Born to Virginia fur trader Nathanial Gist* and Wu-te-he, the daughter of a Cherokee Chief, the early years of Sequoyah (S si-qua-ya) are blurry, but he would literally leave a large mark on the Cherokee People as the inventor of their written language, the Cherokee syllabary (a.k.a. Cherokee alphabet).
It is thought he was born sometime in the early to mid-1760s, near the old Cherokee capital of Echota in Tuskegee (Tasgigi), now flooded by Tellico Lake. Other sources place his birth around 1776. Later in life, his English name would appear as George Guess (annotation on Treaty of 1828). Because of an affliction in his leg, he was known among the Cherokee as Sequoyah, which translates to “pig’s foot” according to at least one source we found.
Since he suffered physical limitations, Sequoyah worked as a trader and carried on his mothers business in trade after her death in 1800. He would also become a silversmith and blacksmith, creating his own tools.
Sequoyah was exposed to the English concept of writing early in life but never learned the alphabet. Then in 1809, after conversing with friends over the idea at his shop, he began toying with how to translate verbal Cherokee words to a written language.
His project was put on hold with the War of 1812. By October of 1813, Sequoyah had volunteered to help fight the British. He would see action in both the Battle of Tallahatchie in November of 1813 and the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in March of 1814, before being discharged shortly after.
The next year he would marry Sally Waters of the Bird Clan, and continued to work on how to create a written language for his people. He quickly realized that creating a symbol for every word would be almost impossible, so instead, he started paying more attention to the sounds that made up the words.
He discovered there were 85 syllables in the language, which he then created symbols for, to be used in combinations for each word. He would first teach is brother-in-law Michael Waters, before turning to his own daughter, A-Yo-Ka, who became the first to read and write with his invention.
In 1821, using his daughter as an example, he presented his invention to the tribe. They both were promptly charged with witchcraft, but luckily an 1811 Cherokee law provided them a civil trial before execution. The group of warriors brought in to judge the case were given demonstrations of A-Yo-Ka sending written messages to her father, which finally convinced them that the symbols on paper represented their own verbal language. Within a week the warriors were able to read and write, and the new Cherokee syllabary quickly spread.
In 1822 Sequoyah headed to present-day Arkansas to begin teaching the written language. In 1824 the General Council of the Cherokee Nation voted to give him a silver medal in honor of his creation. By 1825 much of the Christian Bible had been translated into Cherokee, and in 1827 it was used to write the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation. In 1828 the first national bi-lingual newspaper, the “Cherokee Phoenix” was published.
Sequoyah would also be awarded $500 by the U.S. Government in a January 1828 treaty, along with land in present-day Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. In 1829, as part of the Indian relocation, he and 2500 Cherokees moved to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in exchange for land they had occupied in what would become Arkansas. He would wind up building a log cabin near what is now Sallisaw, Oklahoma, which remains today as a National Historic Landmark.
Sequoyah would continue his teachings, but perished in August of 1843 near San Fernando, Mexico, while on a trip to villages in Texas. During the trip, his group was robbed of their supplies and horses north of San Antonio. Finding shelter in a cave, his party left him to try to secure replacements. Weeks went by, during which Sequoyah was forced from the cave by flood waters. When he was finally found he had suffered greatly. The party then took him to the Mexican village where he died. The Cherokee Nation wouldn’t be notified of his death for two years.
Sequoyah’s invention would bring literacy to the Cherokee people and ensured the tribes’ history wouldn’t be lost. It continues to be used today. He has been honored with a monument in Georgia, a bronze panel at the Library of Congress, the monument seen here in Cherokee, North Carolina, and a 1980 nineteen cent stamp by the United States Postal Service. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tennessee tells the story of his life.
©Dave Alexander, Legends of America, March 2017.
*Note: It is also argued that his father was George Gist, a German peddler.