Tahlequah, The Cherokee Capital

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Tahlequah is situated a few miles from the Neosho river, and fifteen miles from Fort Gibson, in the center of a rich and densely populated portion of the nation. It was first chosen as council-ground, and sub­sequently made the permanent seat of Government of the tribe. Its location and surroundings rendered it by far the most important place in the nation.

Park Hill was in the vicinity, Fairfield and Dwight missions were near. There was a Methodist church in sight of the village; a school-house also. There was an excellent brick court-house, well and conveniently arranged. At the time of our visit the Supreme Court was in session; the Rev. David Foreman, of Park Hill, was one of the judges. Mr. F. was a well educated, talented, and worthy man, having no great amount of Indian blood in his veins. He was a large, well-formed, intellectual, and dignified looking gentleman.

The Hon. John Ross, the chief, resided upon a farm near the capital, but being absent on a visit to Washington City, we did not have an opportunity of seeing him.

Lewis Boss, his brother, also resided upon a farm. His family were well educated and genteel, some of whom were Church members.

William P. Ross, a son of Lewis, was the editor of the Cherokee Advocate, a weekly newspaper, which was edited with tact and marked ability. Three pages of the paper were printed in English, and the fourth page in the native language. Mr. R., the editor, had been thoroughly educated in an eastern college. The state-house at that time had not been erected, but its foundations were laid and material was on the ground for an elegant and substantial capitol.

In the village there were dry-goods stores, groceries, and a number of mechanic shops also a tavern and a boarding-house. We were entertained at the house of a Mrs. Wolf; she was the widow of Young Wolf, who had died a few months previous to that period. Mr. W. had been a man of sterling integrity and of excellent Christian character. And though uneducated, he had taken a deep interest in the subject of education; he had raised a family of sons and daughters who were well instructed and reputable. The daughters were especially amiable and intelligent, one of whom became the wife of a traveling preacher, and has since died in hope of a better life. Mrs. W. was not an Indian, but the daughter of German parents, and when a child had fallen into the hands of the Indians, had been reared by them, and finally became the wife of Young Wolf. She was an intelligent and sensible woman, but did not speak the English language.

Cherokee Type

It may not be generally known that the Roman alphabet can not be employed in writing the Cherokee language; it utterly fails to convey the sounds. We heard a Cherokee minister remark, in conference, that he could speak, in his own tongue, six weeks without ever being under the necessity of shutting his mouth; he only knew of two words containing labial sounds, and they were innovations.

The sounds were all guttural, and the language astonishingly copious, rendering it exceedingly difficult to write or to represent its sounds by the use of an alphabet of arbitrary characters.

No adult white man was ever known to master the tongue so as to be able to speak it it must be learned in infancy before any other or it is never acquired. Men may learn to read and write, however, without much difficulty. The old missionaries can read, write, and translate it as well as the native Cherokee, but can not give its peculiar accent, emphasis, and intonation. They never attempt to converse or preach in Cherokee. In one respect it differs from other Indian dialects; while they are barren of words and greatly dependent on gesticulation to convey their ideas, it is so copious, that the speaker expresses himself so clearly that action or gesticulation is not required. The Cherokee orator utters his thoughts in language unsurpassed in terseness and variety, yet is a less graceful speaker than the Choctaw.

The Cherokee language, from necessity stern and solute, has a type of its own. Its eighty-six guttural sounds are represented by as many letters or characters; those sounds are distinct when falling upon the ear of the native; but to us they appear to be one inharmonious grunt or aspirated breathing, and not created by organs of speech. Their alphabet was invented by an uneducated native, who was so afflicted with rheumatism that he was confined within his lodge during an entire winter season. He commenced to cut various forms in bark, his only design being amusement. He finally gave names to his chips, and caused them to represent certain sounds employed in conversation; he progressed by degrees till he had formed one hundred and twenty characters or distinct types. He next learned to arrange his letters so as to form sentences; and finding that he could make his ” chips talk,” he instructed his daughter in the newly discovered science. As soon as her knowledge of the alphabet would warrant an experiment, he announced to his neighbors that he could make chips talk. He and his daughter would take positions remote from each other, and he would arrange his blocks to represent any proposed question, and sending them to his daughter, she would send the appropriate answer.

