Historically successful illiterates from literate societies (modern era)?

Sep 2018
101
transitory
#1
I would like to gather examples of people since the 18th century who, despite being functionally illiterate within a literate society, were able to achieve success of historical significance. To clarify, these should be examples of people who achieved their success while still illiterate, not after they learned to read/write. Also, I am not looking for examples of people from pre-literate societies (e.g. nations like the Sioux or Zulu).

A few examples I can think of:

Zhang Zuolin (1875-1928) - An illiterate Chinese bandit who rose to become ruler of Manchuria, and arguably one of the most powerful warlords in 1920s China.

Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806) - Revolutionary leader and Emperor of Haiti. Most sources I have read say that, as a former slave, he was illiterate.

Harriet Tubman (?-1913) - Abolitionist well known for her activities in the "Underground Railroad." I have read that, as a former slave, she was illiterate during her life.
 
Aug 2014
67
U.S.
#2
George Stephenson. He didn't learn to read until after he built and deployed the first viable railroad and locomotive in history. His son learned to read before George did.
 

MAGolding

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
2,891
Chalfont, Pennsylvania
#3
Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) the famous mountain man, frontier guide, Indian agent, army scout, etc. of the west, was illiterate as far as I know. It is said he finally learned how to write his name, and would make his mark on official papers, and liked being read to.

Carson was an army officer during the US Civil War of 1861-1865, and his lack of literacy was a major problem in his army career. He became the colonel of the First Regiment New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry and fought Rebels and Indians in many battles. He gained the rank of brevet (more or less honorary) brigadier general. But if he had been literate and better able to deal with the vast amounts of paperwork necessary he might have risen higher and maybe become a colonel or something in the regular army after the war.

Being illiterate, Carson had to trust that his subordinates were filling out the forms, reports, etc., etc., etc., properly. For example, if they failed to do the paperwork correctly, Carson could have been charged for many thousands of dollars worth of army supplies and equipment not properly accounted for, lost his ranch, and been forced into bankruptcy.
 
Last edited:
Aug 2014
67
U.S.
#4
Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) the famous mountain man, frontier guide, Indian agent, army scout, etc. of the west, was illiterate as far as I know. It is said he finally learned how to write his name, and would make his mark on official papers, and liked being read to.

Carson was an army officer during the US Civil War of 1861-1865, and his lack of literacy was a major problem in his army career. He became the colonel of the First Regiment New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry and fought Rebels and Indians in many battles. He gained the rank of brevet (more or less honorary) brigadier general. But if he had been literate and better able to deal with the vast amounts of paperwork necessary he might have risen higher and maybe become a colonel or something in the regular army after the war.

Being illiterate, Carson had to trust that his subordinates were filling out the forms, reports, etc., etc., etc., properly. For example, if they failed to do the paperwork correctly, Carson could have been charged for many thousands of dollars worth of army supplies and equipment not properly accounted for, lost his ranch, and been forced into bankruptcy.
I read Carson's autobiography, and was struck by how good the grammar and syntax were. Eventually I figured out that a ghost writer wrote the book based on Carson's oral accounts of his life. In fact I think he actually mentioned in the book itself that he was illiterate.