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Cherokee Syllabary Bicentennial

Charlie Rhodarmer began his employment with the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in July 2000. He began working in museums in 1987 at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee where he was attending college.

After graduating from Western, Charlie worked at the Scottish Tartans Museum in Highlands, North Carolina. During that time, he traveled to Scotland to conduct research and assisted at the museum in Scotland. In 1992 Charlie had the opportunity to join the JFK Special Warfare Museum at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C.

In 1994 the Scottish Tartans Museum decided to relocate to Franklin, NC, and offered Charlie the chance to set up the new museum. This involved living in Scotland while conducting research and working with the museum there to develop new displays. As well as being curator of the Scottish Tartans Museum, Charlie was later promoted to director.

In the fall of 1996 Charlie began working as a district executive for the Daniel Boone Council. Wanting to return to the museum field, Charlie accepted the job of curator at the National Scouting Museum in Murray, Kentucky in 1998. Working at the Scouting Museum gave Charlie the chance to work with a collection of 47 original Norman Rockwell paintings. In the spring of 2000, the Scouting Museum announced it would be closing and relocating. Charlie started working at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, TN in July of that year.

Charlie was raised in Haywood County, N.C., and graduated from Pisgah High School, and served in the 82nd Airborne Division. He received an associate degree in criminal justice from Haywood County Community College and a Bachelor of Science from Western Carolina University. He is an Eagle Scout. Since the age of 15, Charlie has been an active military living historian/re-enactor in different time periods from the 1700s to the 1940s.

Charlie will talk about the syllabary and the bicentennial of Sequoyah finishing after 12 years of work. He wil
l cover some of the projects the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum has done, including starting the blacksmith shop, as well as the Union Acorn printing press at New Echota and the syllabary that was developed for the printing press. He will also talk about the 1833 Otis Tuft’s Acorn printing press that museum staff are using to reproduce the bicentennial syllabary.

Okay, I may scream for technical assistance here in a little bit, but we’ll try it. Thank you. One of the things, thank you Troy, after the Eastern Band made me an honorary member, Troy sent me his vest. I have coveted this vest for years, and he sent it. The problem is I have to wear a jacket because my, some of you may be surprised, but I do have a tailor, and she was on vacation all year out in Colorado, so I haven’t gotten this fitted yet.

We were going to do this two years ago, but we postponed the conference, and then it was postponed again. We went through 2021, which was the bicentennial of Sequoyah actually finishing his syllabary. So, we’ve already done all this, and we’re actually putting the syllabary to bed. I’ll go over some of the things that we’ve done and are planning to do.

A little background about Sequoyah: there are certain things that we know about Sequoyah that are carved in stone. There are places he’s been and things that happened that we do know about. Then we get into the gray area with some exaggerations and tall tales, and finally, we end up with blatant lies and total falsehoods. When talking with our school kids about some of these things, I explain that, like telling your best friend about the fish you caught, the story gets bigger each time.

A real good example is the story of his wife burning his work. We pretty much figure she did destroy his work at some point, but to what degree? Did she grab his papers and throw them into the fireplace off the table in the cabin, or did she and some neighbors burn down a cabin he built in the woods as an office?

We wish that someday we would find the journals he kept, maybe in someone’s attic or a trunk. Information we’re always finding more and more about. Sequoyah was born near or in the village of Tuskegee. Some say in the village, others say near it. His birth date is also debated, with some saying 1760 or 1765, and later dates being 1770. We kind of believe Sequoyah was born around 1776. His father, Nathaniel Gist, came down in 1775 or 1776 and possibly again in 1777. Nathaniel was friends with George Washington, who asked him to talk to the Cherokee about not allying with the British during the revolution.

Sequoyah’s mother, Wut-teh, of the Paint Clan, gave him a traditional upbringing, teaching him the ways of a warrior. She gave him his English name, and we could talk for hours about how Sequoyah’s name could be translated. It generally means “pig’s foot,” possibly referring to a physical challenge. There are over 26 different reasons why Sequoyah might have had a physical challenge, the most common being that he was injured in a hunting accident as a boy. Others say he was wounded at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend while serving in the United States Army.

As Sequoyah grew up, he was known for building little houses with detailed features. People were amazed at his drawings, which were so accurate they were recognizable. He taught himself silversmithing, making jewelry like gorgets, armlets, rings, and necklaces. At one point, he would work enough to buy a keg of liquor, start a party, and when it ended, he would sober up, do enough work to get another keg, and start again. Eventually, he walked away from alcohol and never touched it again. This showed his strong will.

Sequoyah learned blacksmithing, which brings us to the story of how he saw officers writing orders during the Creek War and thought, “We could do that. We could create a writing system.” This idea likely started earlier, around 1809, in his blacksmith shop. He was influenced by his proximity to the Tellico Blockhouse, where he saw soldiers writing down orders. The blockhouse was active from 1794 to 1807, and Sequoyah learned blacksmithing there.

Sequoyah announced in 1809 that they could create a writing system. This was a significant shift as the Cherokee moved from a culture of hunters and warriors to one influenced by Americanization programs. Sequoyah worked in his mother’s trading post before becoming a blacksmith out of necessity. Farmers would come to him with broken plows, needing immediate repairs. To remember what people owed him, Sequoyah developed a numbering system, drawing their faces and writing the amounts owed.

Sequoyah spent 12 years, from 1809 to 1821, developing his syllabary. He experimented with different systems before breaking the language down into sounds. Initially, he found 87 sounds and created symbols for each.

Almost immediately after its completion, the Cherokee Nation adopted the syllabary as their official writing system. They wanted to buy a printing press to create a newspaper, but Elias Boudinot, who was in charge of the task, discovered that they couldn’t afford a printing press with the necessary symbols. The solution was to adapt Sequoyah’s symbols to create the Cherokee Phoenix.

The first press was a Union Acorn printing press. Dr. Dwayne King and I searched for one, but they were all in museums. We found a collector, Mr. Jacobson, who had an 1833 Otis Tufts Acorn printing press. This press, though newer, operated the same way as the Union press. It was a significant find for our demonstrations and educational purposes.

Sequoyah’s original symbols were adapted to be bolder and more durable for printing. This adaptation created the syllabary we recognize today. Setting the type for printing was a meticulous process, requiring organization and precision to avoid damaging the type.

To commemorate Sequoyah’s contribution, we printed a version of his syllabary. Reverend Samuel Worcester, who helped with the printing, was often rumored to be the driving force behind the Cherokee Phoenix, but it was actually Elias Boudinot.

The Cherokee Phoenix aimed to communicate not just within the Cherokee Nation but with the world. It was crucial during the removal period, as Cherokees learned to read to stay informed about the events affecting their people.

Thank you all for letting me run my mouth for a while and get up here. If there are any questions or anything, please let me know.

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