New-York Historical Society

The Cherokee Nation and the Birth of a New Script

Written by Geraldine Granahan, CLIR project cataloger

Title page of Cherokee Almanac 1861

Cherokee Almanac 1861. Park Hill [Okla.] : Mission Press, [1860]. Okla. 1861 .C44 P3.

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.

Cherokee Bible

Title page of the New Testament in the Cherokee Language. New York: American Bible Society, 1860. Y 1860 .Bib.

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.

Masthead of Cherokee Advocate

Cherokee Advocate. Tahlequah, Okla. 1873: Feb. 8.

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.

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2 Comments to The Cherokee Nation and the Birth of a New Script

  1. Kathleen Browne's Gravatar Kathleen Browne
    May 16, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    This article is a well written and concise historical summary which invites the reader to view the indigenous American Indian in a more positive light than that which is portrayed in traditional educational history books and in the media. I look forward to future posts by this author.

  2. Jerry Ellis's Gravatar Jerry Ellis
    July 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Excellent piece!

    Of Cherokee heritage, I was the first person in the modern world to walk the 900 mile route of the Trail of Tears. (I was born and raised where Sequoyah invented the Cherokee writing system in the mountains of north Alabama.) My book about my Trail of Tears walk, Walking the Trail, One Man’s Journey Along the Cherokee Trail of Tears, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize by Random House. I also have a book–one of eight–titled Cherokee History For Indian Lovers with many historic photos. I have lectured about the Cherokee in Asia, Africa, Europe and USA. Would you like to invite me to be a guest speaker there?

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