Sequoyah: A Man of Letters

Se-Quo-Yah. Hand-colored lithograph by John T. Bowen, copyrighted 1838. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02566

Se-Quo-Yah. Hand-colored lithograph by John T. Bowen, copyrighted 1838. Published in History of the Indian Tribes of North America by Thomas L. McKenney and James Hall. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02566

The gentleman with the long pipe and the colorful garments (right) points to a document.

What is it?

Take a closer look (below). It does not appear to be a letter or excerpt from a text. Some letters are recognizable as part of the Roman alphabet: I can see an A, an H, a J, for example. But then there are other unfamiliar characters, too. Is it an alphabet? And if so, for what language?

Detail of Se-Quo-Yah. Hand-colored lithograph by John T. Bowen, copyrighted 1838. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02566

Detail of  Se-Quo-Yah. Hand-colored lithograph by John T. Bowen, copyrighted 1838. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g02566

 

The man and the document turn out to be very impressive, indeed. This is Sequoyah and he holds a record of his notable accomplishment: the Cherokee syllabary – sometimes referred to as the Cherokee alphabet. A Cherokee man, Sequoyah invented the written form of his spoken language, allowing the oral history of a people to be written down. Sequoyah used versions of characters from the Roman alphabet and modified others to make new symbols. Each one signifies a syllable in the Cherokee language.

Title page, [Constitution and laws of the Cherokee nation]. Published 1875. Law Library Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08830

Title page, [Constitution and laws of the Cherokee nation]. Published 1875. Law Library Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08830

Sequoyah completed his syllabary around 1821. When it was adopted by the Cherokee Nation, they became the first Native Americans to have their own alphabet and writing system.

This allowed the Cherokee to create written documents: religious periodicals, newspapers, laws, and in 1827, a Constitution for the Cherokee Nation. The 1827 printing and a later 1875 edition of the Constitution and Laws of the Cherokee Nation are among the treasures of the Law Library Rare Book Collection at the Library of Congress. (For the 1875 printing, see the title page at right, and also explore a fully digitized version.)

Sequoyah’s early 19th century invention continues to be used today – and in recent years has even entered a new frontier. The Cherokee syllabary is found on apps on smartphones and tablets so that a new generation can learn it as well.

Learn More:

4 Comments

  1. Terry -Anya Hayes
    November 15, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Why are these treasures not in the hands of the Cherokee Nation?

  2. Joyce Pugh
    November 16, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    I am blood lined to the Sequoyah (Cherokee Nation). I’ve been researching my heritage and background of my grandfather. I have gathered much info, but still working on it. I have a paper back book with the picture of the one above and it tells about the Cherokee language and alphabets, but not an old copy. This is interesting.

  3. Brendan Dahl
    November 17, 2013 at 7:58 am

    This is a very inspirational story, thank you so much

  4. Kristi Finefield
    November 19, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Terry -Anya Hayes: Thanks for your comment. These texts have been described as treasures of the U.S. national library, but they are not the sole copies. The Cherokee Nation published multiple editions that are held by various institutions, helping to broaden understanding of this impressive accomplishment and of the Cherokee constitution itself.

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