edited by John Garraty,
copyright 1999
by the American Council of Learned Societies.
Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

Photo courtesy of Ocmulgee National Monument, National Park Service
Photo courtesy of Ocmulgee National Monument, National Park Service

Sequoyah (1770?- Aug. 1843?), inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, was born in the Cherokee town of Tuskegee in present-day eastern Tennessee, of uncertain parentage. He married Sally (maiden name unknown) in 1815, and they had four children. According to Emmet Starr's History of the Cherokee Indians (1921), Sequoyah also married U-ti-yu at an unknown date; they had three children. Sometimes referred to as George Guess, or Gist, he was a silversmith by trade, but he had been a warrior. During the Creek War (1813-1814), he enlisted in Colonel Gideon Morgan's Cherokee regiment and served three months.

Accounts of the inspiration for committing Cherokee to writing vary, but Sequoyah revealed to Samuel Lorenzo Knapp in 1827 that his interest stemmed from the capture of a soldier in a late-eighteenth-century campaign. His war party discovered a letter in the soldier's possession, and the warriors debated "whether this mysterious power of the talking leaf was the gift of the Great Spirit to the white man, or the discovery of the white man himself." According to Knapp's account of the conversation, published in his Lectures on American Literature (1827), "Most of his companions were of the former opinion, while [he] as strenuously maintained the latter." He then decided to develop a system for writing the Cherokee language. After many years of work, Sequoyah finally created a symbol for each syllable, and in 1821 he unveiled a syllabary of eighty-six characters (later reduced to eighty-five), which reportedly could be mastered by a Cherokee speaker in several days.

At the time Sequoyah introduced his syllabary, he was living in Arkansas rather than in his native Southeast. Cherokees had acquired land in Arkansas in the early nineteenth century, and following land cessions in 1808-1810 and 1817-1819, several thousand Cherokees had moved west. A signatory to an unpopular land cession in 1816, Sequoyah had moved west in 1818. He returned east, however, soon after his invention and introduced his syllabary to Cherokees still living there. The Sequoyah syllabary became an immediate success, particularly among Cherokees who had no knowledge of English and little exposure to Anglo-American "civilization." The highly acculturated leaders of the Cherokee nation, the political entity in the Southeast of which three-fourths of the Cherokees were citizens, seem to have known little about the grassroots movement toward literacy. As Cherokee Elias Boudinot recalled in an article in American Annals of Education (1 Apr. 1832), by the time they learned of the invention, "the Cherokees had actually become a reading people." By 1835 approximately half of the households in the Cherokee nation had members literate in Cherokee.

Rejecting a rival system for writing Cherokee developed by a white philologist, John Pickering, the Cherokee nation embraced the Sequoyah syllabary and incorporated it into the Cherokee renascence of the 1820s. In 1824 the national council voted to honor Sequoyah with a silver medal. The nation also decided to purchase a printing press and types in Latin letters and the Sequoyah syllabary, and in 1828 the Cherokee Phoenix, a weekly bilingual newspaper with a circulation of about 200 copies, began publication. Missionaries and Christian Cherokees began to translate hymns and the New Testament into Cherokee. In the West, the Arkansas Cherokee signed a treaty in 1828 that provided for their removal to what is today northeastern Oklahoma. The treaty promised Sequoyah $500 as a reward for his achievement and the western Cherokees $1,000 for a press. The federal government fulfilled neither promise to the western Cherokees, and soon it even cut short the Cherokee renascence in the Southeast.

At the insistence of southern states, particularly Georgia, the United States began to pressure the Cherokee nation to move west. Ultimately, an unauthorized minority of Cherokees agreed to a removal treaty, which the U.S. Senate ratified in 1836. By 1839 the dispossessed Cherokees from the East had arrived west of the Mississippi, where they outnumbered their well-established kinsmen, who included Sequoyah. A struggle for power that verged on civil war erupted. Sequoyah broke with his fellow western Cherokees (or "Old Settlers"), who wanted to impose their government on the far more numerous newcomers, and appealed to the Cherokees for a new government that encompassed all. In a letter reprinted in Grant Foreman's Sequoyah, he encouraged the Cherokees to "talk matters over like friends and brothers." His influence helped make possible a compromise that most Cherokees accepted.

In his new role as national conciliator, Sequoyah decided in 1842 to find a group of Cherokees who, according to unsubstantiated reports, were living in Mexico. He died without having located any Cherokee expatriates. The exact place of his death is unknown.

Sequoyah's syllabary remains a source of pride for Cherokees and a medium of cultural preservation. Albert L. Wahrhaftig's survey of four Oklahoma Cherokee communities in 1964-1965 revealed that 36 to 65 percent of adults were literate in Cherokee. Some Cherokees used the syllabary for personal correspondence and gained information through publications in the syllabary, but writing proved most useful in a religious context. While the desire to read the Bible in their own language inspired many Cherokees to learn the Sequoyah syllabary, a writing system also enabled Cherokee medicine men to record their formulas and preserve an ancient religious tradition. These medicine men probably employed writing in such a sacred task because they perceived Sequoyah's accomplishment as mystical rather than mechanical. Whatever the reason, this particular use of the syllabary as well as its continuing viability elevates Sequoyah's invention above mere antiquarian interest to major historical significance.

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Last edited 1/6/2017 11:02:23 PM

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"Sequoyah, although lacking a formal education, endowed his nation, the Cherokees, with an eighty-six-character alphabet that allowed an entire people to become literate and record their history and culture in a way more lasting than the oral tradition. The only individual, working alone, ever to invent and perfect an entire syllabary, one successfully adopted by a whole society. Sequoyah is so invisible today few people know that the largest tree in North America bears his name (in various spelling)."