Sequoyah's Printing Press




We don’t know exactly when Sequoyah was born, but it was circa 1760-1770 when Sequoyah came into our American history in today’s eastern Tennessee. His family was known and highly respected for their knowledge of Cherokee tribal traditions. In 1809, Sequoyah worked as a silversmith in present day Alabama. That is the same year that he began thinking about a written Cherokee language system.

Sequoyah’s original Cherokee syllabary contained 85 or 86 characters, depending on which historical account you source. Compared with the English alphabet and its 26 characters, and according to Babbel has 171,476 words in use and 47,156 obsolete words, the English alphabet is 30.5% of the Cherokee syllabary. Linguists have debated for years which language in the world has the most words.

Linguists do agree that the English language has one of the largest collections of words. Sequoyah’s written language turned 200-years-old in 2021. Sequoyah’s father was an Englishman who married a Cherokee woman. He grew up bilingual, speaking the English and Cherokee languages, but Sequoyah could not read or write. He never learned to read or write the English language.

Ironically, while soldiering in the War of 1812 under future President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Sequoyah learned how crucial it was for generals to write down their orders. Later, Sequoyah was to passionately deal with the Trail of Tears created by Old Hickory himself. Sequoyah, Major Ridge, Andrew Jackson, David Crockett, and Sam Houston were in combat against the Red Stick Creeks and the British on the American side. Ridge was a Cherokee leader, a member of the Cherokee Tribal Council, and a lawmaker. 

Ridge is a translation of his given name, “Ca-nung-da-cla-geh”, and he was also known by the names of Nunnehidihi, and later Ganundalegi. Major Ridge does not have a first name in our history. The name Ridge comes from his vision of looking at the world from a mountain ridge with a panoramic view of humanity in English. During this time, Sequoyah also saw the American soldiers writing home to their families. Sequoyah desperately wanted the Cherokee Nation to have the same advantages.

Sequoyah was a member of the Old Settler delegates to Washington, D.C. These delegates signed a treaty with the U.S. exchanging their Arkansas domain for a region in Indian Territory in today’s Oklahoma for $305,000 in 1835-1836. By then Sequoyah’s printing press had come about and gone. But what led up to Sequoyah’s enormous devotion and great innovation to create the first Native American written language?

 

Starting in 1809, and continuing to 1821, Sequoyah worked on a syllabary of symbols to depict the spoken Cherokee language. It was a painstaking process for him. First, he tried to create a character for each Cherokee sentence, and then one for each word. That did not work. He based his development of his Cherokee syllabary possibly on the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets. His legendary work consummated into the earliest indigenous American languages with a printing press and a newspaper. 

Sequoyah eventually created a system of characters to depict each syllable in the Cherokee language, not each word. Then, he went on to utilize those characters to establish the first Native American newspaper. He did not have the funds to start this operation, but he was not alone, and he was alone. When he arrived in Oklahoma, he built his house with his bare hands that still stands east of Akin, Oklahoma, on the east side of State Highway 101. His simple cabin is a museum today.

Sequoyah’s Cherokee kin were not happy with his written language. The Cherokee Medicine Men he showed his work to thought it may be possessed by evil spirits, but his Chickamauga warriors thought his work was impressive. It is reported that his family teased him relentlessly and his wife burned his papers. Sequoyah soldiered on to establish a Cherokee newspaper written in Cherokee and English in New Echota, Georgia, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation at the time.

The Cherokee legislature approved funds for the establishment of the newspaper in 1825. In 1827, the Cherokee’s purchased their type and printing press from the New England Type Foundry in Boston. Erastus Bartholomew manufactured the printing press used, and missionary Samuel Worchester helped with the funding. Missionaries were working with the Cherokees as the southeastern Native American tribes were to be removed from their homelands soon.

By this time, the Cherokee General Council knew their people had to realize they were about to be removed by the U.S. government and that they had to remain united. In 1827, editor Elias Boudinot and printers John Wheeler and Isaac Harris went to work publishing the Cherokee Phoenix. The first Native American newspaper rolled off the press on February 21, 1828, because of Sequoyah’s defiance and diligence.

