Begins Publication Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Phoenix was both the first Native American newspaper and the first published in a Native American language. While struggling to survive under constant harassment from white Georgians, the paper served as a source of Cherokee pride and helped guide the Cherokee nation through a period of tumultuous changes.

Summary of Event

The Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper, began on February 21, 1828, as the Cherokee nation created institutions and built its new capital at New Echota in Georgia. The Cherokee people lived on a reservation in northwestern Georgia after ceding their lands in several southeastern states. There they created their own governing institutions. Following European models, they wrote a constitution Constitutions;Cherokee Native Americans;constitutions , established a legislature, and built schools and churches. Cherokee Phoenix Journalism;Native American Cherokees;newspapers Native Americans;newspapers Georgia;Indian removal Boudinot, Elias [kw]Cherokee Phoenix Begins Publication (Feb. 21, 1828) [kw]Phoenix Begins Publication, Cherokee (Feb. 21, 1828) [kw]Begins Publication, Cherokee Phoenix (Feb. 21, 1828) [kw]Publication, Cherokee Phoenix Begins (Feb. 21, 1828) Cherokee Phoenix Journalism;Native American Cherokees;newspapers Native Americans;newspapers Georgia;Indian removal Boudinot, Elias [g]United States;Feb. 21, 1828: Cherokee Phoenix Begins Publication[1400] [c]Journalism;Feb. 21, 1828: Cherokee Phoenix Begins Publication[1400] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Feb. 21, 1828: Cherokee Phoenix Begins Publication[1400] Sequoyah Ross, John Worcester, Samuel A.

While Georgia passed laws stripping Cherokees of their rights, the Cherokees used every peaceful means of protest, including the printing press. When the Cherokee Phoenix published editorials against the laws, white Georgians stole the newspaper’s printing press and jailed its staff. Cherokees fought against their removal from Georgia through the press, the courts, and Congress.

The newspaper’s editor, Elias Boudinot, a college-educated missionary Missionaries;and Native Americans[Native Americans] and clerk of the Cherokee National Council, wrote in both Cherokee and English, hoping the newspaper would help Native Americans to improve their living conditions and their image in the larger white society. During that era, newspaper editors were often advocates, and political parties and other special interests often subsidized their publications. The Cherokee Phoenix received its support from the National Council, white Christian missionaries, and fund-raising efforts by Boudinot and other Cherokee leaders. The possibility of improving a people’s image through their newspapers was another premise of early nineteenth century journalism, especially among political parties and town boosters. As the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected freedom of the press from federal government harassment, the Native American press expected to be free from restraint, despite its subsidy from the National Council.

The Cherokee Phoenix also depended upon the Cherokee language, for which a writing system had been invented Inventions;Cherokee alphabet Alphabets;Cherokee by a young Cherokee genius, Sequoyah, Sequoyah a few years earlier. Sequoyah had been born around 1770 of a Cherokee mother and a white drifter. He recognized that his people were at a disadvantage compared to the whites, who had a printed and written language. Despite having no formal education, Sequoyah grew up to become the only person in history known to have created a written language single-handedly. His eighty-six-character syllabary, using syllables instead of individual letters as a basic form, allowed the easy translation of the traditionally oral Cherokee language into written form. Assembling words from these sounds proved easier than doing it from the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet. White observers were astonished at the speed with which young people learned to write their language. Cherokee children learned as much language in a few days as English children learned of their language in one or two years. Thanks to Sequoyah’s Sequoyah syllabary, most of the Cherokee nation became literate in a matter of months.

In its prospectus, the biweekly Cherokee Phoenix promised that it would provide laws and public documents of the Cherokee nation; accounts of manners, customs, and the progress of the nation in education, religion, and “the arts of civilized life”; the interesting news of the day; and miscellaneous articles to promote learning among the Cherokees. The Reverend Samuel A. Worcester, a Protestant missionary to the Cherokees, provided essential support for the newspaper.

Sequoyah with the syllabary that he developed for the Cherokee language.

(National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution)

When the newspaper acquired its printing press, two white printers came with it from New England, where special typefaces had to be made to accommodate Sequoyah’s Sequoyah syllabary. The printers set type on the hand press by taking detailed instructions from Worcester instead of learning the language. The printing office also published translations of the Bible Bible;Cherokee edition into Cherokee. While trying to build an independent state within Georgia, the Cherokees received support from missionaries Missionaries;and Native Americans[Native Americans] , Whig Party Whig Party (American);and Native Americans[Native Americans] leaders, and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1832 Worcester v. Georgia Worcester v. Georgia (1832) ruling, one of the so-called Cherokee cases.

The Worcester case began when Samuel A. Worcester and another missionary refused to sign a loyalty oath that Georgia required of white people who worked among Native Americans. The missionaries were arrested and convicted, but Worcester successfully appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the Georgia law unconstitutional. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the Court’s decision. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Indian Removal Act of 1830 setting up the process of forcing the Cherokees to move to Indian Territory, in what are now parts of Oklahoma and Kansas.

Reflecting his missionary-school background, Boudinot editorialized that Cherokees could become civilized and showed a condescending attitude toward Native Americans and other ethnic groups who did not accept Christian assumptions of progress. At first, Boudinot strongly editorialized against removal, despite the growth of individual acts of violence against Cherokees. As a relative of the Ridge family that eventually concluded that getting the best terms for removal was better than resistance, Boudinot signed the removal treaty without approval of the National Council.

