Gaston: Sequoyah's alphabet enriched Cherokees

Gaston: Sequoyah's alphabet enriched Cherokees

October 14th, 2018 by Kay Baker Gaston in Opinion Columns
A portrait of Sequoyah, the Cherokee man born in 1776 who invented the Cherokee Syllabary and a written language. (Staff photo by Ben Benton)

A portrait of Sequoyah, the Cherokee man born...

Photo by Ben Benton /Times Free Press.

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.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

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 chattahistoricalassoc.org.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com