Thomas Lanier Clingman was born on July 27, 1812 in Huntersville, North Carolina, United States. His ancestry represents various racial strains. His father, Jacob Clingman, was of German stock; his mother, Jane, was the daughter of Captain Francis Poindexter, of French descent, and Jane Patillo Lanier, daughter of Henry Patillo, Scotch Presbyterian clergyman of North Carolina and widow of Colonel Robert Lanier. There was also Indian blood in the Poindexter family, Thomas Poindexter, father of Captain Francis Poindexter, having married Elizabeth Pledge, daughter of a Cherokee chieftain.
When Thomas Clingman was four years old his father died, and his early training was directed by his mother and uncle, Francis Alexander Poindexter.