How the Cherokee Learned to Read and Write, Almost Overnight, without Schools

In the early 1820’s, the majority of the Cherokee people learned to read and write their own language, and they did it without any schools or educational system at all!

They quickly became more literate than the white people who lived around them.

King Seijong of Korea did something very remarkable in the Fifteenth Century.

Seijong was a highly educated man, familiar with Sanskrit and the alphabetic languages of India. He was a voracious reader, and he wanted the people of Korea to read and learn as he did. At the time, the Korean language was written using about 30,000 Chinese characters. [I have been told by a missionary relative of mine, who spent many years in China and Taiwan, that one needs to know about 5,000 characters to read a Chinese newspaper.]

It is definitely not easy for an illiterate adult (or even a well-educated foreigner) to learn to read and write Chinese. It would take many years of constant study. If you have any doubt about that, see how long it would take you to learn to write or read even a dozen Chinese words. Try it!

Seijong knew that writing Korean in Chinese characters kept most of his people from ever learning to read. In 1446, he created the Korean han’gul alphabet of 24 letters–14 consonants and 10 vowels–that is probably the most perfectly suited to its language of any alphabet in existence. Anyone who knows how to speak Korean can learn to read and write it in a few days. There is no need to study spelling at all; if you can say the word, you can write it. And, there are a lot of other things about the Korean alphabet that make it very special, but we won’t go into the details here. It is still in use after nearly 600 years.

Now, King Seijong was not illiterate. He was rich and powerful. He knew a great deal about other languages. He had very wise men to advise him. I think he had a committee of the wisest create the alphabet and got the credit for it. Kings and emperors can do that sort of thing, you know. King James I of England had a collection of scholars translate the Bible into the English of his day; hardly anyone remembers their names or even their existence and the translation is called the “King James Version.” Still, the story goes that King Seijong invented the Korean alphabet himself; he had the intellectual ability to do it, so it is possible that he may really have done it all alone. [Besides, I know from personal experience that it is pretty darn hard to get scholars and professors to try anything new, no matter how good it is, but that is another story for another article.]

The first person in recorded human history who single-handedly created a written form of his own language was [maybe] King Seijong.

Only one other human being ever did the same thing again. He was very different from Seijong. He was born in the woods near what is now Loudon, Tennessee, in 1760 give or take a year or so. He never went to school, because there were no schools in the Cherokee Nation until Sequoyah–that was his Indian name–was more than 40 years old. He never knew his father. He never learned to read and write or speak English in all his life. [However, he seems to have learned to write his name in English letters, because he so signed it as “George Guess” on the Treaty of the Chickasaw Council House in 1816.]

There are several different stories about Sequoyah’s ancestry, some of which were invented by white people who wanted to include him as a relative, after he became famous. His mother came from a good Cherokee family; her brother was a chief at Echota [in what is now Monroe County, TN]. She may have had some white blood. But, who was his father? There is no certainty, but I will tell you what I think is the real story.

His father was probably a half-breed who may have worked for the garrison at old FortLoudon. His family name was Gist; maybe he was a scout. He moved on shortly and had no part in Sequoyah’s life.

Other people think his father was a white man, maybe an officer at Fort Loudon, or perhaps just a wandering trader. Sometimes, the name was spelled Guest or Guess. Whatever the story, and we will probably never know for sure, Sequoyah was also known as George Gist. (As George Guess, his name appears on a treaty signed in 1816, before he became famous for his syllabary.)

Sequoyah was raised by his mother at the old settlement of Tuskegee, near Fort Loudon. Tuskegee [Cherokee Tasgigi] took its name from some forgotten tribe that had blended in with both the Cherokee and the Creeks; the name occurs in several other places, including in Creek lands in Alabama, from which came the name of Tuskegee University.

Very little is known of Sequoyah’s early life. He seemed to have a special knack for mechanical things.

He worked with silver and other metals and he was a blacksmith. A hunting accident–or perhaps a childhood accident or deformity– left him partly crippled, and he had  time to tinker around with ideas. In 1809, he began to think about how it was that white people could communicate by marks on paper.

Knowing nothing at all about reading or writing, he began to work on some way the Cherokee people could have a system of writing. He kept trying despite discouragement and ridicule and all sorts of failures. He had little or no paper, so he scratched his ideas on homemade shingles. At least once, all the work that he had done was destroyed and he was accused of being a witch. At first, he tried to draw a picture for each Cherokee word. That way did not work, he found. There were too many words and [we now know] he would have ended up with a written language like Chinese. Besides, he found that it was too tedious to draw so many pictures and he was not much of an artist anyway.

