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Sequoyah, The American Cadmus

Page history last edited by Lydia Baker-Crawley 11 years, 5 months ago

 

 

                

Sequoyah

Biography

Sequoyah was born in the spring of 1778 near what is now Tuskegee, Tennessee, the son of Cherokee mother and an English father.  The spelling of his English name is subject to debate.  Variations run from Gist, Gess, Guess, but the accepted spelling by the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is George Gist.

Sequoyah’s mother raised him alone.  Nathaniel Gist was an English friend to the Cherokees for a long time before marrying the chief’s sister.   Shortly before the birth of their son, Nathaniel left to fight in the war for independence.  He commanded a Pennsylvania regiment for a while, was captured by the British in South Carolina, and after the war settled in Kentucky where he died in 1812.  He probably never knew he had a son.

Sequoyah was lame.  There are conflicting stories as to whether he was born lame or developed his lameness as a result of a hunting accident.   One story says that when he was born, his foot was twisted inward with the heel facing out, another says that he became lame after a hunting accident, and a third blends the two together to say that he was born lame, but later had a hunting accident.  There are several possible meaning to Sequoyah’s name: “Pig-foot”, “Bird” or “Sparrow” or “Sand Hill crane”, a bird that often stands on one leg.

Sequoyah watched as his world was constantly under siege.  At the age of ten, his uncle, Chief Corn Tassel, was invited to a peace meeting to end fighting between the Cherokee and American settlers.  However, the peace talks were a trap.  Corn Tassel and the other Cherokees were barricaded in a house with a man with a battle-axe.  After the massacre, the settlers raided the Cherokee village to burn homes and destroy crops.  It wasn’t until the 1790’s that a formal peace was reached between the peoples.

Sequoyah helped his mother with the farm and made money from silverwork.  He quickly became renowned for his self-taught silver work.  Unfortunately, his success would be short-lived.  He began drinking and did less and less silverwork.  Eventually he alienated his friends and his family.  When he saw how this was disappointing his mother, he sobered and vowed to her, “I have failed you, mother…But I will fail you no more.” (Bailey, pg 28)  He built a blacksmith shop and stayed with his mother until she died.  He then left a few years later for Alabama.

This is a brief video about Sequoyah and his alphabet.

When the Creek war broke out, Sequoyah joined the Army.  Although unable to march, he was good on a horse and was quickly assigned to the cavalry in 1813.   While in the army he watched as the white soldiers read and wrote.  He was fascinated by what the Cherokee termed “talking leaves”.  He realized the power the leaves held and how it disadvantaged his people to have no “talking leaves” of their own and soon became obsessed.

After the war, Sequoyah settled near his childhood home of Tuskegee and married Sallie Waters.  However, his married life is too, of some debate.  There are reports that he may have had 5 wives and 20 children.  But most acknowledge Sally; one son, Tee see; and a daughter, Ahyokah.

At first, Sequoyah’s family helped in his attempts to develop a Cherokee writing system.  But as time dragged on, his wife and daughter became disenchanted and gave up on him.  Only the young Ahyokah stayed on to diligently help her father.  Eventually after finding a spelling book and using a Bible, did language begin to make sense to Sequoyah, but it was after finding a discarded newspaper and realizing that words would be broken down into letters that the final key was turned in Sequoyah’s mind.

Sequoyah had forsaken all for his work.  He alienated all his family but six - year old, Ahyoka, and his community.  Neighbors had begun to whisper that he was mad or a witch.  The ill-will reached a head when all of Sequoyah’s work was burned.  But that too, is debated.  It is unsure whether it was disgruntled neighbors or a frustrated Sally that torched his work shack.  Undaunted, Sequoyah soldiered on and rebuilt his work.

When he reached 86 letters, Sequoyah began to form words.  Soon, he was teaching his system to his young daughter and they were able to leave notes for each other.  That was when Sequoyah began to venture out to his neighbors where he was greeted with, “Get away from us with your sorcery…You are crazy.  We want nothing to do with your devil marks!” (Bailey, pg.49)

It would take several things happening to change the people’s minds.  Sequoyah came up with the idea of visited some old friends.  He tried to tell these distant friends of the alphabet, but like his neighbors, they too, laughed at him.  Sequoyah then went to see the leader of the Arkansas Cherokees to ask for his help in convincing the people.  He wrote down a message from the leader, sealed it, did not open it until he reached the people, and read the message.  This feat began to slowly change the attitude towards the “talking leaves”.  Some Cherokees began to see the value in this new development, others were still not convinced.