Boudinot resisted pressure from Georgians, whose legislature in 1829 stripped Cherokees of their civil rights. Under the new laws, whites could easily commit crimes against Cherokees in the knowledge that Indians could not testify against them in court. Despite a Supreme Court decision supporting the Cherokees, Jackson refused to intervene. “Full license to our oppressors, and every avenue of justice closed against us,” the Cherokee Phoenix said. “Yes, this is the bitter cup prepared for us by a republican and religious government—we shall drink it to the very dregs.” A year later, the newspaper reported harassment, arrests, and threats of physical harm to its staff members. After the newspaper protested the postmaster’s sale of liquor to American Indians to encourage violent incidents, the postmaster retaliated by cutting off the newspaper’s mail service. The move left the Cherokee Phoenix without its source of supplies and exchange papers. “This new era,” Boudinot wrote, “has not only wrested from us our rights and privileges as a people, but it has closed the channel through which we could formerly obtain our news. By this means the resources of the Phoenix are cut off.” The newspaper said Native Americans had become more dependent upon sympathetic whites.

The Cherokee Phoenix covered basic issues within the Cherokee nation, including acculturation and Christianity. In its pages, national leaders debated how the new Cherokee government should be organized and how elections should be conducted. While political candidates argued election issues, the newspaper proclaimed the need for national unity. Leaders debated the division of the legislature into two houses and the political system into two parties. The newspaper said all Cherokees must keep “the preservation of ourselves as a free and sovereign people” as their primary goal. The National Council approved a punishment of one hundred lashes against people who formed organizations to foster disunity among the Cherokees.

Violent conflicts between whites and Cherokees became so common that many feared for the safety of Native Americans who remained in the Southeast. Friends seeking to protect Native Americans and enemies seeking to eliminate them came together to remove the Five Civilized Cherokees;removal of Tribes to land west of the Mississippi. Because early voluntary removals had proved so disastrous to the Cherokees and the Choctaws, Choctaws those remaining in Georgia vowed to remain on their native land. The Cherokees’ elected principal chief, John Ross Ross, John , ordered Boudinot to suppress news of dissension within the National Council over the removal issue; instead, the editor was to present a united front of Cherokee resistance against white encroachment.

Boudinot resigned from the paper in 1832, revealing that he could not manage it without a free discussion of important issues. “I should think it my duty to tell them the whole truth. I cannot tell them that we shall be reinstated in our rights when I have no such hope.” Ross appointed his brother-in-law, Elijah Hicks Hicks, Elijah , to succeed Boudinot, but Hicks lacked Boudinot’s journalistic experience and rhetorical power.

Meanwhile, outside pressures continued. In 1833, the postmaster sent letters to the Cherokee Phoenix’s exchanges, stating that the newspaper had been discontinued. The paper’s publication became erratic, and in 1834, Hicks suspended publication. His parting editorial asked readers not to give up the fight. “Although our enemies are numerous we are still in the land of the living and the JUDGE of all the earth will impart the means for the salvation of our suffering Nation.”

Significance

Although Boudinot had campaigned against removal, he gave up the fight and signed the Treaty of Echota in 1835, agreeing to removal. Three years later, the U.S. Cavalry forced Cherokee people from their Georgia homes and forced them to walk to Indian Territory Cherokees;removal of (now Oklahoma). Cherokees, who had agreed to removal as self-preservation, saw four thousand men, women, and children die along this winter “Trail of Tears.” For his involvement with the treaty faction, Boudinot was killed by Ross supporters in 1839, though Ross Ross, John himself was not involved.

In 1844, Worcester and printer John F. Wheeler Wheeler, John F. , both of whom had served prison time in Georgia for their work on the Cherokee Phoenix, helped the Cherokees start the Cherokee Advocate. Based in the new Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, the Advocate continued free distribution and publication in both Cherokee and English. As the official paper of the Cherokee nation, the Advocate had editors who were selected by the National Council. The first editor was William Potter Ross, Ross, William Potter the nephew of John Ross. Like the Phoenix, the Advocate worked to assimilate Cherokees, provide news, and defend Indian rights. Except for a suspension during the Civil War, the paper continued as an official mouthpiece of whatever party was in power. The paper ended with tribal government in 1906.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Danky, James P., ed. Native American Periodicals and Newspapers, 1828-1982. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. Comprehensive overview of the history of Native American newspapers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoig, Stan. Sequoyah: The Cherokee Genius. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1995. Full biography of Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee syllabary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jahoda, Gloria. The Trail of Tears. New York: Wings Books, 1995. Narrative of the forced removal and resettlement of the Cherokees west of the Mississippi River.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Luebke, Barbara P. “Elias Boudinot, Indian Editor: Editorial Columns from the Cherokee Phoenix.” Journalism History 6 (1979): 48-51. Discusses Boudinot’s conflicts as editor of the Cherokee Phoenix.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLoughlin, William G. Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789-1839. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Study of the missionaries, who played such an important role in supporting the Cherokees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, James E., and Sharon M. Murphy. Let My People Know: American Indian Journalism, 1828-1978. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. A history of Native American journalism that includes some discussion of the Cherokee Phoenix.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perdue, Theda, ed. Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983. Brief biographical introduction to Boudinot, with reproductions of important documents in the history of the Cherokee Phoenix and Boudinot’s fund-raising.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riley, Sam G. “The Cherokee Phoenix: The Short, Unhappy Life of the First American Indian Newspaper.” Journalism Quarterly 53, no. 4 (Winter, 1976): 666-671. Discusses Boudinot’s editorial dilemmas and political pressure.

Trail of Tears

Webster and Hayne Debate Slavery and Westward Expansion

Congress Passes Indian Removal Act

Cherokee Cases

General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity

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John Ross; Sequoyah. Cherokee Phoenix Journalism;Native American Cherokees;newspapers Native Americans;newspapers Georgia;Indian removal Boudinot, Elias

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