rnSpeaker – Prophet – Medicine Manrnof the Upper Creek Nation
Opothle Yahola was born in the late 1700s in the tribal town called Tuckabatchee, within the Creek homeland of Alabama. In early times the Creeks owned all the lands in what is now Alabama & Georgia.
Opothle Yahola was recognized at an early age being a great speaker and leader for the Upper Creek nation. At age 15 he became the principal speaker for the council of the Upper Creeks. Yahola adamantly opposed the government’s forced removal of the Creeks from their beloved homelands in the year 1832. Despite opposition to the removal, he could not stop the flood of settlers pushing to take over the land that had belonged to the Creeks for many generations. Yahola made the following speech before he led his people on the heart breaking journey that would later become known as the “Trail of Tears” … My brothers, many, many years ago when I was a child there was a beautiful island in the middle of the Chattahoochee River. It was covered with stately trees, and carpeted with green grass. When the Indian was hungry and he could not find game elsewhere, he could always go to that island and kill a deer. An unwritten law forbade the killing of more than one deer and even then the hunter might only resort to the island when everything else failed. The banks of that island were of a sandy soil. As the floods of the river rolled in on its sides the banks wore away and the island shrunk. When our people left that country the island had become so small, there was only room for two or three of the great trees and most of the green grass was gone The deer once so plentiful there had entirely disappeared. I have since learned that there is a new kind of grass, which if it had been planted on the banks of the beautiful island it might have saved it. The grass strikes its roots deeply into the sandy soil and binds it so firmly that the water of the floods cannot wear it away. My brothers, we Indians are like that island in the middle of the river. The White man comes upon us like a flood. We crumble and fall even as the sandy soil banks of the beautiful island in the Chattahoochee River. The Great Spirit knows and you know that I would stay that flood which comes to us to wear us away if I could. As well we might try to push back the flood of the river itself. The Island in the river might have been saved by planting a long root of grass upon it’s banks. So let us save our people by educating our boys and girls, young women and young men in the ways of the white man. There they may be planted deeply around us and our people may stand unmoved by the flood of the white Man.”
The Creek Nation on reaching their new lands in Oklahoma rebuilt their homes, planted crops and prospered in their new homeland during the years preceding the civil war. During this time period the problem of Upper & Lower factionalism still existed. This caused continued bitterness between the Upper & Lower Creeks. The Upper Creek faction, the full bloods believed in adhering to the tradition ways of the ancestors. The Lower Creek fraction, the mixed bloods favored adopting the white mans ways. At the out break of the Civil War the Creek Nation remained divided. The Lower Creeks sympathies were for the Confederacy, while the Upper Creeks wanted to remain neutral, but favored the Union. The tragedy that befell Opothle Yahola and his people who wanted to remain separate and apart from what they considered the “white man’s war” is almost beyond comprehension. In a war that pitted brother against brother, and family against family none would accept neutrality. The pressure of having to choose a definite side in the war was overwhelming, even to the great Opothle Yahola. He withdrew to his plantation near North Fork Town, there he gathered his people. A letter was sent of Opothle Yahola and Oktarharsars Harjo, principal chief of the Upper Creeks to President Lincoln asking for Union protection. They held little hope for federal relief. They began to prepare for their own defense, and their eventual exodus into Kansas.
Their hope was to remain neutral and wait out the war, but his was not to be. Neutrals were not tolerated in the new Southern domain. November of 1861 marked the beginning of the relentless and merciless pursuit of Opothle Yahola and his people. Colonel Cooper, Commander of the Indian Confederacy had precured a striking force of 1,400 officers and men. These were the ninth Texas Calvary, 6 companies of the Choctaw and Chickawaw Mounted Rifles, the first Creek Cavalry Regiment, and the first Seminole Cavalry Battalion. Colonel Cooper directed Colonel Quayle, Commander of the Texans to pursue Opothle Yahola’s trail. Finding what they thought was the Creek camp, the Regiment thundered in for the attack. What they found was a deserted outpost and a few Creek scouts. The Texans chased the Creek scouts across the rolling prairie. What they didn’t realize was that the Creek scouts under Opothle Yahola’s orders had led them into an ambush. The surprised Texans retreated Colonel Cooper came to Quayle’s aid, but nightfall reduced their visibility. Yahola sent his scouts to set fire to the tall prairie grass, thus creating a diversion, which let Yahola’s people escape. This ended the Battle of Round Mountain … the first battle of the Civil War fought in Oklahoma.
