With Elias Boudinot as its founding editor, The Cherokee Phoenix became more than simply the first Native American newspaper. As Georgia, the United States, and the Cherokee Nation clashed in an historic crisis over the rights of states, Boudinot toiled to create an exemplary paper of record (in two languages) and to record in writing the voice of a people.
Born at Oothcaloga in the Cherokee Nation (near present-day Chatsworth, Georgia) around 1804, young Galagina "Buck" Watie excelled at his Christian mission-school education. He adopted the name Elias Boudinot at the suggestion of the New Jersey patriot and American Bible Society founder, a noted patron of the mission work to which young "Buck" Watie aspired.
When a recurring illness interrupted Boudinot's missionary education, he returned home to the Cherokee Nation and joined in the Nation's efforts to raise money for a printing press. When the press was obtained, Boudinot became the founding editor of the newspaper in 1828. Setting out to counter anti-Indian bias in the white press with a clear expression of Cherokee progress and independence, he tried to make the The Cherokee Phoenix a model of faithful local reporting and thought-provoking editorials.
With a touch of the missionary-preacher, Boudinot the reporter could insert a shaming irony into his coverage of white raiders' crimes in the Cherokee Nation, incidents that -- his experience told him -- would be blamed on Cherokees in the white press but "which we [the Phoenix] will denominate savage hostilities."
While Boudinot the journalist practiced a provocative accuracy, Boudinot the editor kept the paper going with stubborn courage. In his column he openly scoffed at the racism of Georgia officials' claims that the Phoenix's Cherokee editor was merely a figurehead controlled by the white missionary "agitators." And when a Georgia militia commander (whom the Phoenix had criticized) accused the paper of libel and threatened Boudinot with "a sound whipping," Boudinot met the threat in print, in one of a series of columns entitled "Liberty of the Press." What did this official's behavior suggest about press freedom, or for that matter about the nature of all American liberties? Boudinot wondered out loud for his nineteenth-century readers. If a white editor had been threatened as he had been,
What would be the feelings of the people? In this free country, where the liberty of the press is solemnly guaranteed is this the way to obtain satisfaction for an alleged injury committed in a newspaper. I claim nothing but what I have a right to claim as a man-I complain of nothing of which a privileged white editor would not complain.
When the federal government refused to enforce the Supreme Court's ruling against Georgia's "Indian laws" and upholding Cherokee sovereignty, Boudinot became irreversibly discouraged. He sorrowfully came to believe that the Cherokees had only two future choices, both tragic. The first was extinction -- as Georgians unimpeded by federal restraint overran the Cherokee lands, corrupting, subjugating and eventually destroying the Cherokees as a people. The second, and to him the only realistic choice, was emigration as a people, under terms of a treaty trading their Georgia homeland for U.S. government land in the West.
Unwilling to risk the former, Boudinot reluctantly embraced the latter - a choice that put him at odds with the tribal government that published The Cherokee Phoenix, and which led him to resign as editor August 11, 1832. In accepting Boudinot's resignation, Cherokee principal chief John Ross explained his view that the Phoenix could not openly entertain the option of a treaty:
The toleration of diversified views to the columns of such a paper would not fail to create fermentation and confusion among our citizens, and in the end prove injurious to the welfare of the Nation. The love of our country and people demands unity of sentiment and action for the good of all.
In his reply (later published as part of the U.S. congressional record), Boudinot argued for editorial independence:
I am for making the situation of the Cherokees a question of momentous interest, subject to a free and friendly discussion among ourselves, as the only way to ascertain the will of the people as to what might be done in the last alternative.
The narrow disagreement between Boudinot and Ross over the Phoenix's role in discussing Cherokee options evolved into a general, actively political feud, which proved fateful. After their efforts to promote a treaty proposal to Ross failed, Boudinot and other Cherokees decided to circumvent the Cherokee council. Boudinot and other members of the "Treaty Party" secretly signed a treaty with the United States, for which they were reviled as traitors. And, in 1839, after the Cherokees had been removed to Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma), Boudinot and the other signatories were "sentenced to death" by a vigilante assembly for breaking an 1826 Cherokee law against ceding Cherokee lands. For signing the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, and as revenge for Cherokee deaths on the forced march westward in 1838 ("the Trail of Tears"), Elias Boudinot was "executed" at his home in Park Hill, Indian Territory, on June 22, 1839.
