Sequoyah c. 1770-1843
Sequoyah, a Cherokee also known as George Guess, Guest, or Gist, developed a Cherokee syllabary that brought literacy to his people. Sequoyah’s mother was Cherokee and a member of the Paint clan, one of the seven Cherokee clans; she was descended from Oconostota, an eighteenth-century warrior and ruler. His father’s lineage is uncertain. Some scholars claim he was George Guess, a German trader, or Nathaniel Gist, friend of George Washington. Sequoyah was born near the ancient capital Echota and Fort Loudon (in the vicinity of Tellico Blockhouse in Monroe County, Tennessee) on the Little Tennessee River among the Overhill or Upper Cherokees. In the early 1800s, seeking to avoid attacks from marauding settlers, he migrated with fellow Cherokees to the southernmost edge of the Cherokee Nation and made his home at Willstown, in present-day Dekalb County (Alabama). Though lame, during the War of 1812 he was a horse-mounted combatant serving in the Cherokee regiment under Colonel Gideon Morgan. As part of a campaign directed by General Andrew Jackson, he fought against the Alabama Red Stick Creeks in the Battle of Horseshoe on March 27, 1814.
In his private life Sequoyah sought solitude, partly because of his lameness, but also because he wished to develop his talents as a silversmith engraver. Sequoyah’s involvement with engraving spurred his intense interest in “talking leaves,” the term he used for written material, and in classical and European writing conventions. Though opposed in his efforts by his first wife and neighbors, he began to create his writing method in 1809 and finished his arduous task ten years later, with assistance from his young daughter. He started with a pictograph system and ended up with a system using true phonetic symbols.
Though not an English speaker, Sequoyah recognized the power that written speech, or “talk on paper,” could bring to those who had previously only transmitted ideas orally. In 1821 he introduced his syllabary, representing consonant-vowel combinations, six vowels, and the consonant s. Sequoyah and his young daughter first showed the system to Sequoyah’s cousin, George Lowery. Mike Waters, the brother of Sally Waters, Sequoyah’s second wife, was the first person to learn the syllabary. The initial Sequoyahan composition dealt with the boundary lines between the Cherokee Nation, Georgia, and Tennessee. A short time later Sequoyah brought a suit in Indian Court, held at Chatooga (northeastern Georgia), and presented his case by reading aloud from a document written in his syllabary. The audience was amazed and news of his invention spread quickly. Within months, the Cherokees had attained literacy. This was impressive not only for Sequoyah’s ability to instill Cherokee literacy, but also for the efficiency with which the Cherokees learned the syllabary.
In 1823 Sequoyah left the Cherokee Nation in the Southeast to live with his kinsmen who migrated westward and settled along the Arkansas River, near present day Indian Territory. He continued to teach his syllabary to the western Cherokee. In recognition of his contributions, Sequoyah was invited to Washington, D.C., in 1825 to receive $500 from Congress; once there, he had his portrait painted by the famed Charles Bird King. Sequoyah became an Indian activist. In 1828 he traveled to Washington, D.C., as a delegate representing some eight thousand Cherokees in land negotiations with the U.S. government in the Treaty of 1828. He was successful in adjudicating contested Arkansas lands claimed by the Osages for exchange of lands beyond the Arkansas River (present-day Oklahoma).
That same year the Cherokee National Council at New Echota (Georgia) acquired a printing press and had type cases set in both Sequoyahan and English characters, creating the only bilingual Indian newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. The newspaper, printed partially in the syllabary, contained Cherokee shamans’ sacred formulae used for ceremonial purposes, as well as accounts of the manners and customs of the Cherokee. It also featured news of the day and political announcements about district candidates for National Council seats, and printed the 1827 Cherokee Constitution establishing a republican government. The press brought literacy to the illiterate and turned out more than 225,000 pages before Georgia citizens seized it in 1834 because of the Cherokee Phoenix ’s anti-Indian removal editorials. Because he had already left the Southeast, Sequoyah escaped the bitter factionalism that marked the declining days of the Cherokee Nation (East) after U.S. policymakers forced Cherokees out of their ancestral lands in 1838 in a relocation known as the Trail of Tears.
After Cherokees reunified their nation in Indian Territory, Sequoyah’s syllabary was the nucleus of unification for both traditional and acculturated Cherokees. On December 29, 1843, survivors of the removal and Old Settlers, Cherokees who had moved to Indian Territory before mandatory displacement, bestowed upon their beloved scholar a lifetime annual income of $300, probably the first literary pension in American history. Ever mindful of his fellow Cherokees’ welfare, Sequoyah constantly taught the syllabary, both to Cherokees in Indian Territory and to those living beyond its borders. Sequoyah left the Cherokee capital, Tahlequah (in Oklahoma), with his son Teesy in an oxcart for Mexico, where he hoped to teach the syllabary to Mexican Cherokees. On his way to Mexico, he visited with Texas Cherokees, who were plotting revenge against Texan residents who had killed many of their relatives, and convinced them to join the members of the recently restored Cherokee Nation (Tahlequah). After reaching northern Mexico, Sequoyah became deathly ill; he died in 1843 and was buried in a cave near San Fernando de las Rosas.
Today, Sequoyah’s syllabary is central to the educational programs of both the Cherokee Nation Tahlequah (in Oklahoma) and the Eastern Band of Cherokees (in Cherokee, North Carolina), the latter being remnant Cherokees not included in the compulsory removal of 1838. Cherokee education includes total immersion in the syllabary beginning at a very young age. Literacy in the syllabary is also enhanced by two Cherokee publications, the Cherokee Phoenix (Tahlequah) and the Cherokee One Feather (Cherokee, North Carolina); both papers print in the historical bilingual tradition. Correspondence between East and West Cherokees is greatly facilitated by the syllabary, both because it is so widely studied and because its efficiency permits Cherokees to become proficient writers after a few days’ study. Indeed, Sequoyah’s syllabary has contributed in no small way to the cultural revitalization that reverberates throughout both Cherokee domains.