The Cherokee Phoenix published once a week. It reported official laws and documents of the Cherokee Nation along with local and national news. It editorialized Christian life and temperance, and published short fictional stories. That was the honeymoon period of the Cherokee Phoenix. The Cherokees renamed their paper the Cherokee Phoenix and Indians’ Advocate in 1829 because of their impending removal from their home territory.

That was also to be the doom of the Cherokee Phoenix six years later. When the Indian Removal Act was signed into federal U.S. law in 1830, the Trail of Tears became a reality in 1832 for not only the Cherokees, but the other Indian Nations of the southeastern U.S. Very close to the War of 1812, and not far removed from the upcoming Civil War, a majority of U.S. citizens opposed the Indian Removal Act.

Sadly, in 1835, the Georgia Militia confiscated the Cherokee Phoenix printing press. The U.S. federal government did not want Native American anti-removal sentiments going out to the public. Remember, the Cherokee Phoenix was published in Cherokee and English. The Cherokee Nation signed the New Echota Treaty with the U.S. government in 1835, which gave up the Cherokee territory of their homelands east of the Mississippi River.

Triumphant Sequoyah arrived in Oklahoma with his Cherokee syllabary in 1829. And eventually, so did the Nations of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole with huge sorrows and trials. People today do not remember that Oklahoma was planned as a Native American-governed state in 1830 by U.S. elected officials and President Old Hickory. But the U.S. took that away as well and opened up Oklahoma for a land grab in 1889. Once a U.S. territory reported a census with a 60,000 population, that territory could apply for statehood.

Sequoyah’s mother is known to be of the Cherokee Paint Clan, and Grant Foreman’s research believes his father was a Revolutionary War veteran named Nathaniel Gist. Sequoyah’s English name is George Gist, but sometimes George Guess. Lovely County was where Sequoyah ended up in Oklahoma, but Lovely County does not exist today. That county was abolished when the U.S. and Indian Nation governments were trying to establish Indian Territory throughout the time of the Trail of Tears.

After landing in Oklahoma, Sequoyah began traveling often to visit and assist other Native American tribes in creating their own written language. We know he died in 1843 or 1844 near San Fernando, Mexico, but we do not know where he is buried. Sequoyah traveled through Texas and Mexico trying to locate disenfranchised and scattered Cherokee peoples. Even so, Sequoyah was so important to the U.S. and Oklahoma governments that Oklahoma Territory almost became the State of Sequoyah in 1905.   

The Cherokee Indians called the English writing papers talking leaves. Imagine this, Indian (Oklahoma) Territory almost became the State of Sequoyah in 1905 when Oklahoma was vying for statehood. In 1907, the State of Oklahoma chose the likeness of Sequoyah to represent its citizenry in the U.S. Sequoyah’s Cherokee names are Sogwali and Sik’way.

Sequoyah’s written language is called a syllabary and not an alphabet because alphabets use a set of less than 100 symbols to depict a language, and syllabaries typically have several hundred symbols. The written Cherokee language in Cherokee is named Tsalagi Gawonihisdi. Sequoyah began utilizing pictographs and then moved onto phonetics to create his language on his talking leaves.

When Sequoyah summoned the Cherokee Tribal Council to see his work on their written language, they accused him of witchcraft. However, Sequoyah had taught his daughter, Ahyoka, who was six-years-old at the time, how to read the Cherokee language that he developed. At his demonstration to his council, he sent Ahyoka out of the room, and asked the men to say one word. Sequoyah wrote that one word down on a talking leaf.

Sequoyah then called Ahyoka back into the council and asked her to read the word. This astonished the council when she read the word. History was born. The giant Sierra redwood, Sequoia gigantean, is named in his honor. Sequoyah moved from Arkansas to the Indian Territory in 1829 and settled near present day, Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Sequoyah's cabin stands. The Cherokee Nation owns it and it is open to the public. Sequoyah’s cabin is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NR 66000634).




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