Friday, October 20, 2017

The Indian Civil War, Part 3: The Flight of Opothleyahola

by Troy D. Smith

The earlier installments of this series:

Part One

Part Two

Opothleyahola (pronounced Oh-POTH-lay-a-HO-la) was an Upper Creek Muscogee, born in Alabama near the end of the eighteenth century to a Creek mother and a Welch father. As a young man, probably still in his teens, he fought the Americans encroaching on his people’s lands. The Creeks were inspired by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother, the prophet Tenskwatawa, to ally with the British in the War of 1812. In the course of that conflict the Creeks endured a civil war, with the traditionalist “Red Sticks” of the Upper Towns opposing the pro-American Lower Creek “White Sticks.”

The civil war became a war against the United States and its Indian allies, which ended when the Red Sticks were decisively defeated by forces under Andrew Jackson in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814; as a result of their loss, the Creeks were forced to cede 20 million acres of their Alabama territory to the U.S. Having fought on the losing side, the Red Sticks –including Opothleyahola –pledged an oath of loyalty to the United States as part of their surrender. It was an oath Opothleyahola took very seriously, later aiding U.S. forces against his Seminole kinsmen when called upon to do so.

Gaining renown as an orator, Opothleyahola eventually became the designated speaker for the Creek National Council. In that capacity he traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1826 to protest a treaty signed the previous year by several Lower Creek chiefs, led by William McIntosh, which gave up most of the tribe’s remaining land in Georgia and Alabama. Opothleyahola negotiated a more favorable treaty, and McIntosh was later executed by command of the Creek council for violating their directive not to sell land to the whites. Nevertheless, the handwriting was on the wall –the Indian Removal Act was passed in 1830, and the Creeks were among the many tribes relocated to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma, in an exodus that would be known as the Trail of Tears. In 1837, Opothleyahola led 8,000 of his people to their new home across the Mississippi.

Civil War engulfed the Creeks once again in 1861 –this time in conjunction with a larger conflagration which swept through, not just Indian Territory, but the whole United States. Representatives of the Confederacy met with the leaders of the “Five Civilized Tribes” –Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles –urging an alliance. Those tribes were also “Southern,” after all, and some of their citizens, including Opothleyahola, were heavily invested in cotton agriculture, African slaves, and “Dixie” values.
John Ross

The official governments of all five tribes agreed to ally with the Confederacy –even though many of those tribes’ people favored neutrality, or even supported Union and abolition of slavery. Even Opothleyahola’s longtime ally John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokees, reluctantly committed his people to the Confederate cause –due to a combination of factors, including the withdrawal of Union troops from I.T. and the proximity of the Confederacy, and the fact that Confederate leaders were ready to support Ross’s political enemies if he did not side with them. The Confederacy also offered some benefits which the United States did not: Indian representation in the Confederate Congress and full recognition of Indian sovereignty.

Opothleyahola was deeply saddened at Ross’s decision, and refused to follow suit. He had pledged his loyalty to the United States and wanted no part of a rebellion against it. Soon other people from Indian Territory who did not support their leaders’ alliance with the Confederates poured into Opothleyahola’s camp –including Indians from all Five Tribes, a few from the western tribes, free blacks, and escaped slaves. Opothleyahola’s band, now numbering in the thousands, felt unsafe, surrounded as they were by pro-Confederate Indians. There was some fear that their males would be forcibly conscripted, or that they would be attacked.

Confederate Indian

One of the Confederate Creek officers –son of William McIntosh, whose long-ago execution Opothleyahola had approved –wrote that “It is now certain that he has combined with his party all the surrounding wild tribes and has openly declared himself the enemy of the South. Negroes are fleeing to him from all quarters—not less than 150 have left within the last three days.” Opothleyahola received word that the U.S. government promised his people sanctuary in Fort Row, Kansas, so they began their northward trek through the Cherokee Nation.

They were not allowed to leave peacefully. A large Confederate force followed them on Nov. 15, 1861, comprised of Creek and Cherokee regiments, with some Choctaws, as well as the 9th Texas Cavalry. The force, 1400 men strong, was commanded by a former Indian agent turned Confederate colonel, Douglas H. Cooper, who was determined to force the band to either support the Confederacy or be scattered. The refugees set fire to the prairie behind them to deny forage to their pursuers, and the flight became a running battle.

