Opothle Yoholo, Speaker of the Councils

Opothle Yoholo
Opothle Yoholo
Creek Orator
Speaker of the Councils

The last homes of the Creek Indians, on the eastern side of the Mississippi, was in Georgia and Alabama, from which, in conformity with the provisions of a treaty with the United States, made in 1832, they emigrated in 1836-7. They were divided into what were called the Upper and Lower towns, the former of which were situated upon the banks, and among the tributaries of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers. Over these towns the Big Warrior was chief, under whom Opothle Yoholo held the rank of principal councilor, or speaker of the councils, over which he presided with great dignity. His influence was so great that the questions submitted to the council were generally decided according to his will, for the Indians, considering him as the organ of their chief, supposed he only spoke as he was directed. The great council-house of the Upper towns was at Tuckabatchee, where the Big Warrior resided, and near which was the residence of Opothle Yoholo.

We have, in the biography of McIntosh, pointed out the singularly embarrassing circumstances in which the Creeks were placed at this time. The United States, by a compact made with Georgia, when the limits of that state comprehended the territory which afterwards was formed into the state of Alabama, became bound to remove all the Indians within the boundaries of Georgia, whenever it could be done peaceably. To comply with this engagement, and to fulfill a benevolent policy, having for its object the civilization of the Indians, and the securing to them a permanent home, the United States set apart a fertile and extensive tract of wilderness, beyond the Mississippi, upon which they proposed to settle the several remnants of tribes that still lingered within the states, and were becoming demoralized and destroyed by contact with a race with whom they could not amalgamate. Unhappily, some of the tribes were not willing to emigrate, and among them the Creeks. The pledge of the government to remove them, although qualified by the condition, “when it could be peaceably effected,” was yet to be at some time redeemed; and while the Creeks were, on the one hand, averse to the removal, the more intelligent among them saw, upon the other, that the existence of such a compact doomed them to an exile, which, although it might be delayed, could not be avoided. Year after year the government, to redeem its promise to Georgia, sent commissioners to purchase from the Creeks their lands, who as often returned unsuccessful, or succeeded only in part, while the inhabitants of Georgia and Alabama discovered a disposition to resort to more urgent measures, and frequent collisions between the white people and the Indians were the unhappy consequence. The Creeks themselves became divided; McIntosh, the head chief of the Lower towns, advocating the removal, and the Big Warrior, who ruled the Upper towns, opposing that measure. The Little Prince, an aged chief, who ruled the whole nation, was will ing to leave the question to those whom it immediately concerned.

In 1824, Messrs. Campbell and Merriwether were sent by the government to effect this long-desired purchase, and held an ineffectual treaty at a place called the Broken Arrow, where they found a few of the chiefs willing to yield to their views, but others so decidedly opposed, that, forgetting the grave and decorous courtesy which usually prevails in their solemn councils, they would give no other answer than a sullen, but emphatic ” No.” The deputy of the Big Warrior said, that he would not take a house-full of money for his interest in the land, and that this was his final answer. Failing in their object, the commissioners called another council, to meet at the Indian Springs, in February, 1825.

Previous to this period, little is known of the character of Opothle Yoholo, except that he was considered, in early life, a youth of promise. The first public service in which he distinguished himself, was at the council at the Indian Springs, to which he was sent to counteract the influence of McIntosh, and to remonstrate with him against selling any part of the Creek country. It is said that he executed this mission with great fidelity; he pursued his object with unyielding firmness, and his remonstrance’s were marked with energy and eloquence.

The substance of his address to the commissioners was as follows: “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. General 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. This is not a full council; there are but 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, when 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.”

This speech was delivered with the calmness and dignity becoming the occasion; respectful to the commissioners, yet decisive in tone and language, it was the refusal of a little band of untutored men, confident of right, to the demand of a powerful nation. All that was fiery and alarming was reserved for McIntosh, who was supposed to have already promised to accede to the proposed transfer. Turning to that ill-fated chief, with an eye full of meaning, he extended his arm towards him, and in the low, bitter tone of prophetic menace, he added, “I have told you your fate if you sign that paper. I once more say, beware!” On the following morning, he left the Indian Springs, and returned to Tuckabatchee. McIntosh persisted in his determination to sell the country, signed the treaty, and, as we have narrated in another place, paid the penalty with his life.