Boudinot's active legacy as a writer outlived his editorship of the Phoenix. Both during and after his editorship, Boudinot had worked with missionary Samuel Worcester to translate religious texts into Cherokee. Together they translated between 16 and 23 titles into Cherokee in the decade between 1829-1839. Their first collaboration, Cherokee Hymns, became the first book printed using the Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah. Several of their New Testament translations, and Boudinot's Cherokee translation of an inspirational tract -- Poor Sarah, or, The Indian woman (1837) -- was published in several editions, into the latter nineteenth century.
Threatened by Georgia soldiers for championing Cherokee nationalism yet executed by his own people for treason, Elias Boudinot left a complex legacy. As a reporter, essayist, editor, and translator he tried to enable the coexistence of Cherokees and the white men of Georgia and the United States. One scholar has suggested that Boudinot's extraordinary acts of service during a decade of uncertainty, upheaval, siege, and isolation ultimately helped the Cherokee tribe "to survive the trauma of removal, to rebuild in the West, and to endure to the present."
At the turn of the twenty-first century, Boudinot's brief journalistic career continued to resonate in histories of the Cherokee Nation and of American journalism. The Native American Journalists Association periodically awards the Elias Boudinot Award to a tribal nation or government "for furthering the cause of freedom of the press in Indian country." In 2001 the Cherokee Nation received the award for passing the Cherokee Independent Press Act of 2000, tribal legislation that calls for the coverage of all aspects of the tribal government and for keeping the news of the Cherokee Nation free from political control and influence by any branch of the tribal government.
Photo courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society Photo Archives.
The following titles are held by the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library:
An Address to the Whites, delivered in the First Presbyterian Church, on the 26th of May, 1826 by Elias Boudinott, a Cherokee Indian. Philadelphia: printed by William F. Geddes. 1826.
The Cherokee Phoenix / The Cherokee Phoenix, and Indians' Advocate. New Echota, Cherokee Nation, 1828-1834. [Editor: E. Boudinot, Feb. 21, 1828-Aug. 11, 1832.]
Cherokee Hymns. Compiled from Several Authors and Revised. By E. Boudinott & S. A. Worcester. New Echota: Jno. F. Wheeler, printer. 1829.
"Invention of a New Alphabet," [by Elias Boudinot] [with] "Description of the Cherokee Alphabet" [by Samuel A. Worcester]. From: Annals of Education, Vol. II, April 1832, p. 174-184.
The Acts of the Apostles. Translated into the Cherokee language by S. A. Worcester and E. Boudinot. New Echota: John F. Wheeler and John Candy, printers, 1833.
Documents in Relation to the Validity of the Cherokee Treaty of 1835. January 22, 1838 . . . Letters and other papers relating to Cherokee affairs: being a reply to sundry publications authorized by John Ross. By E. Boudinot, formerly editor of the Cherokee Phoenix. [Washington, 1838.] (25th Congress. 2d Session. Senate Doc. No. 121.)
The Gospel according to Matthew. Translated into the Cherokee language [by E. Boudinot and S. Worcester]. 3rd ed., revised. Park Hill [Indian Territory]: Mission Press, J. Candy, printer, c1840.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John. Translated into the Cherokee language [by E. Boudinot and S. Worcester]. 2nd ed. Park Hill: Mission press, John Candy, printer, 1841.
Cherokee Editor: The Writings of Elias Boudinot. Edited, with an introduction, by Theda Perdue. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983.
Researchers interested in locating correspondence of Elias Boudinot should consult Thurman Wilkins' Cherokee Tragedy (University of Oklahoma Press, 1986), Edward Everett Dale and Gaston Little's Cherokee Cavaliers (University of Oklahoma Press, 1939), and most recently, To Marry an Indian: The Marriage of Harriett Gold and Elias Boudinot in Letters, 1823-1839, compiled by Theresa Strouth Gaul (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2006).