Colonel Cooper continued his relentless pursuit. On the morning of December 19, 1861, Cooper led his army along the east bank of Bird Creek. Suddenly members of Cooper’s reconnaissance patrol returned with alarming news that they had encountered, and exchanged shots with Yahola’s army. Colonel “Cooper began to hear shots toward the rear of his column. In reality Opothle Yahola had sent only 200 of his force to attack Cooper’s column. He wanted the Confederate officers to act quickly with a counter attack. The Confederates acted just as the great leader hoped they would. Yahola had deployed his fighting force in the heavy timber along Bird Creek. This place was called “Caving Banks” by the whites and “Chusto Talosah” by the Indians. The Confederates dismounted and entered the heavy timber. Heavy fire and vicious hand to hand combat developed. Each side launched savage forays and counter attacks. The fighting raged for hours with nightfall breaking off the battle. Cooper’s force withdrew. Yahola took this opportunity to move his people onward toward Kansas.
Cooper with reinforcements moved out just before Christmas, continuing his pursuit of Yahola. Cooper traveled up the north side of the Arkansas River to cut off the rear escape of Yahola’s camp on Hominy Creek. Cooper initiated the attack which became known as the battle of “Chustenahlah”. Cooper and his army won this battle, forcing Opothle Yahola and his people to flee in the bitter cold, leaving behind all their possessions and supplies. This however did not deter Cooper, he continued his relentless hunt of Yahola and his people. Immense suffering accompanied Yahola and his loyal followers. The weather was extremely cold and very severe. Many refuges were naked or nearly naked and without proper shelter. Snow and sleet hampered their removal to Kansas. Many perished along the trail, their bodies lying frozen atop the ground. Blood and death dotted the trail for miles. On reaching the Kansas border the refugees were separated. They were found on Walnut Creek in Greenwood County, at Fort Row in Wilson County, and at Ft. Belmont, on the Verdigris River, and the Big Sandy Valley, in Woodson County. Two hundred and forty of the refugees died within the first two months of 1862. Over 100 frozen limbs were amputated, one little creek boy had both of his feet removed. The Princess daughter of Opothle Yahola was among the first to parish. She is buried on a hill which overlooks the Belmont area of Woodson County. The Creek leader pleaded once more for assistance from Union authorities. The supplies that were sent lacked an adequate amount of blankets and clothing. The food that was sent was inedible. It was remarked by one Indian agent “the food was not fit for the dogs” to eat. Some of the refugees were moved up to Neosho Falls in Woodson County and Leroy in Coffey County. The plight of these loyal Indians continued to worsen and some were moved out again to the Sac and Fox agency in Ottawa. Thousands of these loyal Indians perished. Graves were made in hollow trees, under bushes, or simply covered with rags or burned. If the frozen ground could be penetrated. Pioneers would write that the bones of Yahola’s followers were found for many, many years after this terrible tragedy.
The suffering and loss of dignity Opothle Yahola and his loyal followers endured is beyond words to portray! Opothle Yahola died in the spring of 1863. He is buried beside his beloved daughter on the hill that overlooks Belmont in Woodson County, Kansas. Opothle Yahola lead his people through the many changes forced upon Native Americans by the white man. Through the ravages of wars, removal, more wars and misery, Opothle Yahola, Prophet, Medicine Man, and Speaker always held the well being of his people above all else!
Indeed, Opothle Yahola was the “HOPE” for the Upper Creek Nation!