Arrangements were soon after made to send a deputation of chiefs to Washington, to protest, in the name of the Creek nation, against the execution of the treaty of the Indian Springs, and to conclude one which should be more acceptable. Opothle Yoholo was placed at the head of this deputation, and proceeded with his colleagues to the seat of government. In all the negotiations connected with that exciting occasion, he conducted himself with great dignity and firmness, and displayed talents of a superior order. He was cool, cautious, and sagacious; and with a tact which would have done credit to a more refined diplomatist, re fused to enter into any negotiation until the offensive treaty of the Indian Springs should be annulled. The executive being satisfied that the treaty had not been made with the consent of the nation, nor in accordance with its laws, but in opposition to the one, and in defiance of the other, disapproved of it, and another was made at Washington in January, 1826, the first article of which declares the treaty of the Indian Springs to be null and void. By the same compact the Creeks surrendered all their lands lying within the chartered limits of Georgia, except a small strip on the Chattahoochee, which formed afterwards a subject of much dispute. The intention of the parties, as declared and .understood at the time, was to convey the whole of the Creek country, but, in undertaking to lay down boundaries, from an office map, wrong lines were assumed, and the Creeks left in possession of a tract, which they were afterwards induced, by the advice of indiscreet friends, to insist upon retaining. It was in reference to this tract that a correspondence took place between the executives of the federal government and Georgia, characterized, on one side, at least, by much warmth.

As the great object of the purchase of the Creek country was to remove that tribe from the vicinity of a people with whom they lived in constant contention, and from the limits of a state which insisted on their departure, as of right, the retention of a portion, however small, and whether effected by accident or artifice, defeated alike the wishes of Georgia and the intentions of the United States. Several ineffectual attempts were made to settle the question by a further purchase, that should include the whole of the disputed territory; the federal government adhering to its usual conciliating policy, and preferring to buy again what had been already purchased, rather than practice the slightest injustice, while Georgia, stimulated by the discontent of her citizens, and offended by what she conceived an artful evasion on the part of the Creeks, vehemently urged a speedy decision. All these efforts having failed, a special commission was issued in 1827, to Colonel McKenney, directing him, after discharging certain duties upon the Upper Lakes, to cross over to the Mississippi, descend that river, and hold councils with the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, and Creeks and, if possible, to bring this unhappy controversy to a close, by purchasing the disputed tract.

Fully appreciating the character of Opothle Yoholo, the first object of Colonel McKenney, on his arrival in the Creek country, was to conciliate that chief, on whose decision, he foresaw, the result would depend. A messenger was accordingly dispatched to Opothle Yoholo, to announce his arrival, and solicit an interview at Fort Mitchell. That politic leader, understanding well the purpose of this visit of the commissioner for Indian affairs, declined the proposed meeting under the plea of indisposition. This was considered a subterfuge to gain time until the attendance of two educated Cherokees, who were the secret advisers of Opothle Yoholo, could be procured; and another messenger was dispatched to inform him that if he was not well enough to ride on horseback, a suitable conveyance should be provided, and that the business to be discussed was of great interest to him and his people. In short, he was told emphatically that he must come. The next day he made his appearance, and entered, with apparent frankness, upon the subject of Colonel McKenney ‘s mission. In the interview of that gentleman and Colonel Crowell, the agent, with this chief, he discovered a tact which the more enlightened might imitate with advantage. He spoke of his readiness to do whatever might be most acceptable to his Great Father; and admitted that the land in question was not worth much to his people, while it was a bone of contention between them and Georgia. In evidence of the unhappy state of things which exist d, and that he deplored, he stated, that when his people crossed the Chattahoochee, to look after their cattle or hogs that roamed in the woods, they were shot by white men, against whom he could have no redress. He had, therefore, every desire to comply with the wishes of the President, but insisted that he could not sell the land except in open council, and by consent of the nation. He would most cheerfully do any thing to promote peace, but he was only an individual, unauthorized to act for the nation, and unable to control its decision and finally he expressed his belief that the Creeks would not be willing to sell the land.

