Cherokee Baskets

History of Sequoyah, and the Sequoyan Syllabary for the Cherokee Language

"Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." -Sam Houston

Family tradition tells us that Sequoyah (S-si-qua-ya) was born west of Chillhowee Mountain, which is approximately one and a half miles east of Tasgigi, Monroe County, Tennessee. This location is only about 8 miles from Echota, the capital of the old Cherokee Nation. As far as his birth year, the best estimation is from 1760 to 1765. Sequoyah stated that when an Iroquoian Peace Delegation visited at New Echota in 1770, he was living with his mother as a small boy and remembered the events. While in Washington in 1828, he told Samuel Knapp he was about 65.

Although each signature of Sequoyah, which has been located, is in the Cherokee syllabary, which he invented, as S-si-qua-ya, an annotation on the Treaty of 1828 states his English name was George Guess.

As the traditional Cherokee society is matrilineal, and one’s clan is obtained through the mother, this information is of most relevance when researching the man’s history and background. Her name was Wu-te-he, and she belonged to the Red Paint Clan. She had two brothers, Tahlonteeska and Tahnoyanteehee. The only certain information regarding his father is a statement made during Sequoyah’s lifetime about his father, which appeared in the Cherokee Phoenix (August 13, 1828). This stated his paternal grandfather was a white man. Sequoyah’s father was half Cherokee and his mother a full blood. His father’s name has been identified as either George Gist, a German peddler, or Nathaniel Gist, a friend of George Washington’s and ancestor of the Blair family of Washington, D.C.

Sequoyah also had at least two brothers; one was named Tobacco Will who was a blacksmith in Arkansas and also a signer of the Cherokee Constitution. The Old Settler Chief, Dutch (U-ge-we-le-dv), was another brother.

While many historians have mentioned Sequoyah’s lameness, much speculation has been made regarding the origin of his condition. The Cherokee Advocate (June 26, 1845), gives the following information, "He was the victim of hydro arthritic trouble of the knee joint, commonly called ‘white swelling,’ and this affliction caused a lameness that characterized him during life." Because of this physical limitation, he worked for many years as a trader. His mother was of the same industry, and after her death in 1800, he carried on her business. He also later became a silversmith as well as a blacksmith. Making his own tools, such as hammers and drills, he also constructed his own bellows and forge.

In approximately 1809, Sequoyah gathered with some friends in his shop, and the conversation led to a discussion regarding the non-Indian’s method of communicating through writing. Many thought that it was some sort of witchcraft, but Sequoyah seemed to understand that the writing stood for words. He pondered devising a way for the Cherokee to be able to do the same thing, although many of those around him were skeptical.

His plans were interrupted by the War of 1812. He volunteered at Turkeytown on October 7, 1813, and a month later was involved in the battle of Tallaschatche. His total length of service was three months, but three weeks after the term ended, he reenlisted. On March 27, 1814, he fought in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Just 15 days later, he was discharged and was paid $66.80 for 147 days of service.

In 1815, Sequoyah was married to Sally Waters of the Bird Clan. Her parents were Robert and Lydia Otterlifter and her brother was Michael Waters, whose family later settled near the Sallisaw area. After his marriage, he continued to study the idea of a way to write the Cherokee language. The first attempts were to make a symbol for each word in the language, but very quickly the number of symbols was becoming astronomical. This caused him to become more selective in the form of writing the language, and he began listening more intently to the individual sounds that made up the words. After a long study, he realized that there were 85 individual syllables, which were used to make up the many words of the Cherokee language. He was then able to limit the symbols to a much smaller number than he originally developed and they could be used in combinations to form any word. His first student was his brother-in-law, Michael Waters, and the first to read and write with the invention was his daughter, A-Yo-Ka.

Although the system was foolproof and easy to learn, Sequoyah and A-Yo-Ka were charged with witchcraft, and were brought before George Lowery, their town chief, for trial. Due to a Cherokee law enacted in 1811, it was mandated to have a civil trial before an execution was allowed to take place. Lowery brought in a group of warriors to judge what was termed a ‘sorcery trial.’ For evidence of the literacy claims, the warriors separated Sequoyah and his daughter to have them send messages between each other until they were finally convinced that the symbols on paper really represented talking. At the end of the trial, the warriors asked Sequoyah to teach them. Within a week, all were able to read and write their own language. The warriors are known historically as a fierce war group of Cherokees, but with their protection, literacy spread throughout the Cherokee Nation. Within a very few months, a large part of the Nation had achieved literacy. This gift benefited not only the teachers and missionaries, but helped preserve history, culture and spiritual practices.

Dr. Samuel Worcester urged that type and a press be furnished to his mission so that scriptures could be translated into the native language, and the press evolved into a business which produced a newspaper, hymn books, hand bills and most other printing needs. The type, which was cast by Baker and Greene of Boston, was not identical to the designs Sequoyah originally developed, but were modified. Michael Waters had stated that "Sequoyah was studying for characters to make use of in printing and that he copied some of the letters from the Waters family Bible and said these would do for print and the old ones for writing."

