Literacy was high in the Cherokee Nation following the development of the syllabary by Sequoyah and the establishment of a printing press, producing a national newspaper in two languages in the 1820s. The Cherokee Nation embraced education as a means to produce a citizenship that could be viewed as the equals of any other nation’s citizens. In the 1890s, Cherokee literacy was higher than citizens of Arkansas or Texas.
The cornerstone for the Cherokee Female Seminary, built by the Cherokee Nation, was laid in 1847 by Chief John Ross. It is the earliest school of higher learning established for women west of the Mississippi. A counterpart Cherokee Male Seminary was built as well. The site of the original female seminary is on the present grounds of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill. Three of the columns still stand on the grounds, and recent studies have determined the exact position of the school’s foundations.
The school for women opened in 1851 with an annual tuition of $45. The Council set aside funds to allow 50 students to be admitted free each year. During the Civil War, the changing borders of North and South swept over Indian Territory, creating internal strife and danger for its citizens, so the school was closed during the war. It re-opened in 1879 and was operated tuition free at that time.
Studies included Latin, botany, chemistry, physics, and music. The beautiful building burned on Easter Sunday in 1887. The columns on the Center’s grounds are among five columns that survived (two surviving columns were removed due to their instability; one column was reconstructed on the grounds of Northeastern State University). The three remaining columns have been stabilized so that they will continue as a reminder of the school’s former presence on the grounds of the Cherokee Heritage Center. The seminary relocated to Tahlequah and the replacement building was built in 1888 in an architectural form of the late Nineteenth-Century time period (neo-Gothic). The school continued to function through Oklahoma statehood and was subsequently sold to the state of Oklahoma in 1909 when it joined the state college system. At that time, the Oklahoma Department of Education granted 62 hours of college credit to the seminary graduates, recognizing the fine education they had received while in the care of the Cherokee Nation. Today the building is called Seminary Hall and may be viewed when visiting the NSU campus.