He was told in reply, that it was not intended to make the purchase, except in conformity with their laws that he was sent for, because he was known to be the friend of his people, and of their welfare and that by advising them in open council, where it was proposed to meet them, he could do much towards satisfying their minds of the justice and propriety of settling this controversy, in the mode proposed by the government. It would be just, because the intention of the parties to the treaty at Washington, had been to embrace all the land of the Creeks within the limits of Georgia, and this strip was excluded, because the maps were incorrect upon which the lines were traced. It would be proper, because the safety of the Indians, and the quiet of the borders, could in no other way be insured. In a word, he was told that the Creeks were required to carry into effect the treaty according to its true intent, and that the government proposed again to purchase that which was already theirs by solemn compact. The Creeks were not asked to make a new sale, but to ratify and execute a contract which had been previously made. Still their Great Father was willing to remunerate them for their expected compliance with his wishes he knew they were poor, and would again pay them for the land.

The reply of the wary chief showed, as his previous conversation had indicated, that his object was to gain time. It was smooth, plausible, and evasive. At last it was agreed to hold a council at Tuckabatchee, and runners were sent out to invite the chiefs of the towns to be present. At the appointed time from twelve to fifteen hundred Indians had assembled, and after some delay, Opothle Yoholo, as the chief person present, was called upon to open the council. He still hesitated, and, upon various pretenses consumed three days, when it was understood that the two educated Cherokees had arrived. These persons having learned the white man’s art of talking upon paper, were much esteemed by the chief, who probably expected through them to be able to protect himself from any artifice that might be practiced in the phraseology of the treaty that should be proposed, while they used their advantage, on this, and other occasions, to thwart the designs of the government, and keep alive the existing agitation.

No other apology for delay remaining, certain ceremonies, preparatory to the council, were performed with a solemnity and careful attention which showed that they were considered of great importance. These were not only singular, but, as we believe, peculiar to the Creek nation; and they form one of the many curious examples exhibited in savage life, in which the human intellect is seen to act, on an occasion demanding the exertion of its highest powers, with an absurdity which intentional levity could scarcely surpass. In the center of the square of the village, four long logs were placed in the form of a cross, with their ends directed towards the four cardinal points, and a fire kindled at the intersection. The Indians were seated around in groups. A decoction had been previously prepared, called the black drink, which is made by boiling the leaves of a small bush, greatly esteemed and carefully preserved by them, which they call arsee. The black and nauseous liquid, thus produced, was poured into large gourds, each holding three quarts, or a gallon, and being handed round by persons appointed for the purpose, was drunk in such liberal quantities as to fill the stomach. The disgusting draught acted as an emetic, and was drunk and thrown up until the evidences of the hideous ceremony covered the square. Having thus purified them selves for business, a messenger was sent to inform the commissioner that the council was ready.

But little hope was entertained that this council would lead to a successful result; for it was ascertained that, during the previous night, the proposition of the commissioner had been debated, and a negative reply decided upon. It was believed that the two half-breed Cherokees had prevailed upon Opothle Yoholo to refuse to make the transfer of the disputed territory until a government could be organized, like that which had been established by the Cherokees, after which the sale was to be made, and the money put into the Creek treasury one of the half-breeds being the prospect ive minister of finance. Unpromising as the prospect appeared, the commissioner determined to leave no effort untried to effect an object essential to the peace of the frontier, and to the preservation of amicable relations between the federal government and Georgia. When, therefore, in reply to the proposition he was instructed to make, he received the decided negative of Opothle Yoholo, in which the council unanimously concurred, he availed himself of the information he had received of the secret intrigue of the Cherokees, and boldly disclosed the plan to the assembled Creeks. For the first time, perhaps, in his life, Opothle Yoholo became alarmed. He knew the jealous and vindictive temper of his people. The fate of McIntosh was too recent, his own part in that tragedy too prominent, to leave any doubt as to the result of a tampering by the few with the rights of the many. He saw the danger in which he was placed by the disclosure of a plan prompted by a foreign influence, doubtful in itself, and not yet matured. He knew as well as the accomplished jurist of Great Britain, that popularity may be gained without merit, and lost without a fault that the people, civilized or savage, are easily ruled, and as easily offended; and that, in the excited state of his tribe, the memory of his own services might be instantly obliterated by the slightest shadow cast upon the patriotism of his motives. He grew restless, and said to the interpreter, “Tell him he talks too much.” Colonel McKenney replied, that the welfare and happiness of the Creeks were all that their Great Father at Washington sought in this interview, and if what had been said was that which they ought to know, their chief should take no exception to it. He hoped there was no impropriety in telling the truth, and having commenced a talk, he should finish it, no matter what might be the consequence. The effect was electrical. A hum of voices was heard through the council, and it was manifest that Opothle Yoholo, though he maintained the calmness of a warrior, saw that his life hung upon a thread. The commissioner, knowing that the Little Prince, head chief of the nation, whose power was absolute, was encamped in the neighborhood, concluded his exposition by saying he should appeal to him, and if he spoke the language of that council, their talk would be reported to the President for his decision. The appeal to Caesar gave a new direction to the thoughts of the savage assembly, and probably arrested the dissension that might have ensued. The commissioner, without waiting for a reply, left the council, followed by the whole body of the tawny warriors, who rushed towards him as he was about to mount his horse. Surprised by this sudden movement, he demanded to be informed of its object, and was answered, “We came to look at the man who is not afraid to speak.”

