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Mathematical Treasure: Cherokee-English Arithmetic

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University)

Elementary Arithmetic in Cherokee and English (1870) is a cultural and historical artifact testifying to a dark chapter in American history. Its author, John Buttrick Jones (1823-1876), was a Baptist missionary who served the Cherokee people in exile. Living among them, he spoke and wrote their language fluently and was well respected by these Native American people. In efforts to better modernize the Cherokee, the tribe's National Council published a set of basic school texts for the education of their members. Jones, due to his abilities, compiled this Arithmetic, alternating the text in English and the Cherokee written language.

For those readers not conversant with the history of the United States, the early European settlers to North America found the Cherokee, a native people of the southeast, to be highly cultured and socially organized. Accepting their new status, the Cherokee Nation attempted to assimilate and adapt to their new “place among” the European settlers. They became farmers and established small businesses, formed towns, ruled themselves, developed a written language, published a newspaper, and hoped their identity would be respected and preserved. However, in 1829, gold was discovered in Cherokee territory in Georgia. To facilitate the Cherokee lands for prospecting and white settlement, President Andrew Jackson ordered the Cherokee to be removed and forcibly resettled 1000 miles westward in “Indian Territory”. Their arduous journey, mainly in the period 1838-1839, is remembered as “The Trail of Tears” – a shameful episode in American history.

And, so now in 1870, we have an arithmetic book compiled for these displaced people. The title page is shown below:

The opening pages discuss numeration and the use of a decimal system:

Next, the basic operations were explained and demonstrated. As shown below, selections of applied problems complete the text. They were apparently copied from other American arithmetic books of the time. One is left to wonder just how relevant the given problem situations were to young Cherokee living in their western territory?

The complete text is available for examination on WikiSource, which gives the home of the actual book as the Yale University Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Call Number 2000 2309.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Cherokee-English Arithmetic," Convergence (September 2018)