By Wendi Bevitt
Just south of Lyndon, Kan., a sign stands commemorating the Opothle Yahola trail. Most driving past are probably unaware of the man or what led to his presence in Osage County more than a hundred years ago.
Opothle Yahola was a chief within the band of the Muscogee Creek tribe. He was born around 1798, when the Creek were still in their original territory within the woodlands of the Southeast. Opothle Yahola’s name means “good speaker”, which reflects one of his greatest traits as a diplomat and advocate for his people.
When the Indian Removal Act was signed in 1830, he started to look for a place to relocate his people other than those lands set aside for the displaced tribes in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). He ventured to Texas to acquire lands where they could live communally and in peace. His plan faced resistance from both the Mexican and U.S. governments, though, and it was abandoned. The Creeks were eventually moved along with many others along the infamous “Trail of Tears” to Indian Territory in 1837.
The Creek resided in Indian Territory until the increasing conflicts with the Civil War. Opothle Yahola’s band tried to remain neutral, but it was difficult living in their southern setting, and they tended toward siding with the federal government, which had basically abandoned that territory at the onset of the conflict.
The Muscogee Creek did own slaves, however those individuals were allowed more rights within the tribe than slaves owned among the white population. Also, the Muscogee Creek blamed their removal from their native homeland on the southern states and held no allegiance there as a result. Opothle Yahola appealed to the federal government for protection against the increasing antagonism. Abraham Lincoln responded with an offer of protection and asylum in the newly formed state of Kansas.
The tribe accepted this invitation and started their exodus to Kansas in November of 1861. This was not an easy trip, however. The Confederates were not to let these perceived traitors go so easily, and Opothle Yahola and his people engaged in three battles before they made it to freedom in Kansas.
The tribe’s freedom was not to come without a large price. Many died in the harsh winter conditions they found at their first stop at Fort Row, in Wilson County, and many more died at their second stop of Fort Belmont, in southern Woodson County. This journey had now become known as the “Trail of Blood on Ice”. Nine thousand individuals had started the journey in Oklahoma, but 2,000 had died along the trail from battles faced, disease, and the bitter winter conditions. Opothle Yahola’s daughter was one of these to succumb to the harsh conditions and she was buried in the winter of 1861-1862 at Fort Belmont.
Due to the conditions at Fort Belmont, the decision came for a portion of the band to move on to the Sac and Fox Agency at Quenemo. Opothle Yahola at first argued against this move, but then decided it was in the best interests of his people. He died not long after they arrived there in 1863, but was returned to Fort Belmont where he is buried next to his daughter.
In 1995, the Kansas government sought to honor Opothle Yahola and his quest to protect his people by marking his trail through Kansas. Governor Graves signed a resolution that would be a visible reminder of this man who faced incredible odds to provide for a future for his people.
Lithograph of Opothle Yahola was published in The History of the Indian tribes of North America, by Thomas L. McKenney and James Hall (Philadelphia, 1836-1844).
Wendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She has lived in Osage County for 18 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.