Opothleyahola (c. 1780-1863)

This brave and eloquent giant of the Muscogee people evinced many of the best attributes of the Choctaw Pushamataha, the Seminole Wildcat, and both John Ross and Stand Watie of the Cherokees. He took up arms against the United States to preserve his people’s homeland, then fought alongside the Americans against both white Europeans and fellow Natives, even among his own tribe. He strove amongst white and Indigenous leaders alike for his people’s rights to their land, then led them out of it when he realized to stay meant extermination.


He never learned the English language, he upheld the Natives’ communal property practices, and the full bloods of his tribe never knew a more trustworthy defender. Yet, he urged fellow Creeks to adopt both the education and culture of the whites, and accepted the latter’s Christian faith and joined the Baptist Church.


Born around 1798 at Tuckabatchee, the Creek capital of the Upper Creek Towns, in present-day Elmore County, Alabama, to a Creek mother and either a part or full-white European father, Opothleyahola from a young age evidenced superior intellect, eloquence, leadership, and physical courage. He fought among the fierce Red Stick Creeks in the War of 1812. Following their crushing defeat at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, he gave his allegiance to the United States. Time would prove how seriously he took such a pledge.


Bold Young Leader


As a young man only around 27 years of age, Opothleyahola established himself as one of the Upper Creeks’ foremost leaders by the time of the pivotal Indian Springs Conference in February, 1825. There, he opposed William McIntosh and other Lower Creeks who advocated signing an immediate removal deal with the U.S. Government.


Though Opothleyahola agreed the move west might be inevitable and advisable, he wanted tribal law and protocol followed, including involvement of all the leading Creeks. His dramatic closing address stands as a masterpiece of Native oratory amidst the cauldron of American pressure to leave tribal homelands.


It safeguarded both the laws and the welfare of his tribe:


“We met you at the Broken Arrow and then told you we had no land to sell. I heard then of no claim against our Nation, nor have I heard of any since. We have met you here upon a very short notice and I do not think the chiefs present have any authority to treat. Gen. McIntosh knows that we are bound by our laws and that what is not done in public council is not binding. Can the council be public if all the chiefs have not had notice and many of them are absent? I am, therefore, under the necessity of repeating what I told you at the Broken Arrow, that we have no lands to sell. No part of our lands can be sold except in full council and by consent of the whole Nation. There is not a full council; there are but a few here from the Upper towns and of the chiefs of the Lower towns, many are absent.


“From what you told us yesterday, I am inclined to think it would be best for us to remove; but we must have time to think of it and to consult our people. Should the chiefs now here undertake to sell our country, it would cause dissension and ill blood among ourselves, for there are many who do not know that we have been invited here for that purpose and many who would not consent to it, if they were here. I have received a message from my head chief, the Big Warrior, directing me to listen to what the commissioners have to say—to meet and part with them in peace—but not to sell any land. I am also instructed to invite you to meet us at the Broken Arrow three months hence, where a treaty may be finally made. I gave you but one speech at the Broken Arrow and I give you but one here. Tomorrow, I return home. I have delivered the message of my head chief and have no more to say. I shall listen to whatever you may think proper to communicate but shall make no further answer.”


Historian John Meserve dramatically recounted what occurred next:


“Then turning toward McIntosh, the ill-fated chief, with an eye full of meaning, (Opothleyahola) extended his arm toward him and in a low, bitter tone of prophetic menace, added, ‘I have told you your fate if you sign that paper. I once more say, beware.’”

Indian Territory


When McIntosh and others indeed consummated a treaty with the United States that forced the Creeks west, Opothleyahola supported the national Creek council majority who voted for McIntosh’s soon execution. Far from solving Creek problems, this bitterly divisive act unleashed a series of devastating events for the tribe. First, even after President John Quincy Adams invalidated the treaty removing the Creeks from their ancestral homelands, a subsequent treaty virtually duplicated it. Plus, the large Lower Creek faction that revered McIntosh scorned the Upper Creeks, left Alabama, and established themselves in Indian Territory.


McIntosh’s execution did nothing to stay Creek removal. When young Creeks acting in the Red Stick way attempted to join their Seminole cousins’ revolt against the Americans, Opothleyahola proved both his loyalty to the United States and his sagacity regarding his tribe’s survival.


He returned to military command, receiving a U.S. commission as colonel, and led a Creek force that quashed the splinter group and forestalled Federal retaliation against the tribe. Then he obliged the Americans by helping insure the orderly removal of the large remaining mass of Creeks to Indian Territory. He himself led an enormous party of 8,000 on that trek.


Both before and after the removal, Opothleyahola collaborated with Sam Houston and others to establish a Creek colony in Texas. The Mexican and American governments intervened to prevent this. Instead, Opothleyahola ascended to leadership of the Upper Creeks in Indian Territory. Despite the bitterness and bloodletting of the past, the Lower Creeks’ assistance of their rival faction played a crucial role in their early survival in their rough country.


Opothleyahola evidenced his shrewd and progressive recognition of the Creeks’ need to adjust their society amidst the mushrooming transcontinental American civilization when he eloquently compared his people in Indian Territory to an island situated in the middle of the Chattahoochee River in their old homeland. Rushing waters flooded that island, he recalled, when planting a type of grass with strong roots might have stayed its destruction. The white man, he said, came upon the Creeks like a flood, causing them to crumble and fall. He eloquently declared:


“The Great Spirit knows, as you know, that I would stay that flood which comes thus to wear us away, if we could. As well might we try to push back the flood of the river itself. As the island in the river might have been saved by planting the long rooted grass upon its banks, so let us save our people by educating our boys and girls and young men and young women in the ways of the white man. Then they may be planted and deeply rooted about us and our people may stand unmoved in the flood of the white man."


