The Belmont area contains some of Woodson County's earliest and most harrowing stories, especially that of Muskogee Chief Opothleyahola and the "Trail of Blood on Ice."
The sky was cloudless, passing from silver at the horizon to soft blue at the apex of the dome of the world.
I was sitting next to the grave of Doyle “Bud” Neimeyer in Belmont Cemetery, near the “new” Yates Center reservoir, watching the small orange and brown butterflies flit about in tiny eccentric circles.
Someone had placed a chipped red brick nearby, seemingly as a gift, that read: Standard Coffeyville Block.
And adorning Neimeyer’s final resting place, a quote from naturalist philosopher Aldo Leopold:
“A Thing is Right when it tends to preserve the integrity, the stability, and the beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
It’s an insight of immeasurable depth and caring, one that speaks to an ethics beyond anything white men have yet devised.
An ethics where all touches all, where nothing stands alone. Where nothing survives in isolation and without others.
An ethics wherein everything needs everything.
I only knew “Bud” as a child when I was a Boy Scout, with my pressed navy shirts and yellow patterned scarves, when he showed us such profound sites as the Native American petroglyphs at Dry Creek Cave.
He kneeled in the dirt pointing, and somehow I can still see him there, excitement effervescing out beneath his signature cap.
It can be no accident, then, as to why he is interred here, at what is perhaps the place of greatest historic significance in all Woodson County, at what was once the intersection of wagon trails leading from Humboldt to Eureka, Neosho Falls to Coyville.
X marks the spot.
JUST down Kanza Road at 70th is the Belmont Corner, once home to upwards of 600 pioneers and 20 cabins, a tavern and post office, blacksmith and hotel, and an agency where native women retrieved meagre government rations.
In a letter written by E.T. Wickersham in 1934, he recalled: “the squaws would ride up to the store, tie their ponies and go into the store, and come out with a sack of flour [then] put it on the pony behind the saddle.”
“They were all dressed alike with a small blanket that reached from their shoulders to their knees … So while they were tying the flour to the saddle they had to let go of the blanket in order to use both hands, and the blanket would drop down, exposing their naked bodies to the icy cold wind until they got on their ponies.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, of all things contained in the letter, it seems the young E.T. was deeply affected by the naked women and girls, but also the indigenous peoples’ haircuts, their methods of child-rearing and their homes made of grass and hides.
IN WOODS south of the cemetery lie the ashen traces of Fort Belmont, a modest militia holdout against the Southern Confederacy.
I often feel as though I can hear the subtle whinny of horses in the little earthen corral there, the shouting of young men foolishly eager to face down Rebs in gray coats and red men in red paint.
In a field to the east, you can yet walk the faint outline of the parade-grounds and ovular track where militiamen would race native people on horseback.
And one sweltering summer day, I couldn’t help but wash my hands in the milita’s little walled up spring hidden along Big Sandy Creek, which somehow remains after almost 160 years.
WIND from the south leapt up and began to tossle the cedar trees that guard the cemetery’s oldest graves, persuading their shadows to tilt.
One twisted branch is shockingly white, and stands out in exile from the rest.
Below, I had chalked the stones belonging to Richard Barritt and his son Everett, and still wore turquoise stains on my fingers from the act.
Their names erupted from being worn to becoming unbearable in their crystalline articulation, standing and nearly screaming out from the white and withered passage of years.
In his day, Barritt lived on the southwestern border of the county, along the Wilson line, though the place there once called “Barritt’s Hill” no longer bears that name in the mind of almost anyone living.
The air had become almost cold, despite the mid-April sun, though I was chilled more from the white-tailed doe that suddenly disrupted the quiet woods at my back.
There, several thousand Muskogee people once sheltered during the Civil War, at a time when few trees stood to keep the fearsome winter at bay.
Despite wanting to remain neutral, they had done battle with Confederates in present-day Oklahoma, and after abandoning supplies were forced to march across the frozen and desolate prairie leaving behind a “trail of blood on the ice.”
According to Wickersham, “they came up here by the thousands, [such that] the woods were full of Indian camps.”
Though promised life-saving provisions by the Union, they found nothing in Kansas but rancid meat and broken promises.
I shivered then, perhaps just as much from the air as the thought of children crying in the snow, their fingers and toes blue and brittle from frostbite.
A little boy raised his dark eyes and stared at me, mercilessly, motionless.
Both his feet had been amputated.
In the face of such horrors, how can the sunlight there do anything but mock the forever-stained ground, profane the scattered plot where countless Muskogee fell?
Where the bones littered the earth …
EVERY time I had the urge to look up while writing, I hesitated in fear, despite having walked those woods a dozen times before, in search of the unmarked grave of Chief Opothleyahola and his daughter, whose name I have not yet learned.
She died in winter 1862 from tuberculosis, whereafter wreaths and garlands adorned the hallowed place her people had laid her.
I desperately want to know it, her name.
I want to speak it aloud, sing it in an aboriginal tongue the syllables of which have never entered nor left my blasphemous mouth.
I want to say it with all the force of time and the Milky Way Galaxy, so that that place might forever bear witness to The Impossible.
I want a black hole to unfold in those woods and swallow the light forever.
Today, a visitor to Belmont Cemetery can be stunned to wordless reflection by the seemingly unmarked nothing of it all, and perhaps that silence is the only appropriate response.
For what else is one to do before the knowledge of such suffering but cover one’s mouth like Job?
Let the birds sing instead. Let their high whistles and warbles invert the horror that hangs on.
Or rather howl instead, howl from a place of darkest mourning.