SEE ALSO Cherokees; Trail of Tears
Bender, Margaret Clelland. 2002. Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah’s Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
Fogelson, Raymond D. 1996. Sequoyah. In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, ed. Frederick E. Hoxie, 580-582. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Kilpatrick, Jack Frederick. 1965. Sequoyah of Earth and Intellect. Austin, TX: Encino Press.
King, Duane H. 1988. Sequoyah or George Guess (Gist). Journal of Cherokee Studies 13: 36-38.
Born: c. 1770
Died: August 1843
Native American scholar and linguist
Sequoyah, Cherokee scholar, is the only known Native American to have created an alphabet for his tribe. This advance helped thousands of Cherokee to become literate (able to read and write).
Sequoyah was born at the Cherokee village of Taskigi in Tennessee. His father probably was Nathaniel Gist, a trader. His mother was part Cherokee and was abandoned by her husband before the birth of Sequoyah. He used his Cherokee name until he approached manhood, when he took the name George Guess (as he understood his father's last name to be).
Sees need for written communication
A hunter and fur trader until a crippling hunting accident, Sequoyah became an excellent silversmith (maker of products containing silver). As an adult, he had contact with white people that made him curious about "talking leaves," as he called books. He believed that if the Cherokees had a system for gathering and passing on written information, it would help them keep their independence from white people. In 1809 he decided to master this secret and to apply it to his own language. After a dozen years of ridicule and insults, he invented a Cherokee alphabet of eighty-five or eighty-six characters that allowed every sound used in Cherokee communication to be written down.
In 1821 Sequoyah demonstrated his invention before the Cherokee council, which approved his work. Within two years, thousands of Cherokee had mastered the set of symbols, an advance that led to the printing of books in the Cherokee language as well as some newspapers printed partly in Cherokee.
Helps spread knowledge
In 1823 Sequoyah went to Arkansas to teach his alphabet to the Cherokee who already had moved westward, and he moved with them to Oklahoma in 1828. He became somewhat active in tribal politics and was a Cherokee representative to Washington, D.C., in 1828. With his alphabet a success, Sequoyah devoted much of his time to studying other tribal languages in a search for common elements. His tribe recognized the importance of his contribution when, in 1841, it voted him an allowance, which became an annuity (annual payment) of three hundred dollars.
Early in 1843 Sequoyah became interested in finding the part of the Cherokee nation that had reportedly moved west of the Mississippi River prior to the American Revolution (1775–83; when the American colonies fought for their independence from British rule). His journey led him westward and southward. He died in August 1843, possibly in the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico.
Sequoyah was honored by the state of Oklahoma, which placed a statue of him in Statuary Hall of the National Capitol. Also, a redwood tree, the Sequoia, was named in his honor, as was the Sequoia National Park.
For More Information
Conley, Robert J. Sequoyah. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Hoig, Stan. Sequoyah: The Cherokee Genius. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1995.
Klausner, Janet. Sequoyah's Gift: A Portrait of the Cherokee Leader. New York: Harper-Collins, 1993.
Shumate, Jane. Sequoyah: Inventor of the Cherokee Alphabet. New York: Chelsea House, 1994.
Sequoyah (ca. 1770-1843), Cherokee scholar, is the only known Native American to have formulated analphabet for his tribe. This advance enabled thousands of Cherokee to become literate.
Sequoyah was born at the Cherokee village of Taskigi in Tennessee. His father probably was Nathaniel Gist, a trader. His mother was part Cherokee and was abandoned by her husband before the birth of Sequoyah. He used his Cherokee name until he approached manhood, when he assumed the name George Guess (as he understood his father's last name to be).
Crippled for life in a hunting accident, Sequoyah became an excellent silversmith. As an adult, he had contacts with whites which piqued his curiosity about "talking leaves," as he called books. In 1809 he determined to master this secret and to apply it to his own people. After a dozen years of ridicule and insults, he invented a Cherokee alphabet of 85 or 86 characters that allowed every sound in Cherokee to be written.
In 1821 Sequoyah demonstrated his invention before the Cherokee council, which approved his work. Within 2 years thousands of Cherokee had mastered the syllabary, an advance which stimulated the printing of books in the Cherokee language as well as some newspapers printed partly in Cherokee.
In 1823 Sequoyah went to Arkansas to teach his syllabary to the Cherokee who already had migrated westward, and he moved with them to Oklahoma in 1828. He became somewhat active in tribal politics and was a Cherokee delegate to Washington, D.C., in 1828. With his syllabary a success, Sequoyah devoted much of his time to studying other tribal languages in a search for common elements. His tribe recognized the importance of his contribution when, in 1841, it voted him an allowance, which became an annuity of $300.
Early in 1843 Sequoyah became interested in a tribal tradition that said that part of the Cherokee nation had migrated west of the Mississippi River prior to the American Revolution. He set out to find this group, a trek that led him westward and southward, and he died in August 1843, possibly in the state of Tamaulipas in Mexico.
Sequoyah is commemorated by the state of Oklahoma, which placed a statue of him in the nation's capital. Also, a redwood tree, the Sequoia, was named in his honor, as was the Sequoia National Park.
The standard biography of this great Native American is Grant Foreman, Sequoyah (1938). Brief but useful is Kate Dickinson Sweetser, Book of Indian Braves (1913). Grace S. Woodward, The Cherokees (1963), assesses the impact of Sequoyah's syllabary. □