Creek Civil War


When the War Between the States came, it swept the Indian Nations into its cauldron. The Federals eyed Indian Territory as a staging ground for invading Texas from the north. General Albert Pike preempted that notion when he brokered a treaty of alliance between the Confederates and the Creeks and the other Native republics. As with the Cherokees, the outbreak of war rekindled old intra-tribal feuds and bitterness and incited new ones.


Opothleyahola again honored his pledge not to oppose the United States. He and

a loyalist minority of his tribe opposed the Confederate alliance. They did not wish to fight alongside the Federals, but to remain neutral in the burgeoning conflagration.


Their actions, like those of many others across the nation, put the lie to the myth of the war as a crusade to end slavery. Opothleyahola himself and many of his colleagues owned slaves;

the chief himself had long engaged in the practice. Nearly a quarter of a century before,

in 1838, he had claimed, then “carried off” seven slaves formerly belonging to the

deceased A. P. Choteau.


He and the majority of Upper Creeks soon clashed in combat with the pro-Confederate majority of the tribe led by the brother and sons of William McIntosh. The Upper Creeks demonstrated their deep esteem for Opothleyahola when between 3,500 and 6,000 of them opposed to allying with the Confederacy, along with Billy Bowlegs and a few Seminoles, gathered themselves to him along the banks of the two branches of the Canadian River where they merge near Eufaula in present eastern Oklahoma. This host included as many as 1,500 armed warriors.


Indian Territory Confederate military commander Daniel Cooper, correctly suspecting Opothleyahola’s parleying with Federal officials in Kansas—and, as it turned out, Washington—attempted to discuss a peaceful resolution of their differences. The 80-year-old chief refused even to meet, a decision that helped spawn tragic consequences. Instead, he steered his enormous assembly northwest, following Federal instructions to head to their Fort Row in Kansas for assistance.


Recognizing the threat to Confederate security in Indian Territory, both then and in the future if Opothleyahola’s growing host rendezvoused with Union forces in Kansas, Cooper’s forces roared forward in pursuit. In a feat of surpassing audacity and fortitude, the elderly chief drove his thousands, including slaves, escaped slaves, and herds of livestock, forward into the teeth of winter, all while some of the toughest horse soldiers in the Confederacy, including Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, other Creeks and Seminoles, and white Texas cavalry, thundered after them.


Month after month, desperation, hatred, vengeance, and true civil war raged across Indian Territory as 1861 came to a bloody close. Again and again, Opothleyahola engineered crafty fight and run episodes. Captaining his forces like a seasoned military commander, he managed the simultaneous ordeals of giving battle to the enemy and shielding his large train of civilians.


Finally, Confederate Colonel James McIntosh (no relation to the Creek McIntoshes), a tough West Point graduate commanding roughhewn Texas and Arkansas frontiersmen, engineered a tactical sleight of hand and a bold uphill attack on foot. Despite bitter winter weather and being outnumbered, he crushed Opothleyahola’s forces at Chustenahlah, in present Osage County. The next day, Stand Watie’s Cherokee Rifles finished the job.


The numbers demonstrated the stark results of the pivotal battle: Confederates captured 160 Native women and children, 20 blacks, 500 horses, 30 wagons, 70 yoke of oxen, 100 sheep, several cattle, and thousands of dogs, the latter a key Indian food source. McIntosh reported three Southern troops killed, 32 wounded, and “upwards of 250” of Opothleyahola’s forces killed.


Another Trail of Tears


Recognizing the end to Opothleyaholas’ military threat to Indian Territory, McIntosh and Watie mercifully pulled back their forces, though Cooper separately determined to pursue them all the way to Kansas. The old chief led the remnants of his devastated, poorly clad, and bleeding people through sleet, snow, and windblown cold into that new state, only to find a harsh and unwelcoming reception there from Unionist whites, and an absence of the Federals’ promised supplies.


The fugitive thousands faced a brutal winter on the open plains, and additional seasons after that. More than a thousand perished after reaching Federal refugee camps in Kansas. Serving and attempting to protect those he led till the end, Opothleyahola himself died in a such a camp in early 1863. Perhaps contributing to his demise was the death a few months earlier of his daughter in another camp.


Opothleyahola endures in the front rank of the pantheon of Oklahoma’s Native

heroes. Though his vengeful feelings toward the McIntosh family, who loved their tribe as much as he did, stalled the reuniting of the Creeks that occurred just four years after his death, no person more faithfully sought the welfare of those who depended upon him, through war and peace, in lean times and times of plenty, and against many and cruel hardships.


Historian Meserve penned perhaps the most appropriate epitaph for this Creek giant:


“Opothleyahola enjoyed an uninterrupted leadership of the Upper Creeks for 40 years. No man in their history so touched the hearts of his people. In him, they saw a reflection of themselves. They knew he sympathized with their sorrows and understood their aspirations. He surpassed all others in those attributes which the Indians felt common to them all. He possessed an unsurpassed power to express himself to them in terms which they understood. Undoubtedly, he was the outstanding Creek leader of the full blood, after the days of the Creek War. Opothleyahola was wholly in sympathy with the full-blood Indian, who he believed, should be permitted to enjoy his social and political life according to his own notion.”

 

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Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Ancient-Statehood

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