Talking Leaves and Rocks That Teach: The Archaeological Discovery of Sequoyah's Oldest Written Record

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The Tsalagi tigaloquastodi, or the Cherokee alphabet, is a writing system composed of 85 characters that approximate to the range of sounds in the language (Scancarelli 1996, 2005). Often termed a 'syllabary', it consists predominantly of syllables, with the exception of six vowels and one consonant. Figure 1 is a chart of the Cherokee syllabary with its English equivalents shown to the right of each character. The earliest American colonial documentation of the Cherokee syllabary is found within the correspondence from the Willstown Mission, near Fort Payne, north-eastern Alabama, in 1824 (McLoughlin 1984: 196). It was officially recognised by the US Government in 1826 (McKenney 1826). On 21 February 1828, at New Echota in Georgia, it became the basis for printing the first bilingual Native American newspaper--the Tsalagi Tsulehisanvhi or Cherokee Phoenix (Awtrey 1941). With the advent of the Phoenix, the syllabary quickly became known all over the world.


How did the Cherokee syllabary come into being? There are two prominent theories, both historically situated within the southern Appalachian region of North America during the early nineteenth century. According to one, missionaries discovered a pre- existent, ancient syllabic script among the Cherokee, and subsequently modified it for printing their religious texts in order to expedite conversion (Bird 1971). The second theory is that a single Cherokee individual, Sequoyah, invented it through a process of experimentation (Davis 1930; Foreman 1938; Kilpatrick 1965; Walker & Sarbaugh 1993; Hoig 1995).

Each of these theories can be evaluated within the domain of archaeology.

The former would be corroborated by the appearance of a consummate script, while the latter would feature the material correlates of a developmental process. In this paper, we argue in support of the invention of the script by Sequoyah, drawing on a body of engraved characters in the Red Bird River Shelter site (15CY52), a small sandstone cave in Clay County, south-eastern Kentucky (Coy et al. 1997: 34-7). Rather than spelling out words, the characters, dating to 1808-18, seem to show an exploratory process with a variety of transitional forms, some of which may have been adapted from pictographs. They precede clearly legible compositions like those written with the standardised characters of the Cherokee syllabary on the walls of Unnamed Cave 63 in the former vicinity of Willstown, which date to 1828 (Simek et al. 2010). We conclude that the Red Bird characters are among the earliest examples of the Cherokee syllabary, probably made by Sequoyah c. 1808-18 (Tankersley 2006).

The Red Bird River Shelter (15CY52)

The Red Bird River Shelter (15CY52) is located on the west side of the Red Bird River in Clay County, south-eastern Kentucky (Coy et al. 1997: 34-7). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places (no. 89001183), it is the grave site of Dotsuwa, or 'Red Bird', a Cherokee man who was murdered nearby by two American fur traders in 1796 (Tankersley 2006). Figure 2 is a photograph of the small sandstone cavern. It faces south at an elevation of approximately 290m amsl (above mean sea level). The maximum dimensions of the cave measure approximately 3m (wide) x 4m (high) x 5m (deep). Petroglyphs are clustered on both walls near the entrance. Cherokee syllabary characters occur on the lower eastern wall.

Two eminent researchers of Native American rock art in Kentucky, Fred Coy and Thomas Fuller, initially documented the petroglyphs with close-range photography in 1969. They interpreted the content as being predominately 'bird tracks and sharpening groaves mingled with numerous modern initials and dates' (Coy et al. 1997: 37). From the carving techniques, they further inferred that many of the petroglyphs were probably historic. Characterised by narrow grooves that are V-shaped in cross-section, they differ markedly from the percussive and abrasive methods used to make the majority of petroglyphs in Kentucky, which are thought to be ancient. …