the biographical sketches
The History of Sequoyah and his Syllabary for the Cherokee Language
"Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people
than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." -Sam Houston
Tradition tells us that Sequoyah or S-si-qua-ya, was born in the west of Chillhowee Mountain, which is approximately one and a half miles east of Tasgigi, Monroe County, Tennessee. This is eight miles from Echota, the capital of the old Cherokee Nation. He was born sometime between 1760 to 1765. Sequoyah said that an Iroquoian peace delegation visited New Echota in 1770, when he was a small boy living with his mother. In Washington in 1828, he told Samuel Knapp that he was 65. His signature is written in the Cherokee syllabary as S-si-qua-ya, but an annotation on the Treaty of 1828, says that his English name was George Guess. Because the traditional Cherokee society is matrilineal, this information is of utmost relevance to the research of his history. His mother was Wutehe and she belonged to the Red Paint Clan. She had two brothers, Tahlonteeska and Tahnoyanteehee. The only information regarding his father is a statement which appeared in the Cherokee Phoenix on August 13, 1828. It said that his paternal grandfather was a white man. His father was half Cherokee and his mother was a full Cherokee. His father was either George Gist, a German peddler, or Nathaniel Gist, a friend of George Washington. Sequoyah also had at least two brothers. One brother was Tobacco Will. He was a blacksmith in Arkansas and also a signatory of the Cherokee Constitution. Chief Dutch or Ugeweledv, was another brother.
Many historians have mentioned that Sequoyah was lame. The Cherokee Advocate on June 26, 1845, says, "He was the victim of hydro-arthritic trouble of the knee." Because of this physical limitation, he worked for many years as a trader. His mother was also a trader and he carried on her business after her death in 1800. He later became a silversmith and a blacksmith. He made his own tools and also constructed his own forge. In 1809, Sequoyah had a discussion with some friends in his shop about the European way of communicating by writing. Many thought that it was witchcraft, but Sequoyah knew that it was not. He thought of inventing an alphabet for the Cherokee. His plans were interrupted by the War of 1812. He volunteered at Turkeytown, on October 7, 1813. A month later he was in the battle of Tallaschatche. He served for three months, and then he re-enlisted. On March 27, 1814, he fought in the battle of Horseshoe Bend. Fifteen days later he was paid $66.80 for 147 days of service.
In 1815, Sequoyah married Sally Waters of the Bird Clan. Her parents were Robert and Lydia Otterlifter, and her brother was Michael Waters. Sequoyah continued to work on his writing system. His first idea was to make a symbol for each word in the language. The number of symbols became too large. Then he focused on the individual sounds that made up the words. He discovered that there were 85 individual syllables in the Cherokee language. These could be used to form any word. His first student was Michael Waters, and the first person to use the syllabary, was his daughter, Ayoka. Although the system was easy to learn, Sequoyah and Ayoka were charged with witchcraft. They were brought to trial. A group of warriors acted as judges. The warriors isolated Sequoyah from his daughter. They had to send messages to each other, until the judges were convinced that the symbols represented words. After the trial, the warriors asked Sequoyah to teach them. After a week, they were able to read and write Cherokee. Within a few months, most of the Cherokee Nation had become literate. This helped to preserve their history, culture, and spiritual practices. The syllabary was completed after Sequoyah arrived in Polk County, Arkansas. He went to the east in 1821, to present it to the tribe. Then he returned to Indian Territory in 1822. In 1824, the Cherokee Nation gave Sequoyah a silver medal.
