Codes — systems of symbols for sending messages — have been around as long as people have been able to communicate by other than word of mouth. Secret codes have frequently been based on established alphabets. However, no one has ever created an entirely new system for reading and writing a language from nothing, until the great Cherokee, Sequoyah. He was the first and only man to do so in world history. Sequoyah was illiterate, but he created a writing system for his people that was so simple and functional that virtually an entire tribe became literate in slightly more than a year.
Thanks to Sequoyah’s gift of literacy, his Tsalagi (Cherokee) people have maintained a strong national identity and are one of the most populous Native American nations today. This great Cherokee gave his people an enduring gift: a writing system, a means of cultural transmission and conservation. Oral laws that preserve traditional beliefs and practices could be converted to written law. He gave his people a way that ensured that the greatness of the Cherokee nation would live forever. His effort clearly contributed to elevating the Cherokees to what whites termed a "civilized" state.
Sequoyah was born in 1776, in the Tsalagi village of Taskigi (Tuskegee) on the Tennessee River in the Smoky Mountains of present-day Loudon County, Tennessee. His mother was called Wurerth (Wureth or Wut-teh); she was the daughter of a Cherokee chief and belonged to the Paint Clan. Sequoyah may have been the son of Nathaniel Gist (sometimes written as Guess), a Virginia fur trader. To most Americans of his time, Sequoyah was known as George Guess or George Gist. To the Cherokee he was known as Sogwali. Missionaries gave him the name, Sequoyah.
Not much is known about Sogwali's youth, except that he was reared in the old tribal customs and traditions of the Tsalagi people. Young Sogwali (Sequoyah) was partially lame — the result of a birth defect or hunting accident; it is not clear which was the case.
After Sequoyah's mother died, he wandered from village to village as a trader for two years. He was introduced to silversmithing, then bought tools for shaping silver. He fled Tennessee as a youth because of white encroachment, initially moving to Georgia, where he acquired skills for working with silver. Sequoyah became very good at the craft. He also was a trader in the Cherokee country of northern Georgia.
Sequoyah had always been awestruck by white people’s ability to communicate with one another by making distinctive marks on paper — what some native people referred to as "talking leaves." Sequoyah understood that much of the power white men wielded at the expense of Native Americans came from their ability to read and write. This stored information far more efficiently than oral tradition and storytelling. In 1809, he began to plan and toy with his code of the Tsalagi language.
Although exposed to the concept of writing early in his life, Sequoyah never learned the English alphabet. Sequoyah believed that writing down the Cherokee language was important because the white men were making treaties on paper that the Indians could not read.
War speeds the process
During the War of 1812, he moved to Willstown in present-day Alabama. He enlisted in the Cherokee Regiment on the side of the United States under General Andrew Jackson, to fight the British troops and the Creek Indians. Despite his physical handicap, he took part as a warrior in the fighting at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which effectively ended the war against the Creek Redsticks.
During that military service, Sequoyah became more than ever convinced of the necessity of literacy for his people, and that the Tsalagi needed writing. Unlike the white soldiers, Tsalagi warriors were not able to write letters home, read military orders (orders had to be committed to memory), or record events as they occurred. Sequoyah began to concentrate more and more on his talking leaves.
Sequoyah finally settled down in the village of Coosa, Alabama. He married a Cherokee woman, started a family, and worked as a blacksmith and silversmith.
He began in earnest to create a code and writing system for the Cherokee people. He first conceived of a pictographic language, but quickly realized that such a system would require an insurmountable number of symbols.
Even as Sequoyah toiled, those who did not approve of his work, or appreciate what it would mean to the Tsalagi people, beleaguered him. Despite constant ridicule by friends and even family members, as well as accusations that he was insane or practicing witchcraft, Sequoyah became obsessed with his work on the Cherokee language.
He spent long, lonely hours in a shed, working on his alphabet, making marks on scraps of paper and wood chips. He tried to devise marks for different Cherokee words.
Apparently convinced that he was making evil spells, persons unknown burned his house and workshop to the ground. When Sequoyah found his cabin destroyed, he carefully wrote his Cherokee alphabet on a large piece of buckskin. One day, while walking with his daughter Ah-yo-ka (Ayoka), Sequoyah intuited by listening to birds that words were made up of sounds, and that some words had the same sounds.
Shortly, Sequoyah had a better idea. Instead of a mark for each Cherokee word, he carefully set about listening to the sounds of the Cherokee language until he could differentiate distinctive units. He discovered that there are 85 vowel and consonant sounds in the Tsalagi language. Sequoyah then began to experiment with a phonetic collection in which symbols represented individual sounds rather than concepts or things. That proved to be much more manageable.
