Sequoyah

     Sequoyah 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.
     
At 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.
     
In spite 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.
     
Sequoyah 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.
     
During 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 faraway relatives.
     
Sharing 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.
     
Sequoyah 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.


Excerpted, with permission, from “Extraordinary American Indians” by Susan Avery and Linda Skinner (Chicago: Children’s Press), 1992, pp. 30-33.

BACK