was born some time around 1770 in the mountains of eastern Tennessee.
His mother, a Cherokee woman by the name of Wur-teh, raised him
in traditional Cherokee ways. His father was possibly Nathaniel
Gist, a trader and soldier, but Sequoyah never knew him. Wur-teh
managed to make a meager living for herself and her son by raising
horses and dairy cattle on a few acres of land. Sequoyah never went
to school and seems to have been a dreamy, solitary child with little
interest in the usual competitive sports and games of Cherokee boys.
Rather, his interest was in building things with his hands. When
he was old enough, he helped with the farm work and began to hunt
and trap to add to the family income.
some point in his youth — perhaps in a hunting accident — he injured
his leg and was left crippled. He turned to a craft that fascinated
him: working with silver. The Cherokee traditionally wore bracelets,
buttons, buckles and other such ornaments of silver, and Sequoyah
began to fashion these items. He was very patient and attentive
to detail, and he became a superb silversmith.
of his lameness, Sequoyah served as a soldier in the U.S. Army in
the Creek War of 1813–1814. For several years before then, he had
been intrigued by the mysterious symbols that white people made
on pieces of paper, which conveyed messages. During his time as
a soldier, he became convinced that having a written language would
open up many possibilities for Indians and provide them with opportunities.
So he devoted himself to the task of inventing a practical, usable
system for writing the Cherokee language.
first tried to design a symbol to represent each word in the Cherokee
language. Before long he realized that this system wouldn’t work,
because he would need thousands of symbols. Then he tried to make
a symbol for each different syllable sound he could hear in the
language. That approach was more promising, because there were far
fewer different syllables to figure out. After years of studying
his language, Sequoyah identified 86 separate sounds. He created
a symbol, or character, to represent each sound he identified. Some
of these characters were copied from English, Greek or Hebrew letters
he saw in books; others he made up. Now Sequoyah had a syllabary
— a set of written symbols, or characters, in which each character
represents the sound of a single syllable found in the language.
the years when Sequoyah was working on his syllabary, many people
who observed his avid interest in drawing odd-shaped symbols thought
it was foolish. Worse yet, they thought he might be working black
magic. He was shunned by friends and family alike during this difficult
time. But he quickly won approval when in 1821 he demonstrated to
Cherokee leaders that, using his method, even his young daughter
could write and read their language. Sequoyah’s system was easy
to learn, and within a short time Cherokees everywhere were using
it. Parts of the Bible were soon available in the new syllabary;
a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, was published in it; a
tribal constitution was written down; letters were exchanged with
ideas and greetings across long distances was especially important
to the Cherokee, because part of the tribe had been moved west to
Arkansas. Sequoyah, too, moved to Arkansas, and later to Oklahoma
to help spread the use of his writing system as a means of unifying
and strengthening his people. His contributions made him a respected
and important person among the Cherokee.
is thought to have died in the summer of 1843, but his genius with
language and years of careful labor on a syllabary produced a great
and enduring gift to the Cherokee nation — written communication.
Of the many tributes to him, the most fitting may be that the greatest
tree that grows in America, the California giant redwood, known
as the sequoia, was named in his honor.
with permission, from “Extraordinary American Indians” by Susan Avery
and Linda Skinner (Chicago: Children’s Press), 1992, pp. 30-33.