Gaston: Sequoyah's alphabet enriched Cherokees

A portrait of Sequoyah, the Cherokee man born in 1776 who invented the Cherokee Syllabary and a written language. (Staff photo by Ben Benton)

Sequoyah, whose name in English was George Guess or Gist, was born about 1763 near present day Vonore in Monroe County, Tennessee. He was raised by his mother, Wu-te-he, a full-blooded Cherokee. His father, thought to be Nathaniel Gist, was half-Cherokee and a friend of George Washington. Affected by lameness, Sequoyah was a trader like his mother and carried on her business after she died in 1800. He also became a silversmith and a blacksmith who made his own tools, bellows and forge.

About 1809 Sequoyah began discussing with friends in his shop how the whites communicated through writing. Some thought it was witchcraft, but Sequoyah understood that the writing stood for words. He began thinking about a way for Cherokees to do the same thing.

During the War of 1812 Sequoyah volunteered to serve in a Cherokee regiment. He fought in the Alabama battles of Tallushatchee in November of 1813 and Horseshoe Bend on March 27, 1814. The next year he married Sally Waters of the Bird Clan.

He continued to study the idea of finding a way to write the Cherokee language. Listening carefully to the sounds that made up the words, he identified 86 individual syllables. He devised symbols for each syllable that could be used in combinations to form any word. His brother-in-law, Michael Waters, was his first student and his daughter, A-Yo-Ka, was the first to read and write with his invention, which spread quickly among the Cherokees.

In February of 1818 Sequoyah joined Chief John Jolly's contingent of 331 Cherokees immigrating to present-day Pope County, Arkansas. In 1821 he returned to the Cherokee Nation bringing written messages from the western band in his unique way of writing. He taught them to read these messages, which stimulated their interest in and appreciation of his work. By 1825 David Brown, a Cherokee preacher, had completed a translation of the New Testament into the Cherokee language, and they were asking for their own printing press.

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In January of 1827 the components for a Cherokee printing press reached New Echota, the capitol of the Nation in Georgia, and in February the first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix appeared, part in English and part in the letters invented by Sequoyah.

In December 1827 Sequoyah was named to go to Washington in a delegation that stayed at Williamson's Hotel. The principal result of their visit was the execution of a new treaty in May 1828, by which the Cherokees agreed to exchange their lands in Arkansas for an extensive tract in what is now Oklahoma that became the permanent home of their tribe. It was known as "Indian Territory" until it was eventually combined with Oklahoma Territory to become the state of Oklahoma in 1907.

In Washington, Sequoyah attracted a good deal of attention when the first issue of the Cherokee Phoenix appeared. Charles Bird King, the artist celebrated for his Indian paintings, asked Sequoyah to sit for his portrait. The essayist Samuel Lorenzo Knapp interviewed Sequoyah with the help of Cherokee translators. Sequoyah's great aim was to bring to his people the gift of written communication, Knapp wrote. He praised Sequoyah's accomplishment as one "beyond that of any other man living, or perhaps, any other who existed in a rude state of nature." Another admirer described it as "a phenomenon unexampled in modern times."

In 1829 Sequoyah was one of 2,500 Cherokees who removed from Arkansas to Indian Territory. Sequoyah built his log cabin 12 miles northeast of Sallisaw in present-day Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. He and his family sometimes camped at his salt lick near Lee's Creek to make salt. Sequoyah taught his method of reading and writing to all who stopped by. He enjoyed visiting Dwight Mission to pick up the latest issue of the Cherokee Phoenix bringing news from Georgia.

On Jan. 12, 1832 Chief John Ross wrote Sequoyah to tell him that a medal had been struck in his honor that he was sending to Arkansas. Made of silver, it was inscribed on one side "Presented to George Gist by the General Council of the Cherokee Nation, for his ingenuity in The Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, 1825."

Sequoyah, in search of Cherokees who had immigrated to Mexico, died in August 1843 near Zaragoza in Coahuila, Mexico, near the Texas border. The giant sequoias and Mount Sequoyah in the Cherokee National Forest are named after him. His legacy is preserved at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tennessee, and the Sequoyah homestead near Sallisaw, Oklahoma.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit