Before the U.S. was an industrial capitalist country, the richest citizens were often real estate magnates whose large landholdings reaped great profit in the form of cotton. As such, real estate — land — was much in demand — because this was the obvious path to wealth. Alabamans of the time were frustrated, then, by the land that lay undeveloped within their state, and they clamored for this to be made available for sale. When gold was discovered in some of this area, locals ratcheted up their demand for access.
The problem was that this territory belonged to the Muscogee Nation. The founders of our country had signed treaties outlining the Indians’ domain and recognizing their authority over it. Under pressure from demanding citizens, the State of Alabama moved to take control of the land anyway. The Muscogee reacted by barring sale of property within their territory to whites (or non-citizens of the Muscogee Nation). When the same occurred to the Cherokee Indians in Georgia, that nation appealed to the Supreme Court, which sided with them. President Andrew Jackson elected to defy the Court’s ruling and instead of protecting the Cherokees and Muscogees from encroachment by Georgians and Alabamans, he oversaw a mass deportation of the Native Americans to “resolve” the problem.
At that time (in 1837), Opothle Yahola was 39 years old. He had lived his life to that point on his ancestral lands and likely expected to be buried there. Instead, he was rounded up with thousands of others and dragged off to foreign lands in the west. He traveled the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma with 8,000 other Muscogee, without any of the possessions they were forced to leave behind. Traveling slowly by land, some of Yahola’s group would arrive several months later in a land completely unfamiliar to them to begin again. Many others died along the way due to disease and starvation.
At his mature age, then, Yahola — rather than benefiting from his years of labor and accumulations — worked with his family to build a new home, break ground, and re-establish their government in a new place. However, less than thirty years after resettling in this new territory, Yahola’s life was upended once again. The southern states seceded from the Union and Confederates in Oklahoma went on the offensive. Their activity threatened the safety and livelihood of Yahola and his neighbors. So, Yahola, now 63 — led a large group north, seeking refuge and aid from the federal government in Kansas. They were chased by Confederates and fought back three attacks from their pursuers during their flight. After losing 2,000 of their group, they made it to Kansas. Yahola died there in a refugee camp with many other Muscogee, succumbing to illness due to the poor conditions and lack of supplies at the hoped-for safe haven (where many of the Indian refugees were forced to endure amputations of their limbs that had frozen from exposure).
Bitter remnants of Yahola’s band joined Union forces — including a “colored” regiment from Kansas that became the first group of black soldiers to fight in the war for the U.S. — to retake the land that was all they had after resettlement. Not only did these loyalists face white Confederates, they also now faced their own nation, which had thrown in with the Confederacy after it promised them autonomy and freedom from further encroachment (an appealing promise from a new government without a proven track record of breaking its word to them like the U.S. government). The “white man’s war” that Yahola had resisted now drew them in and pitted them also against their own in a bitter contest that guaranteed failure despite the outcome.
And, that was the outcome. When the final Confederate general — ironically a Cherokee named Stand Watie — surrendered to Union forces in June 1865, the beginning of the end of Indian autonomy in Oklahoma was at hand. The U.S. government demanded land concessions from the Muscogee and other nations after the war as punishment for their rebellious elements. Yahola’s loyalty meant nothing to a government that saw only Watie, et al’s fierce resistance. Even after this new forfeiture, the onslaught of white invasion did not stop. Before another thirty years passed, the Oklahoma Territory would be opened to white settlement, and in forty, the Muscogee Nation (again, like its peers) would be swallowed up by the State of Oklahoma, admitted to the Union in 1907. The Civil War for the nations, then, marked the start of their assimilation and the end of their independence. Life for the Muscogee would never again be what Yahola had known as a young man and died trying to maintain.
P.S. There will be a re-enactment of the Battle of Honey Springs — the last decisive battle in Indian Territory — on April 29-May 1, 2011 near Rentiesville, Oklahoma. The cost for adults is $5.00 and children under 12 are admitted free.