, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina." Map. United States Office of Indian Affairs. 1941. North Carolina Maps. (accessed July 12, 2013).

"Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians v. W. H. Thomas Et Al. - Letter from the Acting Secretary of the Treasury, Transmitting A communication from the Attorney-General submitting two agreements of compromise in two suits respectively of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians v. W. H. Thomas et al., and of the United States v. W. H. Thomas et al., note pending in the U. S. circuit court for the western district of North Carolina." The Executive Documents of the House of Representatives for the Second Session of the Fifty-Third Congress 1893-'94 volume 29. Washington [D.C.]: Government Printing Office. 1895. 1-147. (accessed July 12, 2013).

Image Credits:

Emerson, Jimmy. "Qualla Indian Boundary Marker At the Haywood-Jackson County line on US Hwy 19 @ the Blue Ridge Parkway." September 9, 2012. Flickr. (accessed July 12, 2013).

Coulson, E. H. "Qualla and 3200 Acre Tracts, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina." Map. United States Office of Indian Affairs. 1941. North Carolina Maps. (accessed July 12, 2013).




There is an error in the first line of this article. The Qualla Boundary is not, and never has been, an Indian reservation. A reservation is land "reserved" by the federal government for the forcible relocation of Indian tribes. The Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears purchased the Boundary themselves as a way to remain in their native homeland.


Qualla or Quallagi is Sumac in Cherokee. the boundary line was begun at the farm of a woman named "Polly" in English but Cherokee language does not have a "P" so they called her "Qualli" or sumac. So literally it is the "Sumac Boundary"


What does Qualla mean or what is its translation? Was it a person? Was it Junaluska's wife as presented in Mountain Windsong by Robert Conley?


i am preparing a story for the sylva herald regarding how the current qualla community and the qualla boundary found that name. i have several local stories about "polly" and her poparity had a lot to do with naming the original "qwalli" area. i grew up w/i a quaarter mile of where her store and possibley where she lived. any help?


Hi Michelle,

Thanks for visiting NCpedia and that's a great question.

According to the North Carolina Gazetteer, the word "Qualla" comes from a Cherokee word "kwalli"  meaning old woman. Here is the link to the entry from the Gazetteer in NCpedia --

That's very interesting that Robert Conley used the name Qualla for Junaluska's wife in his novel about the Trail of Tears.

Thanks for sharing your question!

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library 


Add a comment

PLEASE NOTE: NCpedia provides the comments feature as a way for viewers to engage with the resources. Comments are not published until reviewed by NCpedia editors at the State Library of NC, and the editors reserve the right to not publish any comment submitted that is considered inappropriate for this resource. NCpedia will not publish personal contact information in comments, questions, or responses. If you would like a reply by email, note that some email servers, such as public school accounts, are blocked from accepting messages from outside email servers or domains. If you prefer not to leave an email address, check back at your NCpedia comment for a reply. Please allow one business day for replies from NCpedia. Complete guidelines are available at