The Cherokee Alphabet
Prior to 1821, the Cherokee people had no way
of recording, or writing down their language.
Everything was spoken. People had to memorize
everything that was told to them, because they
couldn’t write it down. They memorized stories and
messages and retold them. Sometimes the words
were changed or were left out completely. No one
knew for sure if the message they received was what
the original person had meant to say. Sequoyah
changed that with his invention of the Cherokee
alphabet. The alphabet has 85 letters or symbols.
Each symbol stands for one sound.
Not much is known about Sequoyah’s childhood, but it is believed that he was
born sometime between 1760 and 1776 near the Cherokee village of Tushkeegee on
the Tennessee River.
Sequoyah married a Cherokee woman and had a family. As a young man he
enlisted to fight on the side of the United States for General Andrew Jackson in
the War of 1812 against the British and Creek Nation. He never learned to read or
write English, but while in the military he became captivated by the white soldiers’
ability to communicate by making marks on paper and reading from what the
Cherokee called "talking leaves." He began work on developing a Cherokee writing
system in 1809.
Finally, after twelve years of labor, he finally reduced the complex language
into 86 symbols, each representing a unique sound of Cherokee speech. In 1821,
after a demonstration of the system to amazed tribal elders, the Cherokee Nation
adopted his alphabet, now called a 'syllabary'. Thousands of Cherokees learned to
read and write within a few years.