By now, the Cherokee had been forced out of the mountains of eastern Tennessee, and Sequoyah was living at Willstown (about 8 miles southwest of modern Ft. Payne, Alabama), on Will’s Creek. Willstown, Will’s Creek, and Will’s Valley were all named for the mixed-blood Cherokee chief of the area, known to the whites as “Red-Headed Will.”

Sequoyah carefully analyzed the sounds of the Cherokee language, and eventually he realized that there are about 85 syllables that make up all the words of the language. He then set about creating a symbol for every one of those syllable sounds. (At first, he thought about 200 syllables would be needed, but he was able to reduce that to 85; one of the breakthroughs was making a special symbol for the “s” sound, a much more sophisticated idea than would be apparent to a non-linguist.)

It is said that Sequoyah used an old English spelling book someone gave him to find some of the characters he created. Keep in mind that he knew nothing at all of English. About two dozen of the syllabary characters were taken directly from English letters, but the Cherokee sounds have no connection at all with the English sounds. Others were made up by adding lines or curves to various English letters, or by turning them upside down. At least two Greek letters were used. Some numerals [4 and 6] became symbols. The rest were created from whatever could be found.

[Left-click on this image for a larger and fully legible view of my arrangement of Sequoyah’s Cherokee Syllabary.]

In 1821, he turned the syllabary over to the most important men of the Tribe for testing. It was astonishingly successful. Here is what James Mooney had to say about it:

“The invention of the alphabet had an immediate and wonderful effect on Cherokee development. On account of the remarkable adaptation of the syllabary to the language, it was only necessary to learn the characters to be able to read at once. No schoolhouses were built and no teachers hired, but the whole Nation became an academy for the study of the system, until, in the course of a few months, without school or expense of time or money, the Cherokee were able to read and write in their own language . . . teaching each other in the cabins and along the roadside.”

Cherokee people began proudly to send written messages to one another, even to next-door neighbors, and the Eastern people began to exchange correspondence with the Western Cherokee, those people who had already moved to Arkansas and Oklahoma territories before the Removal.

The missionaries (as would be expected) did not like the new alphabet, because Indian “savages” had created it. However, they soon caught on that it would be helpful to them, so they accepted it. By 1825, the New Testament had been translated into Cherokee. [I have a modern copy of it here on my desk.] One missionary took a copy of a translation of the book of Matthew to Yonaguska, the greatest Eastern Cherokee chief, and read one or two chapters to him. The old chief commented: “Well, it seems to be a good book–strange that the white people are not better, after having had it so long.”

Sequoyah, by the way, never became a convert to Christianity; he continued all his life in the old beliefs. In 1822, he took the syllabary to the Arkansas Band of the Cherokee. In 1823, he moved permanently to the west and never returned to Alabama. In 1843, he went into Mexico to search for lost Cherokee who had moved there years before. He died alone on that trip. He left behind a widow, two sons, and a daughter. His wife received a pension from the government in appreciation of Sequoyah’s great contribution.

We might argue that Sequoyah’s syllabary showed even greater genius than Seijong’s alphabet, because Sequoyah knew nothing of reading or writing or linguistics, while Seijong was highly educated and had a deep understanding of linguistics, and he probably had some help. But, in any case, the two of them stand alone in all of history. No other human has ever created a written form of his own language.

At the beginning of this blog is my personal arrangement of the Cherokee Syllabary. The characters are all the same, of course, but this special arrangement is, at least to my way of thinking, more useful than the older, traditional one. To view the image: Right click on the image, then click “View Image.” A smaller  and more manageable image will be brought up. To see it full-size, click again. This arrangement of the Syllabary is copyrighted by me.

Notes of interest:

Yonaguska, Chief. (about 1759-1839) In Cherokee, Yonagvsgi, from <Yonah>, bear, and <gvsgi>, drowns him. Yonaguska, known to whites as Drowning Bear, was the adopted father of Col. Will Thomas, later called “the white chief of the Cherokee.”  Mount Yonaguska, in the Great Smokies, is named for him.  The Anglicized pronunciation of his name is YO-na-GUS-ka.  One of Yonaguska’s daughters was Katalsta, for whom Katalsta Ridge in Swain County, North Carolina was named.  The same word, which includes a root form having to do with lending, survives in the prominent Eastern Cherokee Catolster family.  We find the root, for example, in modern Western Cherokee as “atolsdiha,” which translates as “he is lending it to him.”

I have found this photograph of Katalsta, taken in 1888, in the Smithsonian collections.  She and her daughter, Ewi Katalsta, were prominent potters in their time.  Katalsta is the woman on the right; the other woman is not identified, but it is possible that she may have been Ewi, who would have been in her 50’s at the time. 

