Cherokee Phoenix


Published July, 29, 1829

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The following account of See-quah-yah,[See-quo-yah] the celebrated inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, is from one of a series of lectures on American literature delivered last winter at the City of Washington, by Samuel L. Knapp, Esq.

In the winter of 1828, a delegation of the Cherokees visited the City of Washington in order to make a treaty with the United States, and among them was See-quah-yah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet. His English name was George Guess; he was a half-blood, but had never, from his own account, spoken a single word of English up to the time of his invention nor since. Prompted by my own curiosity, and urged by several literary friends, I applied to See-quah-yah, through the medium of two interpreters-one a half-blood, Capt. Rogers, and the other a full-blood, whose assumed English name was John Maw, to relate to me as minutely as possible the mental operations and all the facts in his discovery. He cheerfully complied with my request, and gave very deliberate and satisfactory answers to every question, and was at the same time careful to know from the interpreter if I distinctly understood his answers. No stoic could have been more grave in his demeanor than was See-quah-yah, he pondered, according to the Indian custom, for a considerable time after each question was put, before he made his reply, and often took a whiff of his calumet while reflecting on an answer.

The details of the examination are too long for the closing paragraph of this lecture; but the substance of it was this- that he, See-quah-yah, was now about sixty-five years old, but could not precisely say-that in early life he was gay, talkative, and although he never attempted to speak in council but once, yet was often from the strength of his memory, his easy colloquial powers and ready command of his vernacular, a story-teller of the convivial party. His reputation for talents of every kind gave him some distinction when he was quite young, so long ago as St. Clair's defeat. In this campaign, or some one that soon followed it, a letter was found on the person of a prisoner which was wrongly read by him to the Indians. In some deliberation on this subject the question arose among them whether the mysterious power of 'the talking leaf' was the gift of the Great Spirit to the white man, or a discovery of the white man himself? Most of his companions were of the former opinion, while he as strenuously maintained the latter. This frequently became a subject of contemplation with him afterwards, as well as many things which he knew or had heard, that the white man could do; but he never sat down seriously to reflect on the subject, until a swelling on his knee confined him to his cabin, and which, at length, made him a cripple for life, by shortening the diseased leg.

Deprived of the excitements of war and the pleasures of the chase, in the long nights of his confinement his mind was again directed to the mystery of the power of speaking by letters, the very name of which, of course, was not to be found in his language. From the cries of wild beasts, from the talents of the mocking-bird, from the voices of his children and his companions, he knew that feelings and passions were conveyed by different sounds from one intelligent being to another. The thought struck him to try to ascertain all the sounds in the Cherokee language. His own ear was not remarkably discriminating, and he called to his aid the more acute ears of his wife and children. He found great assistance from them. When he thought that he had distinguished all the different sounds in their language, he attempted to use pictorial signs, images of birds and beasts, to convey these sounds to others or to mark them in his own mind. He soon dropped this method, as difficult or impossible, and tried arbitrary signs, without any regard to appearances except such as might assist him in recollecting them, and distinguishing them from each other. At first these signs were very numerous; and when he got so far as to think his invention was nearly accomplished he had about two hundred characters in his alphabet. By the aid of his daughter, who seemed to enter into the genius of his labors, he reduced them at last, to eighty-six, the number he now uses.

He then set to work to make these characters more comely to the eye, and succeeded-as yet he had not the knowledge of the pen as an instrument; but made his characters on a piece of bark with a knife or nail.- At this time he sent to the Indian agent, or some trader in the nation, for paper and pen. His ink was easily made from some of the bark of the forest trees, whose coloring properties he had previously known-and after seeing the construction of the pen, he soon learned to make one, but at first he made it without a slit; this inconvenience was, however, quickly removed by his sagacity.

His next difficulty was to make his invention known to his countrymen; for by this time he had become so abstracted from his tribe and their usual pursuits that he was viewed with an eye of suspicion. His former companions passed his wigwam without entering it, and mentioned his name as one who was practicing improper spells, for notoriety or mischievous purposes, and he seems to think that he should have been hardly dealt with, if his docile and unambitious disposition had not been so generally acknowledged by his tribe-at length he summoned some of the most distinguished of his nation in order to make his communication to them-and after, giving them the best explanation of his discovery that he could, stripping it of all supernatural influence, he proceeded to demonstrate to them in good earnest, that he had made a discovery. His daughter, who was now his only pupil; was ordered to go out of hearing, while he requested his friends to make a word or statement which he put down, and then she was called in and read it to them; then the father retired, and the daughter wrote, the Indians were wonderstruck (sic); but not entirely satisfied.

