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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
By Christopher Grisham
If you are here, I bet you can read and write in English. The English alphabet that you know and use today developed over hundreds of years. It used words and rules from many other languages. Many people have made it what it is today. But what if one person sat down and created a written language by themselves? What would that language look like? That is exactly what happened once right here in Tennessee.
Around 1776, a man named Sequoyah, or George Gist, was born in what is East Tennessee today. Sequoyah was a member of the Cherokee Nation. His father was English, and his mother was Cherokee. He grew up speaking both languages. He was bilingual. But he could not read or write. He never learned to read or write in English. The Cherokee people did not have a written language. They passed on their history and culture through storytelling. There were no Cherokee books or newspapers.
Portrait of Sequoyah painted in 1988, Tennessee State Museum Collection
Sequoyah grew up in the Cherokee town of Tuskegee near Fort Loudon. He had several jobs during his life. As a kid, he traded furs with the people living in Fort Loudon. Eventually, he learned that he had a talent for working with metal. As an adult, he became a blacksmith and a silversmith. He was even a soldier. During the War of 1812, he fought against the Red Stick Creeks with other Tennesseans like Major Ridge, Andrew Jackson, David Crockett, and Sam Houston. According to one story, Sequoyah’s time as a soldier made him realize how important it was to be able to read and write. He saw how useful it was for generals to write down their orders. Soldiers were also able to talk to family back home with letters. Sequoyah wanted the Cherokee to have the same chance to write in their language as the American soldiers did. So, he decided to create an alphabet for the Cherokee.
The earliest printed copy of the Cherokee syllabary, 1826. Tennessee State Museum Collection
It took Sequoyah over 10 years to develop the written language for the Cherokee tribe. His daughter A-Yo-Ka was his first student. He tested his new syllabary by teaching it to her. After it was finished and ready to use, he just needed to convince the rest of the Cherokee that it was useful. Sequoyah met with tribal leaders to show off his new form of writing. The Cherokee tribe officially adopted this new syllabary as their written language in 1821.
The language spread quickly after that. Most of the Cherokee Nation was literate in the new language within five years. The first newspaper to be published in both English and Cherokee, the Cherokee Phoenix, started in Tennessee in 1828. This was also the first newspaper in the entire country to use two languages. Sequoyah’s syllabary was a huge success. It’s still being used today with very few changes, 200 years later.
The Cherokee Phoenix printed in 1831. Tennessee State Museum Collection
But what is a syllabary? How is it different from an alphabet? The English alphabet is made up of 26 characters, or symbols, that we call letters. Each one of those characters stands for certain sounds that are made when you speak. But, in English there are more sounds than there are letters. So, you may have to put some letters together to make new sounds. For example, the “sh”, “th”, “ch”, “wh”, and “oo” sounds are made with two letters.
In a syllabary like the one Sequoyah developed, each symbol stands for a syllable in the spoken language. That means that every sound in the Cherokee language has its own symbol. There are 86 characters in Sequoyah’s original syllabary. That may sound like a lot if you are used to English. However, having a symbol for each sound can make learning to read and write much easier.
Bilingual – being able to speak, read, or write in two different languages
Blacksmith/Silversmith – a smith is someone that works with metal, blacksmiths usually work with iron and silversmiths will make things out of silver
Syllabary – a form of writing where the symbols stand for syllables in the spoken language
Adopted – being official chosen
Literate – able to read and write
Syllable – a sound in a spoken language that contains a vowel (the word history has three syllables, his – tor – y)
What area of Tennessee was Sequoyah born in?
What languages could Sequoyah speak?
What things do you think having a written language might have made easier for the Cherokee?
If you could learn a new language, besides the ones you already know, what would it be and why? (ex. Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Swahili, German, Mandarin, American Sign Language…)
The English language has 44 sounds and only 26 letters. That means that we could use some new letters. Try to design your own new letters. What will they look like? What sounds will they stand for? You can see the way Sequoyah designed his characters here.
Tennessee Social Studies Standards
2.29 Examine the significant contributions made by people of the U.S., including:
Neil Armstrong, David Crockett, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, Sequoyah, George Washington
5.40 Identify the impact of important Tennesseans prior to the Civil War, including:
David Crockett and Sam Houston (Texas War for Independence and the Alamo)
President James K. Polk (Manifest Destiny)
Sequoyah (Cherokee syllabary)
TN.24 Discuss the contributions of important figures during Tennessee’s “golden age”, including:
John Bell, Newton Cannon, William Carroll, David Crockett, Ephraim Foster, Sam Houston, James C. Jones, Sequoyah, Hugh Lawson White
Christopher Grisham is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum
“Assimilation”. Tennessee State Museum. September 30, 2021. http://www.tn4me.org/article.cfm/a_id/187/minor_id/65/major_id/21/era_id/4
“About Sequoyah”. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. September 30, 2021. http://www.sequoyahmuseum.org/history/
“Sequoyah and Creation of the Cherokee Syllabary”. National Geographic. October 5, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/sequoyah-and-creation-cherokee-syllabary/
Eleen Cushman. The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the people’s perseverance. University of Oklahoma Press. 2011