His neighbors could not question his skill and power to do what he claimed ability to accomplish; but they questioned the morality of his conduct. In short, they charged him with witchcraft, and threatened to inflict summary punishment upon him. To save his life, George Guess at once made known the true nature of his discovery, and imparted all that he knew to his friends and neighbors. The missionaries examined the invention and saw at a glance its utility and its simplicity, and immediately pressed the discovery into their service. They improved the type, reducing the number of letters from one hundred and twenty to eighty-six, sent models to a foundery and procured types of a permanent character, and immediately proceeded to translate and print the New Testament Scriptures. Guess was a heathen in feeling and in practice; be had always been bitterly hostile to education and Christian civilization, and was greatly chagrined to find that his talking chips were employed in breaking up and abolishing the customs and traditions of his sires. He regretted his discovery, especially as his types were employed in printing the Bible, to be circulated among the people in their vernacular tongue. As long as be lived Guess retained his opposition to education and religion–”he would never consent to be a white man, a woman, a slave! he would be a brave! a man! a lord of the forest! strong in war and in the chase!”

He finally became so disgusted with the changes and innovations which found favor with his tribe, that he determined to abandon his people. He accordingly joined an expedition and went out upon the plains, near the sources of the Arkansas and Platte rivers, and engaged in hunting the buffalo and dealing in peltries. He ultimately fell into the hands of Prairie Indians and perished. Poor Guess! the child of genius and blest with talent, he might have shined as a star of the first magnitude, occupying the most prominent positions in the nation. We deeply regret that be did not embrace the truth, so that he might have blessed his race, obtained peace and favor with God, and died an heir of a blessed immortality.

The invention of the new type was a boon of unspeakable value to the Cherokee people. It is an epoch in their history from which Christian civilization dates. Hitherto its progress was slow indeed, and the discouragements numerous. There could be but little communication between ministers and the adult population. They could not hope to be ever able to converse or preach in Cherokee, and the grown-up native would not study and acquire the English language.

After elementary books had been prepared a large proportion of the adult population learned the alphabet, and soon were able to read in their own tongue. I saw it stated in their weekly newspaper that the per centum of the population who could not read was less than any state in the Union could boast.

In approaching Tahlequah we saw a post planted by the roadside, with a transverse beam, which had evidently been used as a gallows. There some poor felon had yielded up his life, to atone to society, in part, for his crimes. “Here,” said one of our company “is an evidence of civilization.” With all other tribes on the border, so far as we could learn, capital punishment was inflicted by shooting the criminal. We had gone but a short distance further when a printed card upon a post attracted our attention. It was a notice that the Cherokee Bible Society would hold its annual meeting on a set day. One of the company remarked, “Here is a stronger evidence of civilization.” And just before we entered the village we saw a crowd standing around an open grave, while a native preacher was earnestly engaged in a funeral service. “And here,” said a third, “is proof of Christian civilization.”

Incident

During the conference session a minister, in a sermon, related the following incident: “We were holding a meeting in the grove, and on Sunday morning brother B. was preaching on the sufferings of Christ and the merit of his death. He was clear, earnest, and impressive, and there was a deep feeling of solemnity and conviction in the congregation. When the preacher closed his sermon and sat down, an Indian woman a Quapaw, if I remember correctly walked forward deliberately, and threw herself prostrate upon the ground in front of the pulpit. She wept aloud, confessed her sins, in her native dialect, cried for mercy, and prayed for pardon through the merit of ” the suffering Son of God.” The Christian friends engaged in singing and prayer, while the sorrow of the poor, penitent woman became more and more intense and agonizing. At length she sprang to her feet. With tears streaming from her eyes, and joy beaming in her countenance, she exclaimed, “Jesus good–very good–big as the worlds! ”

That was an Indian conversion, and who will dare question its genuineness or Scriptural character?

 




MLA Source Citation:

Benson, Henry C. Life Among the Choctaw Indians and Sketches of the South-West. L. Swormstedt & A. Poe. 1860. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 21 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/tahlequah-the-cherokee-capital.htm - Last updated on Oct 7th, 2012


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