The Cherokee Phoenix (and Indian Advocate)

Published on February 27, 2012 by Amy

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Cherokee Phoenix newspaper
Cherokee Phoenix newspaper

One of the outstanding achievements of the Cherokee Nation was publication of the first American Indian newspaper. The Cherokee Phoenix, which is still published today, acted as the official voice of the government for the seven years that it was published from an office in the capital city of New Echota. This great national voice would be silenced by the infamous Georgia Guard and the brother of the first publisher.

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Sequoyah’s “Talking Leaves” gave the Cherokee a tool with which to create the first American Indian newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix. In 1826 the Council approved the construction of a printing office. In 1827 they authorized the purchase of a printing press.

With help from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions the printing office was built. Type was cast in the Cherokee language, a printer was hired, and a printing press and other equipment was sent to the Cherokee capital of New Echota. Choosing Elias Boudinot (Buck Oowatie) as editor seemed natural. Educated at Cornwall, Connecticut, he had worked hard to establish the Phoenix, raising a portion of the money needed through speaking engagements in the northeastern United States. Also raising money through speaking engagements were Boudinot’s brother Stand Watie, John Ridge and Elijah Hicks.

The first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix rolled off the presses on February 28, 1828 and had an international circulation. Editor Boudinot was immediately beset with financial problems, one of which was his yearly salary of $300.00. He requested, and got, a substantial raise and an assistant in late 1829 thanks to the efforts of Principal Chief John Ross.

Realizing that many of the issues being faced by the Cherokee were also being faced by other tribes, Boudinot requested that the name of the newspaper be changed to The Cherokee Phoenix and Indian Advocate in 1829. The Cherokee government agreed and both the masthead and content were changed to reflect the new mission.

Ross used the paper successfully as an national voice. Communicating with the Cherokee, spread across present-day Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas was difficult. Printing new laws and meeting notices in the Phoenix fulfilled certain legal obligations of the country. It also served to bring the widespread Cherokee together in what Ross viewed as a single nation.

During this time Boudinot was a strong supporter of the nationalistic movement led by John Ross. His writings included diatribes against the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the encroachment of settlers, and the unwillingness of white courts to accept sworn testimony of Cherokee witnesses. He even supported the law that made it a crime punishable by death to give up land without the approval of the Council.

In 1832 John Ridge joined a small group of Cherokee who began to doubt that the Nation would continue to thrive in the East. He openly advocated removal. Boudinot soon began to embrace the idea and his changing attitude was reflected in the editorials he wrote for the paper. At first Ross defended young Elias from the wrath of the Cherokee government, believing diversified opinions were good.

As Boudinot became convinced that John Ridge was right he began to allow his opinion to seep into the day-to-day news. At first, Ross asked him contain his opinions to the editorial page, then finally demanded that Boudinot cease printing anything about removal. The first publisher of the Cherokee Phoenix resigned, citing Ross’s intolerance of “diversified views.”

Charles Hicks, the brother-in-law of Ross, was appointed editor. Hicks was strongly against removal, but did as Ross wanted, containing his opinion to the editorial page. Occasionally the Phoenix would print letters from Boudinot, whose house was just down the street from the Phoenix office. The paper was published until May 31, 1834, when the Cherokee Nation ran out of money because the federal government refused to pay money for using Cherokee land that it had agreed to pay in 1804.

Over the next year several attempts were made to rekindle the newspaper, but the office, complete with the printing press, sat idle. When the chance arose to again publish the Cherokee Phoenix, Ross realized that doing so in Georgia was dangerous, since the notorious Georgia Guard was brutally keeping the Cherokee “under control.”
The Guard received word through members of the Treaty Party that Ross intended to move the press to the old council grounds in Red Clay, Tennessee. Hours before the move, Elias Boudinot’s brother, Stand Watie, joined the Guard in a raid on the offices of the Phoenix. They dumped the soft lead type on the ground and stamped it into the red Georgia clay with their feet, effectively silencing the voice of the Cherokee Nation. Then Watie and the Guard removed the press and set fire to the building.

Three years later the city of New Echota was a ghost town. Cherokee still living nearby in May, 1838 were rounded up and kept in Fort Wool (more), finally marching off on the “Trail of Tears.” Then, for more than 100 years the property lay dormant and nature took its course.

In March, 1954, Lewis Larsen, an archeologist with the Georgia Historical Commission arrived to oversee the work of excavating the Cherokee capital. Slowly Larsen and five men worked clearing the land and finding evidence not only of the Cherokee occupation of the site, but also of earlier Indian cultures.

In May, National Park Service Archeologist Joe Caldwell joined the group, as did two more workers. The most interesting find was a Spanish coin dated 1802. Then the earth began to yield more. China, crockery, household wares and the remains of a bootery. Shortly after discovering the bootery, a man found a small piece of lead. He showed it to Caldwell and Larsen who immediately gathered the workers in a circle around the site. Slowly they uncovered the treasure. Two more pieces were quickly discovered, then five, and more. A lot more. Within a two-day span the nine men uncovered over 200 pieces of printing type. By the time the original excavation was completed 1700 pieces of type had been recovered. Of these 600 were identified as Cherokee characters, the others damage so greatly as to be unrecognizable.

When New Echota State Park opened for visitors in 1962 a replica of the original office of the Cherokee Phoenix was a highlight of the tour. Inside that office were 600 pieces of type containing the lasting legacy of the first American Indian newspaper. Later some type was moved to the museum at the State Park and the rest was distributed by the state to various museums and research facilities. The bulk of the type is preserved at Panola Mountain and West Georgia College.

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