Some of the Confederate Cherokee soldiers, dismayed at being forced to fight their old comrades, deserted and joined Opothleyahola. The fugitives beat their attackers back at the Battle of Round Mountain, were defeated at Chusto-Talasah (near present-day Tulsa), and, in December, were roundly routed by the Confederates at Chustenahlah. The entire campaign was sometimes referred to later as The Trail of Blood and Ice.

One child would later recall the fighting:
The Creek Indians and the slaves with them tried to fight off them soldiers like they did before, but they get scattered around and seperated [sic] so they lose the battle. Lost their horses and wagons, and the soldiers killed lots of Creeks and Negroes, and some of the slaves were captured and carried back to their masters.... Dead all over the hills when we get away; some of the Negroes shot and wounded so bad the blood run down the saddle skirts, and some fell off their horses miles from the battle ground, and lay still on the ground.
When the band finally reached Kansas, in the dead of winter, they discovered that the U.S. government was unprepared to provide for so many refugees. They were moved to nearby Fort Belmont, most with only the clothes on their backs and no further shelter available. All told, about two thousand members of Opothleyahola’s band of nine thousand perished, either from the fighting along the way or starvation, sickness, and exposure when they arrived. Opothleyahola and his daughter were among those who died after reaching Kansas.

This was only the beginning of the bloody Civil War in Indian Territory. Many of the surviving males who had taken flight with Opothleyahola, most of them Creek or Seminole, joined all-Indian Union units called the Indian Home Guard -three regiments in all, two formed in Kansas in May and June of 1862, and the third in the Cherokee capitol of Tahlequah a month later. The 1st and 3rd regiments were composed of troops from the Five Tribes, but the 2nd Regiment was diverse: it included one company each of Kickapoo, Quapaw, Seneca, Shawnee, and Delaware, and two companies each of Osage and Cherokee. 

These Union Indian troops soon carried the fight back into their own lands. Indian Territory became a battleground of blue, gray, and red.

Troy D. Smith is a history professor at Tennessee Tech, where he teaches Native American History, Environmental History, and the U.S. West. As an author of western fiction, he is a past winner of the Peacemaker Award and two-time winner of the Spur Award. His award-winning novella Odell's Bones centers on the Civil War in Indian Territory; one Spur judge described it as "reading like a lost chapter of Lonesome Dove."  

Spur Award winner, 2001 (best paperback original, Bound for the Promise-Land)
Spur Award winner, 2017 (best short fiction, "Odell's Bones")
Peacemaker Award winner, 2011 (best short fiction- "Sin of Eli")

Spur Award finalist, 1998 (best short nonfiction, "Bigfoot Wallace- Texas-Sized Legend")
Spur Award finalist, 2001 (best first novel, Bound for the Promise-Land)
Peacemaker Award finalist, 2011 (best short fiction, "Blackwell's Run")
Peacemaker Award finalist, 2013 (best short fiction, "Christmas Comes to Freedom Hill")
Peacemaker Award finalist, 2017 (best short fiction, "Odell's Bones")
C. Vann Woodward Prize, Southern Historical Association finalist, 2012 (best dissertation, Race, Slavery and Nation in Indian Territory, 1840-1866)


  1. Troy, I love these posts of yours. And I'm glad you always post the links to the articles before. This is a LOT to remember and I'm really impressed that you carry all this around in your brain. Thanks for sharing with us--this is really interesting!

  2. There were several things in this article I did not know. I did not know there were so many tribes involved in the Indian Removal known as The Trail of Tears. I thought it was just the Cherokee.
    I also didn't realize the involvement of Native Americans in the American Civil War. They were as divided as the rest of the population. It sounds as though they may have made out better if the Confederates had won since they would have gained representation on Congress.
    I have to admire the word of Opothleyahola (now there's a name for certain). Once he gave his word to be loyal to the United States, he followed through with his allegiance even when it may have been to his benefit not to do so.
    A great article as always, Troy.

  3. Thanks, y'all! The catch with the Confederacy was this: Jefferson Davis had not authorized Albert Pike to make those grand offers to the Five Tribes, and went through the roof when he found out Pike had done so. He swore those promises would never be honored. Since the Confederacy lost, the pro-Confederate Indians never found out that bad news... but we can read it, because Davis's letter to Pike is in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.