Written by Geraldine Granahan, CLIR project cataloger
The Patricia D. Klingenstein Library of The New-York Historical Society has several items in its collections that were printed in the Cherokee language. One example is the above almanac, Cherokee Almanac 1861, which is written in Cherokee (or Tsalagi), an Iroquoian language used by the Cherokee people. The writing system was invented by a Cherokee known as Sequoyah, or by his English name George Guess or George Gist (1776-1843). He worked as a silversmith and also served with the Cherokee regiment in 1813-14 under General Andrew Jackson. Having been exposed to white settlers and their alphabet, Sequoyah was inspired to create a Cherokee written language, so as to aid the Cherokee Nation in sharing ideas and information and facilitating learning. After much experimentation with his writing system, he finally settled on a syllabary that consisted of 85 symbols representing different syllables. In 1821, he introduced his syllabary to the Cherokee people, and within a few years thousands of Cherokee could read and write in their new script.
Samuel Austin Worcester, a missionary, immediately saw the potential for Sequoyah’s new writing system to be utilized in the field of missionary work and education. He learned the syllabary and language, but never became a fluent Cherokee speaker. He established the Park Hill Mission in Oklahoma in 1836, and was instrumental in the founding of the Park Hill Printing Press, where he arranged to have typesetting done in Cherokee characters. By 1837, the press had begun printing parts of the Bible (right), newspapers, books, and almanacs.
On October 25, 1843, the Cherokee National Council passed an act authorizing the publication of a national newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate (below). The first issue of the newspaper was published on September 26, 1844. It was published weekly in both English and Cherokee. The newspaper provided the Cherokee Nation with knowledge and power, as it informed readers of their rights, spread important information, and discussed newly enacted laws. The paper was published until 1906, with a hiatus between 1853 and 1870 due to lack of funds.
Today—partly because of former government policies that enforced the removal of Cherokee children from Tsalagi-speaking homes—only about 22,000 people speak Tsalagi. That does not, however, diminish Sequoyah’s great achievement: he remains the only known person in history to single-handedly invent and perfect a widely used system of writing.
The almanac from this blog post, as well as other examples from the New-York Historical Society’s American Almanac Collection, will be featured in an exhibition on view in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library reading room from May 20 to July 29, 2013.