Sequoyah and the Almost-Forgotten History of Cherokee Numerals

By 1828, Sequoyah was at the peak of his renown. His syllabary had been accepted by the Cherokee National Council at its national capital in New Echota, Georgia, in 1825. The laws of the Cherokee nation were printed using the syllabary in 1826, while the bilingual, biscriptal newspaper the Cherokee Phoenix began printing in 1828 in New Echota using a newly designed typeface. In that same year, Sequoyah traveled to Washington as part of a delegation to advocate against the removal of those Cherokee still living east of the Mississippi to the Indian Territory (now eastern Oklahoma), an effort that would ultimately prove unsuccessful in light of President Andrew Jackson’s policies against Native Americans.

By this time, Sequoyah was becoming widely recognized by the American intelligentsia for his invention of the Cherokee script, the first and at the time only indigenously invented script for any people north of Mexico, but also as a public, American intellectual whose accomplishments demonstrated that Europe had no monopoly on inventive genius. This counternarrative to the myth of the indigenous primitive was never predominant, but at times, when Euro-Americans saw their interests in terms of distinguishing themselves from Europe, some might coopt Native American accomplishments by claiming them as generically American.

Shortly after his return from Washington, Sequoyah presented this next invention to the Cherokee National Council: a set of numeral signs. Unlike the Hindu-Arabic, or Western numerals 0123456789, Sequoyah’s numerals had principally a ciphered-additive structure. That is, instead of place value and a zero, there are separate signs for each decade and unit, which combine together, so that 67 would be the sign for 60 followed by 7, rather than 6 followed by 7 as in Western numerals. Beyond 100, the system became multiplicative-additive — instead of developing nine new signs for 100 through 900, Sequoyah invented only one, which combined with the signs for 1 through 19.

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