See-quah-yah then proposed that the tribe should select several youths from among their brightest young men; that he might communicate the mystery to them. This was at length agreed to, although there was some lurking suspicion of necromancy in the whole business. John Maw (his Indian name I have forgotten,) a full blood, with several others, were selected for this purpose. The tribe watched the youths for several months with anxiety, and when they offered themselves for examination, the feelings of all were wrought up to the highest pitch. The youths were separated from their master and from each other, and watched with great care. The uninitiated directed what master and pupil should write to each other, and these tests were viewed in such a manner as not only to destroy their infidelity, but most firmly to fix their faith. The writers on this ordered a great feast and made See-quah-yah conspicuous at it. How nearly is man alike in every age?- Pythagoras did the same on the discovery of an important principle in geometry.

See-quah-yah became at once schoolmaster, professor, philosopher and as chief. His countrymen were proud of his talents, and held him in reverence as one favored by the Great Spirit. The inventions of early times are shrouded in mystery. See-quah-yah disdained all quackery. He did not stop here, but carried his discoveries to numbers. He of course knew nothing of the Arabic digits, nor of the power of Roman letters in the science. the Cherokees had mental numerals to one hundred, and had words for all numbers up to that, but they had no signs or characters to assist them in enumerating, adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. He reflected upon them until he had created their elementary principle in his mind, but he was at first obliged to make words to express his meaning, and then signs to explain it. By this process he soon had a clear conception of numbers up to a million.- His great difficulty was at the threshold, to fix the powers of his signs according to their places. When this was overcome, his next step was in order to put down the fraction of the decimal and give the whole number to his next place-but when I knew him he had overcome all these difficulties, and was quite a ready arithmetician in the fundamental rules.

This was the result of my interview, and I can safely say that I have seldom met a man of more shrewdness than See-quah-yah. He adhered to all the customs of his country, and when his associate chiefs on the mission assumed our costume, he was dressed in all respects like an Indian. See-quah-yah is a man of diversified talents; he passes from metaphysical and philosophical investigations to mechanical occupations with the greatest ease. The only practical mechanics he was acquainted with were a few bungling blacksmith (sic), who could make a rough tomahawk, or tinker the lock of a rifle; yet he became a white and silversmith without any instruction, and made spears and silver spoons with neatness and skill, to the great admiration of people of the Cherokee Nation.

See-quah-yah has also a great taste for painting. He mixes his colors with skill, taking all the arts and science of his tribe upon the subject, he added to it many chemical experiments of his own, and some of them were very successful, and would be wowrth being known to our painters.- For his drawings he had no model but what nature furnished, and he often copied them with astonishing faithfulness. His resemblances of the human form, it is true, are coarse, but often spirited and correct, and he gave action and sometimes grace to his representations of animals. He had never seen a camel hair pencil when he made use of the hair of wild animals for his brushes: Some of his productions discover a considerable practical knowledge of perspective: but he could not have formed rules for this. The painters in the early ages were many years coming to a knowledge of this part of their art; and even now they are more successful in the art that perfect in the rules of it.

The manners of the American Cadmus are the most easy, and his habits those of the most assiduous scholar,' his disposition more lively than of any Indian I ever saw. He understood and felt the advantages the white man had long enjoyed, of leaving the accumulations of every branch of knowledge, from generation to generation, by means of written language, while the red man could only commit his thoughts to uncertain tradition. He reasoned correctly when he urged this to his friends as the cause why the red man had made so few advances in knowledge in comparison with us, and to remedy this was one of his great aims, and one which he has accomplished beyond that of any other man living or perhaps any other who ever existed in a rude state of nature.

It perhaps may not be known to all, that the government of the United States had a font of types cut for his alphabet, and that a newspaper printed partly in Cherokee language, and partly in English, has been established at New Echota, and is characterized by decency and good sense, and thus many of the Cherokees are able to read both languages. After putting these remarks to paper, I had the pleasure of seeing the head Chief of the Cherokees, who confirmed the statements of See-quah-yah, and added that he was an Indian of the strictest veracity and sobriety. The western wilderness is not only to blossom like the rose, but there, man has started up and proved that he has not degenerated since the primitive days of Cecrops, and the romantic ages of wonderful effort and god-like renown.