The completion of the syllabary was accomplished after his arrival in present-day Polk County, Arkansas. He returned east in 1821 to present it to the tribe, and then returned to Indian Territory in 1822, where he first taught the written language in the west.

In 1824, the General Council of the Cherokee Nation voted to give Sequoyah a large silver medal as an honor for his creation of the syllabary. Because he did not return east for many years, Chief Path Killer and John Ross had it sent to him.

In January 1828, Sequoyah traveled with a group of "Old Settler" Arkansas Cherokees to Washington, D.C. to sign a treaty. Article Five was for the benefit of Sequoyah, "It is further agreed that the United States will pay five hundred dollars for the use of George Guess, a Cherokee, for the great benefit he has conferred upon the Cherokee people in the beneficial results they are now experiencing from the use of the alphabet discovered by him, to whom also in consideration of his relinquishing a valuable saline, the privilege is hereby given to locate and occupy another saline on Lee’s Creek." Lee’s Creek is located in present-day Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. Sequoyah received only $300 of this money.

In 1829, Sequoyah and 2500 other Cherokees were moved to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma by the United States government. The land was exchanged for the land they had been occupying in what was later to become Arkansas. The Osage Nation, however, occupied the land. Sequoyah settled near present-day Sallisaw, Oklahoma, where he built a log cabin, which is still standing and open to the public.

The Cherokee Advocate, June 26, 1845, gives a report of Sequoyah’s last travels as given by a Cherokee called "The Worm" who had traveled with him. In the spring of 1842, Sequoyah, his son Teesey, The Worm, and six others left Park Hill. They crossed the Arkansas River near Fort Gibson, passed the present town of Holdenville, then Edwards Settlement, and then traveled down the road laid out by Lt. Levensworth. Fifteen days further into their journey, they crossed the Red River near the present town of Sherman, Texas. For approximately 35 days, they traveled among the Wichita villages along the Red River. During this time, Sequoyah became very ill from a lack of food. After purchasing 3 bushels of corn from the Wichitas, his health improved. At that time, all of the party except The Worm and Teesey returned to the Cherokee Nation. The three continued on south to about 80 miles north of San Antonio, Texas, where all their horses were stolen. Instead of attempting to recover them, Sequoyah sent The Worm and Teesey on to San Antonio to see if they could obtain more horses as well as supplies. When they arrived, they were questioned and finally given supplies. However, no horses were to be spared, as they were in use by the U.S. Army. The Worm and Teesey returned to Sequoyah, and he told them he wished to stay where he was while they went on to find Mexican settlements to try and obtain horses. They found a cave where he could have shelter, gathering honey and venison to nourish him while they were on their journey. Their journey south took then nineteen days, at which time they came to a large river. They started working on a raft in order to cross it, and a Mexican on the other side called to them that there was a ferry further downstream. When they arrived at the ferry, The Worm and Teesey were taken to a town six miles away where they were presented to the head man. The next morning, "an officer came and requested us to walk about the town with him, we complied and followed him about for some time. . . . It being after the hour of 12 o’clock, there was but little business doing so nearly all the shops were closed. While yet rambling about the place, a soldier came to request us to go back to our lodgings, upon reaching which we found the soldiers on parade, ready to march off a short distance. By invitation, we joined them and kept along with them until we came to a kind of public square, where there were a number of large kettles containing soup, beef and bread. . . . From these large pots the waiters served the officers, ourselves, and the soldiers in order by taking up pieces of meat with a fork and giving it to us in our hands. What was given me I ate through politeness, but with some difficulty, so highly seasoned was it with pepper, some of which I was so unfortunate as to get in my eyes."

". . . After the second morning, we left and went to a town called San Cranto, about thirty miles away, where we spent the night. Our luck was good and we found a Cherokee, whose name was Standing Rock. He answered many of our questions. We were then assured it would give the Cherokees in Mexico great pleasure to see Sequoyah." Standing Rock then went with Teesey and The Worm to "the Cherokee village, situated within a large prairie, in a grove of timber, held a mile wide, and some three miles long and watered by means of a ditch, from a large spring some two miles distant" which was about 10 miles from San Cranto. Although the Cherokees were glad to see them, they were not able to provide any horses, as all of theirs had perished after their arrival in Mexico.

The party then returned to San Cranto where they were able to borrow a horse from the Mexican Army, and was supplied with bread, meat, salt, sugar and coffee for their trip. There were nine in the party. After seventeen days, they reached the Mauluke River and noticed the tracks of a man after they crossed it. They recognized the characteristic tracks of Sequoyah because of his limp. They traveled on to the cave and confirmed that he was not there; he had left a not bound to a tree which said that the water had rose within the cave and had washed away his supplies. He had decided to come on the way and to set fire to the grass as a trail so they could find him. They followed his trail and tracks and found evidence that he acquired a horse and food. The next day, they found his camp because they happened to hear the neighing of a horse. There they found him sitting by a fire. He had suffered greatly. He told them that some Delawares had given the horse and fresh supplies to him.

