Sequoyah was born sometime between 1760 and 1776 in Overhills
country near the Cherokee village of Tushkeegee on the Tennessee
River near old Fort Loudoun in Tennessee. His mother, Wu-teh, was
a member of the Paint Clan and his father, Nathanial Gist (Guess or
Guest) was an English fur trader. Sequoyah was raised in the old
ways of the Cherokee and became a trapper and fur trader.
He was given the name George Gist by his father. As a result of an
early hunting accident, he was given the name Sequoyah which
means "pig's foot" in Cherokee. After being permanently crippled,
he developed a talent for craftsmanship, making silver ornaments
and blacksmithing. His handicap became the source of both ridicule
and a blessing in his life.
Sequoyah married a Cherokee woman and had a family. He and his
family moved to Cherokee County, Georgia. Later, he and other
Cherokees enlisted to fight on the side of the United States for
General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 against the British and
Sequoyah never learned to read or write English, but while in
Georgia he became captivated by whiteman's ability to communicate
by making marks on paper and reading from "talking leaves." He
began work on developing a Cherokee writing system in 1809.
During the war, he became convinced he was on the right path.
Unlike white soldiers, he did not write letters home and could not
read military orders.
After the war Sequoyah began in earnest to create symbols that
would make words. He and his daughter, Ayoka, played games using
the symbols. He became obsessed with developing a new Cherokee
alphabet writing system because he knew it would help his people.
Sequoyah became a recluse in his obsession to perfect the writing
system. He endured constant ridicule by friends and even family
members, who said he was insane or practicing witchcraft.
Sequoyah moved west to Arkansas and continued his work. Finally,
after twelve years of labor, ridicule and abuse he finally reduced the
complex language into 86 symbols, each representing a unique
sound of Cherokee speech. In 1821, after a demonstration of the
system to amazed tribal elders, the Cherokee Nation adopted his
alphabet, now called a 'syllabary'. Thousands of Cherokees learned
to read and write within a few years.
In 1824 the Cherokee National Council at New Echota, Georgia,
honored him with a silver medal, which he proudly wore for the rest
of his life, and later with an annuity of $300, which his widow
continued to receive after his death.
By 1825, the Bible and numerous religious hymns and pamphlets,
educational materials and legal documents and books of every
description were translated into the Cherokee language.
In 1827, the Cherokee National Council appropriated funds to print
the first Indian newspaper published in the United States.
"...Early the following year, the hand press and syllabary characters in
type were shipped by water from Boston and transported overland
the last two hundred miles by wagon to the capital of the Cherokee
Nation, New Echota. The inaugural issue of the newspaper, "Tsa la gi
Tsu lehisanunhi" or "Cherokee Phoenix", printed in parallel columns
in Cherokee and English appeared on February 21, 1828." From
"Mankiller" by Wilma Mankiller and Michael Wallis, © St. Martin's
Press, 1993 pg 81-83
In 1828, Sequoyah moved with the Western Cherokee to Indian
Territory (Oklahoma). He was active in tribal politics and served as
an envoy to Washington D.C. to assist displaced Eastern Cherokees.
He continued to serve Cherokee people as a statesman and diplomat
until his death. In his 80's and after many years of national
recognition, Sequoyah fell ill and died in 1843 while searching for a
band of Cherokees who, by tradition, had moved into Mexico before
the revolution. The location of his grave is unknown.
Inventor of the Cherokee Syllabary
This is a story about a poor, crippled,
uneducated and ridiculed half-breed Indian
who triumphed over insurmountable odds to
bring a gift to his people that was so great
that it is unrivaled in all human history.
His memory is honored in the names of two species of giant
redwood trees and Sequoia National Park in California named after
Indian people were freed from the bonds of illiteracy by a poor,
crippled, uneducated and ridiculed half-breed. His single-handed
achievement marks the only known instance of an individual
creating a totally new system of writing. Today, his legacy lives on
in the hearts and minds of his beloved Cherokee people.
The Cherokee speak an Iroquoian language which is polysynthetic,
and is written in a syllabary invented by Sequoyah. It is now believed
that a more ancient syllabary that predated Sequoyah and may have
inspired his great work for the Cherokee people was handed down
through the Ani Kutani, an ancient priesthood of the Cherokee
For years, many people wrote transliterated Cherokee on the
Internet or used poorly intercompatible fonts to type out the
syllabary. However, since the fairly recent addition of the Cherokee
syllables to Unicode, the Cherokee language is experiencing a
renaissance in its use on the Internet. As of June 2006, however, the
Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma still officially uses a non-unicode font
for online documents, including online editions of the Cherokee
|In order to create these symbols you must first download
the Cherokee Font