Ahyoka was enlisted to help convince the skeptics.  Sequoyah asked his daughter to leave, transcribed what he was told by a group of skeptics.  When Ahyoka returned, he passed her the notes without a word exchanged and left the room.  Ahyoka then opened the notes and read each flawlessly.  This piqued interest further in the “talking leaves”, but the greatest test was yet to come.

Sequoyah convinced the council to send the brightest men to him to learn.  For their final test, Sequoyah split his students into two groups before the council.  He then whispered messages to each so that the other group could not hear.  The groups then exchanged notes and the council watched in amazement as each note was read impeccably.  This singular event erased any lingering doubts that remained.  The council was sold on the new system.  Soon Sequoyah, his daughter, and his students were teaching others.

 

Sequoyah's alphabet

This video is a brief history of Sequoyah and his alphabet.

Awards

In 1824, the Cherokee national council produced a medal in honor of Sequoyah.  It was inscribed, “Presented to George Gist, by the General Council of the Cherokee Nation, for his ingenuity in the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, 1825”  One side was in English, the other in the Cherokee script that he invented.

In England, many literary societies were electing him an honorary member.  His fellow Cherokee began to refer to him as “Chief”, and 43 years later, Sequoia National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains was established by Congress.   In 1851, the Cherokee Nation changed the name of Skin Bayou District, where Sequoyah settled after the forced removal to Oklahoma, to the Sequoyah District.  Once, there was even an attempt to form a separate Cherokee state and it was planned to call it, the State of Sequoyah.

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Death of Sequoyah

Sequoyah watched as his people warred among themselves.  Some disenchanted Cherokees fled to Mexico.  Sequoyah saddened by the splintering of his people left to try to convince the Cherokees in Mexico to return.  It is thought that while in Mexico that Sequoyah fell ill and died.  The exact circumstances and place of his burial is unknown.  Only the year of his death is known, 1842.

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Sequoyah’s Legacy

John Stuart was the white commander of Fort Coffee and one of the few white men to know Sequoyah.  He wrote:

            “…The inventor of the Cherokee alphabet is a man of about sixty years of age.  He is of a middle stature, and of rather a slender form.  His features are remarkably regular, and his face well formed, and rather handsome.  His manner is agreeable, and his deportment gentlemanly.  He possesses a mild disposition, and is patient, but is energetic and extremely persevering and determined in the pursuit or accomplishment of any object on which he may fix his mind.  He is inquisitive, and appears to be exceedingly desirous of acquiring information on all subjects.  His mind seemed to soar high and wide; and if he could have had the advantages of an enlightened education, he would have no doubt have brought himself to rank high among the acknowledged great men of the age in which he lives.” (Bailey, pg. 69)

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Implications For Media Ecology

Sequoyah’s 85 symbols, plus one recurring prefix became not an alphabet so much as a syllabary with its nine modes, 15 tenses, and 3 numbers (singular, dual, and plural).  Sequoyah’s contribution spread through the Cherokee people and revolutionized life for his people.  Missionaries in Chattanooga began to take note of the phenomena of the Cherokee alphabet and the following excerpt was printed in the Missionary Herald, February 1826:

            “A form of alphabetical writing, invented by a Cherokee named George Guess, who does not speak English, and was never taught to read English books, is attracting great notice among people generally the interest in this matter has been increasing for the last 2 years; til, at length, young Cherokees travel a great distance to be instructed…In 3 days they are able to commence letter writing, and return home to their native villages prepared to teach others…Probably at least 20, perhaps 50, times as many would read a book printed with Guyst’s character, as would read one printed with the English alphabet.” (New Echota, pg. 4)

Soon the first Cherokee newspaper was printed in New Echota, Tsalagi-twi-le-hi-sani-hi, the Cherokee Phoenix on February 21, 1828.  The Cherokee Phoenix became the father of the aboriginal newspaper and led the way for the education of the Cherokee by the Cherokee.

The Cherokee alphabet placed the native on equal terms with the white man and forever changed the way in which treaties were executed and negotiated.  Sequoyah’s alphabet is still in use today and there is a growing movement among native peoples to save the language and Cherokee and the Cherokee alphabet are becoming growing courses among native schools and colleges.

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References:

New Echota Birthplace of the American Indian Press, National Parks Service Popular Study Series, History No. 6, United States Department of the Interior, Harold L. Ickles, Secretary, National Parks Service, Newton B. Drury, Director, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1941.

Sequoyah Genius Cherokee Inventor, Tom Bailey, Seacoast Publishing Inc., Birmingham, Alabama, 2007.

SE-QUO-YAH, Geo. E. Foster, Philadelphia Office of the Indian Rights Association, Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation: B.H. Stone.  Milford, N.H.: By the Author.  1885.

                                                                                                        

Code Talkers 

 

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