A half mile or so to the southwest of Katalsta Ridge is a very pretty stream, Taywa Creek, which has some  small cascades worthy of a hike to enjoy. The creek’s name is from the Cherokee word “tewa,” the name of the flying squirrel. 

Sequoyah. (about 1760-~August 1843) Out of great respect for his memory, no one has ever commented that his name (Siqua’yi, in Cherokee) can be translated as “Opossum Place” or “Pig Place.” The Cherokee had never seen hogs before the white people came, so they used the word for opossum (si’qua) as a name for them. That left them with the necessity to distinguish ‘possums from pigs, so the ‘possum came to be called “siqua utsetsidi,” the “grinning pig.” Nowadays, only the grin is left, and the possum is just “utsetsidi” [pronounced roughly “oo-chets’-dee,” depending on the dialect]. So, Sequoyah’s Cherokee name could be loosely translated as “Possum Hollow” or even “Pig Pen.” However, we had best not make much of these translations. Many writers ignore the matter altogether or say that the name is untranslatable.  I have sometimes seen his name translated as “pig’s foot,” supposedly referring to his bad leg, but there is no linguistic justification for that. The giant redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) was named in his honor. [There is some uncertainty about his actual birth-date.]

About the spelling of Sequoyah, using the Syllabary:  There are no fully standardized spellings of words and names in Cherokee, but anyone who understands and reads the language would know what is meant by any spelling written by another Cherokee.  Sequoyah himself spelled his name using the Cherokee characters for “Ssiquoya,” although the initial S was completely redundant. When Anglicized, “kwo” and “quo” are written with the same Cherokee character.

Chinese language. Except for its ideographic system of writing, Chinese is a vastly simpler language than Cherokee. Chinese does present some difficulties in pronunciation to English speakers, because of its tones. Still, if Chinese were written in an alphabet as suitable to it as the Han’gul is to Korean, it would be relatively easy to learn. For one thing, its grammar is almost non-existent, simpler even than English grammar, and English–believe it or not–has one of the world’s simplest grammars. A verb in Chinese has just one form; thousands of forms of every verb can occur in Cherokee. [Cherokee uses tones, but not so fully as Chinese does. English even uses tones sometimes, in a sense. Does the word “object” change meanings when you say ob-JECT instead of OB-ject?]

Next question, what is an “ideographic system” of writing? Each symbol represents an idea, not a word. Actually, many different languages are spoken in China; yet, a newspaper can be read by any educated person who knows how to use the ideograms, even if he or she has no knowledge of Mandarin Chinese, the principal language of China. We use a few ideograms (= ideographic symbols) in English, too. For example, consider the number 3 [or any other numeral you like]. We read it and think “three,” even though the word is not there. A person from Mexico would read it as “tres” and a person from France would read “trois,” and so on. The ideogram “3” represents the idea of a collection of three things, no matter what the word is in some specific language.

The “Lost Cherokee”: At several times, groups of Cherokee people moved into Mexico to find a more free existence than was possible in the United States and its territories. Some of them had settled in Texas when it was still a part of Mexico, and the Spanish government had granted land to them. When Texas became a free republic with Sam Houston as its President, Houston–who had been adopted by the Cherokee and who was married to a Cherokee woman–tried very hard and without success to have the Republic recognize the Cherokee land rights. The second President of Texas vowed that he would run all Indians out of Texas. The Cherokee were forced to flee into Mexico; their descendants still live in the area near Lake Chalapa, just south of Guadalajara. However, the “Lost Cherokee” that Sequoyah wanted to find were a semi-legendary band who may have moved west around 1750 or so, before the American Revolution, long before the Trail of Tears and long before Texas became a republic.

One of several half-siblings of Sequoyah was Ahuludegi, known to the white people as “Drum” or “John Jolly.”   Ahuludegi translates roughly as “he is always throwing away the drum.”  His father is thought to have been a white man, Robert Due.   He was the chief who brought Sam Houston into the Cherokee tribe, thereby becoming Houston’s adopted father.   Jolly’s niece, Talihina Rogers, became Houston’s second wife after the Trail of Tears.

Because I have had many requests for framed copies of my arrangement of the Cherokee Syllabary, I have made it available, with a background image of Sequoyah.   You can find it here if you are interested.

You should be aware that one of the original printings of  the old-fashioned version of the Cherokee Syllabary had a significant typographical error.   That error has been copied on nearly all printed syllabaries since that first one, so the error is found in nearly all current syllabaries.   Here is a copy of the one containing the error:

The syllabary with the error

Note the error in the second from last line at the bottom of this syllabary.   Instead of the symbol for “go” there should appear the symbol for “do.”   The Cherokee syllable <do> is fairly often sounded as <to>, but the syllable <go> is never,  for any reason, pronounced <to>!