The Little Prince was then stricken in years. The commissioner found him in the primitive state of a forest chief, lying upon a blanket under a tree; near him were a fire, and the preparations for cooking, and suspended from a bough over his head were the provisions that were to form his banquet. He was approached with great veneration; for in the history of the southern Indians there is not found a name of more sterling worth. His mind was enlightened on all matters that concerned his people; his spirit unflinching; his sense of justice keen and abiding. To him the commissioner made known the whole matter, not omitting the offensive interference of the Cherokee young men. It was this disclosure that Qpothle Yoholo feared. He could manage his own chief, the Big Warrior, near whom he was officially placed, and of whose ear he had possessed himself, but he could not encroach upon the authority of the Little Prince, who ruled the whole Creek nation, uniting under his authority the Upper and Lower towns. The Prince heard the statement in silence Although to his visitor he paid every becoming attention, not a syllable of comment escaped him; not a look of assent or disapprobation. With that caution which marks the whole tenor of the Indian’s life, and especially governs his intercourse as a public man, he withheld the expression of any opinion until he could make up a decision which should be sanctioned by deliberate reflection. The com missioner, though well aware of this ‘feature of the Indian character, supposed, from the apparent apathy with which he was listened to, that he had only related what the chief knew and approved, and concluded the brief interview by saying, “I now leave you and your people. I shall return immediately to Washington, and report what I have seen and heard.” They parted the one to reflect on what had passed, the other to seek repose for the night at the agency at Fort Mitchell.

At midnight, a runner, sent by the Little Prince, arrived at the Fort. “Tell the commissioner,” was his message, “not to go in the morning, the Little Prince will come to him and make a treaty.” At daylight, another messenger came to say that the Little Prince’s horse had strayed away in the night, but that he would visit the commissioner early in the day. About noon he arrived, attended by several of his chiefs, but Opothle Yoholo was not of the number. After the usual salutations, the chieftain said to Colonel McKenney, ” Take a paper, and write to the Cherokee chief, that if his young men (naming them) come among my people again, I will kill them.” This characteristic dispatch, which shows that, in the crude diplomacy of the forest, the last resort of civilized nations is the first appeal for justice, was writ ten, the mark of the Little Prince affixed, and the missive sent The transaction showed a suitable jealousy of a foreign influence over his people, and over the chief functionary of the Big Warrior, which probably led, more than any other consideration, to the decision to make the treaty which his meddling neighbors endeavored to prevent. The treaty was prepared and agreed upon, a council was called which ratified the proceeding, and the important document signed which gave peace to that frontier, and for ever closed this exciting question.

This direct and unusual exercise of authority, in opposition to the decision of Opothle Yoholo, made but a few days before in open council, greatly weakened the influence of the latter. But the Little Prince dying about a year afterwards, Opothle Yoholo regained a power which had been inferior only to that of head chief, that of the Big Warrior being merely nominal. The successor of the Little Prince was Nea Micco, a dull, heavy man; and the Big Warrior having also departed, soon after, to the land of spirits, was succeeded by Tuskena, his son, a person of slender capacity. Opothle Yoholo became, therefore, the principal man of the Creeks, in fact, though not in name, and has continued ever since to exercise over them the power of an absolute potentate. It is said that he might have been elected to the chieftainship on the demise of the Little Prince, but that he preferred his position as speaker, which, by bringing him more directly in contact with the people, gave him all the advantage of his address and eloquence.