In January 1828, Sequoyah went with a group of Arkansas Cherokees to sign a treaty in Washington. Article Five of that treaty said, "It is further agreed that America will pay five hundred dollars to George Guess, a Cherokee, for the great benefit he has given to the Cherokee people." Sequoyah received only $300. In 1829 the American government moved Sequoyah and 2500 Cherokees from Arkansas to Oklahoma. The new land was occupied by the Osage Nation. Sequoyah settled near Sallisaw, Oklahoma. He built a house that today is open to the public. The Cherokee Advocate, June 26, 1845, has a story of the last journey of Sequoyah. The story is told by The Worm, a Cherokee who traveled with him. In 1842, Sequoyah, his son Teesey, The Worm, and six other men crossed over the Arkansas River near Fort Gibson. Fifteen days later, they crossed over the Red River near the town of Sherman, Texas. For 35 days they traveled through the Wichita villages along the Red River. Sequoyah became very ill from a lack of food. He purchased three bushels of corn from the Wichita and his health improved. Everyone returned to the Cherokee Nation except Sequoyah, The Worm, and Teesey. These three men continued to travel southwards. Their horses were stolen eighty miles north of San Antonio, Texas. Sequoyah sent The Worm and Teesey to San Antonio to get more horses and food. When they arrived, they obtained food, but there were no horses. The Worm and Teesey returned to Sequoyah. He told them that he wanted to stay, while they went to Mexico to find horses. They found a cave for his shelter. They gave him honey and venison.
The journey to the south took nineteen days. They came to a large river. They started to build a raft and a Mexican told them that there was a ferry downstream. When they reached the ferry, The Worm and Teesey were led to a town that was six miles away. According to The Worm, "An officer asked us to walk with him. We followed him for some time. It was after noon and the shops were closed. A soldier told us to go back to our lodgings. The soldiers were on parade. We walked with them until we came to a public square. There were large kettles of soup, beef, and bread. I ate with difficulty, because the food was highly seasoned with pepper. On the second morning, we left and we went to the town of San Cranto, thirty miles away. We spent the night. We found a Cherokee whose name was Rock. He answered many of our questions. We were told that the Cherokees in Mexico would be happy to see Sequoyah." Rock, Teesey, and The Worm went to the Cherokee village. It was situated in a grove of trees that was a mile wide and three miles long. The village was ten miles from San Cranto. The Cherokees had no horses to give to them. They returned to San Cranto and borrowed a horse from the Mexican Army. They were supplied with bread, meat, salt, sugar, and coffee. After seventeen days they reached the Mauluke River. They crossed over it and found the tracks of Sequoyah. They went to the cave and Sequoyah was not there. They found a message. It said that all of his supplies had been lost in a flood. They followed his tracks and found him on the next day.
They found him sitting by a fire. He had suffered greatly. He told them that some Delawares had given him a horse and fresh supplies. They stayed for five days. Time enough to hunt for a good supply of meat. Then they all went to a Mexican village near the river. Sequoyah stayed in the village and The Worm went to get the stolen horses. A group of Caddos from Mexico reported that Sequoyah had died in the town of San Fernando, in the month of August, 1843. His death was not reported to the Cherokee Nation for two years. Sequoyah gave the Cherokee the ability to read and write. Without the need for teachers, and at no financial cost!
Native Americans did not use written languages before the immigration of Europeans. In 1828, the first native American newspaper was published in Cherokee and in English. It is spoken by 10,000 to 20,000 people in northeastern Oklahoma, and another 1000 people near the Qualla Reservation in North Carolina. Cherokee represents the southern part of the Iroquoian language family. The northern part includes Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, and Seneca Cayuga. The linguistic split occurred about 3000 years ago, when the Cherokee migrated from the Great Lakes, to Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. The Mayans, Aztecs, Delawares, and Chippewas developed hieroglyphic writing systems. Cherokee is the only Native American language with a syllabary. Cherokee has few individual words. There is a precise system for elaborating each basic word. Verbs are short phrases that tell what happened, when it happened, and how it happened. Nouns are descriptive. For example: A horse is "so qui li", or “he carries heavy things”. The language has had two dialects since the Trail of Tears. In 1838 and 1839, most Cherokees were forcibly moved to Oklahoma. A few hid in the hills and caves of North Carolina, and their descendants speak the eastern dialect. Because of a renewed interest in their cultural heritage, more Cherokees are learning their language. In 2000, there were 281,093 Cherokee descendants in America.
Cherokee Nation Cultural Resource Center. All rights reserved. Edited by Michael Hawes