History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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SEQUOYAH HAD PROFOUND IMPACT ON EDUCATING, IMPROVING CHEROKEE NATION

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the LaFollette Press.

    

     Equipped with a weapon such as the Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle pioneer Americans pushed back the frontier. The Great Smoky Mountains gradually submitted to the prying and settling of the white man. The fertile valleys were settled; the concealed coves were occupied. The Cherokee Indian tribe who remained in the East suffered many changes. As their Nation decreased in size to cover only portions of Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee, the pressure of growing white settlements began to infringe on the old ways. Settlers intermarried with Indians. Characteristics of the Nation's civilization gradually grew to resemble that of the surrounding states.

     In 1821, a single individual gave to his Nation an enlightening advance as significant as the advent of school. A Cherokee named Sequoyah, known among white men as George Gist (son of Nathaniel Gist, a white frontiersman of great respect), had long been interested in the "talking leaves" of the white man. After years of thought, study and hard work, he devised an 86-character Cherokee alphabet.

     Sequoyah was born about 1760 near old Fort Loudon, Tennessee. He had neither attended school nor learned English. By 1818, he had moved to Willstown in what is now eastern Alabama and had the white mans' will and interest in the ability to read and write. He determined to give his own people the same advantage.

     The first painstaking process he tried was attaching a mark to each Cherokee word. These marks soon increased. As he sensed the ineffectiveness of this one-for-one relationship, he examined English letters in an old newspaper. His own mind categorized symbols of this sort with basic sounds of the Cherokee tongue. After months of work, he sorted out and assigned them symbols, based on a large event, upon the ones he had seen in the newspaper. When he introduced his invention to his fellow Cherokees, it was as if he had opened a floodgate. Within the space of a few weeks, elders and children alike began to read and write. The change was astonishing.

     After the remarkable invention of the new tongue dialogue, Sequoyah vaulted himself into a position of great respect inside the Cherokee Nation. One of the many fascinated visitors described the great Sequoyah in the greatest detail and noted that he wore "a turban of roses and posies upon a white ground girding his venerable grey hairs, a long dark blue robe, bordered along the lower edge of the cuffs, with black; a blue and white minutely checked calico tunic under it, confined with an Indian beaded belt, which sustained a large wooden handled knife, in a rough leathern sheath; the tunic open on the breast of its collar apart, with a twist handkerchief flung around his neck and gathered within the bosom of the tunic. He wore plain buckskin leggings; and one of a deeper chocolate hue than the other.

     "His moccasins were unornamented buckskin. He had a long dusky bag of white sumac with him, and a long Indian pipe, and smoked incessantly, replenishing his pipe from his bag. His air was altogether what we picture to ourselves of an old Greek philosopher. He talked and gesticulated very gracefully; his voice alternately swelling, and then sinking to a whisper, and his ever firing up and then its wild flashes subsiding into a gentle and most benignant smile."

     Sequoyah moved west to Arkansas in the 1820's. His mission was to find a legendary lost band of Cherokees located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. He initiated several attempts to discover the group, but age caught up with him. He died alone in northern Mexico in the summer of 1843. He had brought his Nation a long way. His name would be immortalized in the great redwood tree of the Far West, the giant Sequoyah. And in a sense his spirit lived on in the first Cherokee newspaper - "The Cherokee Phoenix" -, which was established in 1828 at New Echota, with Elias Boudinot as its editor and Samuel Worchester as its business manager.

     The Cherokees made remarkable changes in government. In 1808, they adopted a written legal code; a dozen years later, they divided the Nation into judicial districts and designated judges. The first Supreme Court of the Cherokees was established in 1822, and by 1827, the Nation had drawn up an American Based Constitution. The president of the constitutional convention was a 37 year old leader named John Ross. A year later, he began a 40 year term as principal chief of his people.
 

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