The remarkable progress the leadership of the Cherokee Nation made in developing a government just in a span of two decades before the Civil War is underscored by their focus on education.
Imbued with the importance of functioning in an educated society by early missionaries, they wasted little time in developing a system of schools. Shortly after the conclusion of the Trail of Tears in 1839, and negotiations with the “Old Settlers,” the Western Cherokee, who had arrived a decade earlier, the National Council approved construction of eleven common, or elementary schools in 1841.
Steven Foreman, a Presbyterian minister, was elected to “employ competent teachers, prescribe books and design a program of instruction.” Teachers were to be paid $500 dollars a year and no school, first grade through eighth, could operate with less than 25 pupils or more than 60. By 1859 and just prior to the Civil War, 30 common schools were in operation.
After Foreman completed the initial task of developing common schools, in 1846 the National Council stepped in again and approved the construction of two academies, grades 9 through 12, one male and one female “to accommodate 100 pupils each.”
The male school was constructed near Tahlequah, the female school near Park Hill, and in 1851 both opened. The brick buildings, two stories above a basement, had a two story porch composed of Greek columns built around three sides.
Portions of several columns from the female academy still remain at the Park Hill Cherokee Heritage Center. Teachers were recruited from highly regarded institutions in the east, among others Yale, Dartmouth, Colgate, Mt. Holyoke and Rochester.
Education had been a priority for some time. Before removal to Indian Territory, a portion of the Cherokee population became educated by the missionaries who taught the English language, but also emphasized a curriculum heavily slanted toward the civics, history and geography of white civilization.
This initiation into formal education was soon supplemented by Sequoyah. Inspired by what he referred to as “the talking leaves,” Sequoyah tried, failed but ultimately succeeded in developing a system of 86 characters representing the sounds of the Cherokee language.
Although the common schools and academies focused on an eastern curriculum based on English, it was also possible to translate the meaning of those words into Cherokee for a broader population.
The Cherokee common school curriculum would be readily recognized by elementary teachers of today, it included the basic skills of “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic.”
But the program of studies, at least for advanced students in the academies not only would compare with but exceed what contemporary high school students might typically be exposed to, unless they were in advanced placement classes. In addition to the basics, curriculum for some included:
Intellectual Philosophy, the study of critical thinking and reflection; Watt’s Improvement of the Mind, 15 ways and means to acquire and apply knowledge; The study of Virgil, one of Rome’s greatest poets; Xenophon’s Anabasis (Google it); and Rhetoric, how to inform, persuade, and motivate audiences.
Utilizing courses such as these, Cherokee educators were far advanced in the arena of teaching how to apply knowledge rather than simply acquiring it. As Horace Mann, a contemporary educator from Massachusetts noted at the time “you learn by doing.” Learning how to interact objectively with knowledge that has been acquired is a skill sorely needed today.
Unfortunately, the developing school system, in fact the Cherokee government as a whole, would soon fail for lack of financial support. A Nation whose citizens had always believed that “land belonged to everyone to be used but not owned,” could not be convinced to pay annual taxes to support government services.
As a result, because there was no support system of taxation, eventually those services, necessary as they were, failed. In 1856 both academies closed and neither reopened until well after the conclusion of the Civil War. The brief moment that might have developed Cherokee education into the “Athens of the Southwest,” was over.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.