During the late unhappy contest between the United States and the Seminole Indians, it was to be expected that the sympathies of the Creeks would be strongly excited in favor of the latter, who are wandering tribes, descended from the Creek nation. Accordingly, in 1836, when the war grew hot, and the Seminoles were successful in several sanguinary engagements, the spirit of revolt spread through the Creek nation, and many of that people were urged, by the fatal destiny which seems to have doomed the whole race to extinction, into open war. Saugahatchee, one of the towns of Opothle Yoholo’s district, was the first to revolt. The warriors, without a single exception, painted themselves for war; the young men rushed out upon the highways, and murdered all the travelers who fell in their way. Opothle Yoholo, on hearing the intelligence, immediately placed himself at the head of the warriors of his own town, marched upon the insurgents, burned their village, and having captured some of their men, delivered them over to the military, by whom they were imprisoned. At the request of Governor Clay of Alabama, he called a council of his warriors, at Kialegee, and, having collected about fifteen hundred of them, proposed to lead them against the hostile Creeks. They consented, and within five days, were encamped at Tallahassee, the then head-quarters of Major-General Jessup, to whom a formal tender of their services was made. The offer was accepted, and Opothle Yoholo appointed the commander of the whole Indian force, with the rank of Colonel. General Jessup marched the united regular and Indian army, without delay, to Hatcheehubbee, where the hostiles were assembled, and was about to attack them, when the latter, overawed by the superior force and prompt action of the American General, surrendered themselves, and thus ended the contest.

We have not hesitated to speak freely of the causes and conduct of the Indian wars that we have had occasion to glance at in various parts this work. They have usually been provoked by the whites. Those alluded to in this article were the result of frauds committed by land speculators, who sought to enrich them selves at the expense of those illiterate savages, and who have either deceived the general and state governments, or committed them by acts which, though they could not approve, they have been obliged to sanction. This oppression, together with a reluctance to emigrate on the part of some of the Creeks, engendered that revengeful temper which has thrown so many obstacles in the way of the attempts of the executive of the United States to separate the red and white races.

The close of disturbances rendering the further services of Opothle Yoholo and his warriors unnecessary, and the time for their emigration having arrived, they were ordered into encampments, with a view to their immediate removal, and shortly after left the land of their fathers for ever.

It is not to be inferred from the prompt support given by Opothle Yoholo to the American General, that his sentiments had become favorable to emigration; on the contrary, he remained inflexible in his aversion to that measure. He was not only unwilling to leave his native soil, but opposed especially to a removal to the lands offered by the government perhaps, because his people would there be thrown into contact with the followers of McIntosh, and he may have supposed it doubtful whether they could live together in peace. He, therefore, in 1834 or 1835, went to Texas to seek a home, and, having explored the country, purchased a large tract, for which he was to give eighty thousand dollars; but the Mexican government, jealous on account of the revolutionary movements then in progress, and unwilling to receive a population which would not probably make such subjects as it would desire, interposed to prevent the transfer, and there being also a doubt suggested as to the title to the land, the intention was given up, with a loss of twenty thousand dollars, which had been paid in advance.

The several parties of the Creek nation, unhappily divided by the contest relative to the sale of their country, are reunited in Arkansas, and are said to be living in harmony. Opothle Yoholo is popular, and is spoken of as principal chief of the united tribes. His competitor is Roily McIntosh, brother of the murdered chief, General McIntosh.

Opothle Yoholo is believed to have but one wife. Two of his daughters are said to be very beautiful. One son was educated at the Choctaw Academy, in Kentucky, and bears the name of the venerable patron of that institution, Richard M. Johnson.

Biography, Creek,

McKenny, Thomas & Hall, James & Todd, Hatherly & Todd, Joseph. History of the Indian tribes of North America: with biographical sketches and anecdotes of the principal chiefs. Embellished with one hundred portraits from the Indian Gallery in the War Department at Washington. Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co. 1872.

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