They stayed for five days, long enough to gain a good supply of meat. They all then continued on their journey and reached the river near the Mexican village. Sequoyah stayed in the village while The Worm went to recover the stolen horses. After some time, a party of Caddos returned from Mexico reported that Sequoyah had died.

"His death was sudden, having been long confined to the house, he requested one day some food, and while it was preparing, breathed his last."

Sequoyah’s death was not reported in the Cherokee Nation for almost two years, when some Cherokees returned from Mexico and gave the following statement to Cherokee agent Pierce M. Butler, "Warrens trading house, Red River, April 21, 1845. . . . We the undersigned Cherokees direct from the Spanish dominions, do hereby certify that George Guess, of the Cherokee Nation, Arkansas, departed this life in the town of San Fernando in the month of August 1843. Given under our hands, day and date above, written Standing Rock, by mark, Standing Bowles, by mark, Watch Justice, by mark, witness Daniel C. Watson and Jesse Chilsom."

Another report to agent P.M. Butler, Ou-No-Leh stated that he had met with Teesey, The Worm, Gah-Ne-Nes-Kee, the Standing Man and the Standing Rock.

"The Standing Rock. . . attended Sequoyah during his last sickness and also witnessed his death and burial." The statement was dated May 15, 1845, Bayou District.

Between the years of 1809 and 1821, he accomplished a feat, which no other person in history has done single-handedly. Through the development of the Cherokee Syllabary, he brought our people literacy and the gift of communicating through long distances and the ages. This one person brought to his people this great gift without hired educators, no books and no cost.

Sequoyah - according to an acquaintance CHEROKEE PHOENIX Wednesday August 13, 1828 Volume 1 No. 24 Page 2 Col. 1a-2a


Mr. Editor- The following statement respecting the invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, may not be altogether uninteresting to some of your readers. I have it from a particular friend of Mr. Guess, who lived near him at the time he made his invention.

Mr. Guess is in appearance and habits, a full Cherokee, though his grandfather on his father's side was a white man. He has no knowledge of any language but the Cherokee, consequently, in his invention of the alphabet, he had to depend entirely on his own native resources. He was led to think on the subject of writing the Cherokee language by a conversation which took place one evening at Sauta. Some young men were making remarks on the superior talents of the white people., One said, that white men could put a talk on paper, and send it to any distance, and it would be understood by those who received it. They all agreed, that this was very strange, and they could not see how it could b e done. Mr. Guess, after silently listening to their conversation for a while, raised himself, and putting on an air of importance, said, "you are all fools; why the thing is very easy; I can do it myself:" and, picking up a flat stone, he commenced scratching on it with a pin; and after a few minutes read to them a sentence, which he had written by making a mark for each word. This produced a laugh and the conversation on that subject ended. But the inventive powers of Guess's mind were now roused to action; and nothing short of being able to write the Cherokee language, would satisfy him- He went home, purchased materials, and sat down to paint the Cherokee language on paper. He at first thought of no way, but to make a character for each word. He pursued this plan for about a year; in which time he had made several thousand characters. He was then convinced that the object was not attainable in that way: but he was not discouraged. He firmly believed, that there was some way in which the Cherokee language would be expressed on paper, as well as the English: and, after trying several other methods, he at length conceived the idea of dividing the words into parts. He had not proceeded far on this plan, before he found, to his great satisfaction, that the same characters would apply, in different words, and the number of characters would be comparatively few. After putting down, and learning all the syllables that he could think of, he would listen to speeches, and whenever a word occurred which had a part, or syllable, in it, which he had not before thought of, he would bear it on his mind, until he had made a character for it. In this way he soon discovered all the syllables in the language. In forming his characters, he made some use of the English letters, as he found them in a spelling book, which he had in his possession. After commencing upon the last mentioned plan, I believe he completed his system in about a month.

During the time he was occupied in inventing the alphabet, he was strenuously opposed by all his friends and neighbours (sic). He was frequently told that he was throwing away his time and labour (sic), and that none but a delirious person, or an idiot, would do as he did. But this did not discourage him. He would listen to the expostulations of his friends, and then deliberately light his pipe, pull his spectacles over his eyes, and sit down to his work, without attempting to vindicate his conduct. After completing his system, he found much difficulty in persuading the people to learn it.- Nor could he succeed, until he went to the Arkansas and taught a few persons there, one of whom wrote a letter to some of his friends in the Nation, and sent it by Mr. Guess, who read it to the people. This letter excited much curiosity. Here was a talk in the Cherokee language, which had come all the way from the Arkansas sealed up in paper, and yet it was very plain. This convinced many that Mr. Guess' mode of writing would be of some use. Several persons immediately determined to try to learn. They succeeded in a few days, and from this it quickly spread all over the nation, and the Cherokees ( who as a people had always been illiterate,) were in the course of a few months, without school, or expense of time, or money, able to read and write in their own language.

This astonishing discovery certainly entitles Mr. Guess to the warmest gratitude of his country; and, should the Cherokee language continue to be spoken, his fame will be handed down to the latest posterity.-
G. C.

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