Old West Lifestyle & Stories

Developing The Cherokee Language and Alphabet

Sequohah, born in 1760 in Tennessee, grew up among his mother’s people, the Cherokee. He became a metal craftsman, making beautiful silver jewelry. As a young man he joined the Cherokee volunteers who joined Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812. While with the American soldiers, he became intrigued with what he called “talking leaves,” or words on paper that somehow recorded human speech. Although Sequohah had no formal education, he somehow comprehended the basic nature of the symbolic representation of sounds.

In 1809 he began working on a Cherokee language. At first he tried picture symbols, but soon found them to be impractical. Then he started looking at English, Greek and Hebrew. He finally developed 86 characters that would express the various sounds in the Cherokee language. It was so simple in its concept that it could be mastered in less than a week.
In 1821 he submitted his new written language to the Cherokee leaders. As a demonstration Sequohah wrote a message to his six-year-old daughter. She read the message and responded in kind. The tribal council immediately adopted the system. And Cherokee of all ages started learning the written language.
The Cherokee were divided into two groups, Sequohah’s in Georgia and Tennessee, and the western Cherokee in Oklahoma. In 1822 Sequohah went to Oklahoma, and taught the alphabet to the Cherokee there.
Finally, on February 21, 1828 the first printing press with Cherokee type arrived in Georgia. Within months, the first Indian language newspaper appeared. It was called the Cherokee Phoenix.
Sequohah later went to Mexico to teach Cherokee there the language. While in Mexico he became ill with dysentery, and died. Great monuments to the man who developed the Cherokee alphabet stand today along the northern California coast. They are the giant redwood trees called the Sequoia.

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