In his search for a Cherokee alphabet, Sequoyah had created a “syllabary," not an alphabet. The 85 characters in the syllabary represent all the combinations of vowel and consonant sounds that form the Cherokee language. Sequoyah had created the "talking leaves," 85 sounds that make up the Cherokee syllabary. He derived many of the symbols from letters he took from an English spelling book. However, these common symbols have no correspondence in sound value and many of the signs are completely original. He inverted some of the letters, modified others, totally invented still more, and adopted them as the symbols to Cherokee sounds.
While the 85 symbols in the syllabary appear at first to be more forbidding and cumbersome than the 26 letters of the English alphabet, the syllabary is a much more efficient means of transforming spoken Cherokee into a written form.
As soon as the 85 symbols are mastered, often after only a few days of study, a Cherokee speaker, or anyone for that matter, can learn to read and write Cherokee, a striking distinction to the many years it takes to learn to read and write English. Sequoyah's first student was his daughter, Ah-yo-ka. He made a game of this new writing system and taught her how to make the symbols. She easily learned the method of communication.
The Sequoyan script does have certain technical linguistic limitations; nevertheless, it has proved to be a more effective means of written communication for a variety of purposes.
Proving its worth
Having finished his syllabary, Sequoyah demonstrated it to a close relative by sending Ah-yo-ka outside, then he had the relative answer a question, which he wrote down on a piece of paper. When Ah-yo-ka returned, Sequoyah had her read the answer.
Sequoyah was encouraged to demonstrate the syllabary to the public. When Sequoyah and Ah-yo-ka gave public demonstrations of writing and reading written messages while standing several hundred feet apart, some of the people thought it was a trick, while others alleged conjuring.
When Sequoyah showed the tribal council his alphabet in 1821, they thought that he and Ah-yo-ka were trying to trick them. Sequoyah said he would prove that he was not deceiving them. He told the Indians to take Ah-yo-ka to the other side of the village. They could then tell him something to write down. When Ah-yo-ka returned, she read his words. The tribal council was astonished and so dramatically convinced, that it promptly led to the official approval of Sequoyah’s “alphabet" as the official written language of the Tsalagi.
Spreading the word
Within a short time after the introduction of Sequoyah’s invention, an extensive number of the Cherokee nation were able to read and write in their own language. Although some Cherokee were able to read and write in English, the majority could not, but the simplicity of Sequoyah’s syllabary made it possible for practically everyone in the tribe to master their language in a relatively short period. Missionaries quickly recognized the syllabary's advantages over the awkward orthography they had tried to impose on the Cherokee language.
Following the inauguration of his syllabary, Sequoyah began to travel again. To earn money along his journeys, Sequoyah took up mining and selling salt. He went west in 1822, to join his Cherokee kinsmen who had voluntarily emigrated to the Arkansas Territory. Soon he had taught thousands of them to read and write. He moved with them to present-day Oklahoma. Sequoyah remained in the West while his fame spread among Cherokees and whites alike.
The Cherokee people were enabled to use the written language to write down their old stories. The alphabet helped people understand each other better. His remarkable achievement helped to unite the Cherokee and make them leaders among other Native Americans. In stark contrast to their sporadic historical development in Western civilization, the discovery of writing and printing and the flourishing of unrestricted literacy happened nearly simultaneously among the Cherokees.
In 1824, in recognition of his contributions, the National Council of the Cherokee Nation at New Echota, Georgia, struck and awarded Sequoyah a silver medal created with two crossed pipes carved on it. The symbolism of the two crossed pipes showed how Sequoyah had brought Eastern and Western Cherokees together. Better communications among the bands of Cherokees could now be maintained through written correspondence.
In 1827, the Cherokee council assigned funding for the establishment of a national newspaper. The Reverend Samuel A. Worcester of the American Board of Foreign Missions had the syllabary typeset in Boston, Massachusetts. The hand press and syllabary characters in type were shipped south by water from Boston and transported overland the last two hundred miles by wagon, to the capital of the Cherokee Nation, New Echota, Georgia.
Translations and Cherokee publications
A program of translating the Bible began, and by 1825, much of Scripture, numerous hymns, and various religious tracts had been translated and printed into Cherokee. When the inaugural issue of the short-lived tribal newspaper, “Tsa la gi Tsu lehisanunhi" or “Cherokee Phoenix," appeared on February 21, 1828, nearly all the Cherokees had learned to read and write.
The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Indian and bi-lingual newspaper published in the United States. The newspaper was printed in parallel columns of Cherokee and English. The Cherokee also published religious pamphlets, educational materials, and legal documents.
An infamous trail
In 1830, gold was discovered in northern Georgia. White men forced the Cherokees to move westward onto new lands. When principal chief John Ross² led the North Georgia Cherokee (Tsalagi) to the Indian Territory on the infamous “Trail of Tears,"³ Sequoyah had already been a resident living in Oklahoma for 10 years. After the traumatic, forced removal of the remainder of the tribe in 1838, Sequoyah became an active advocate of the Cherokee nation's political reunification, calling for an end to factional strife.
Now his mid-sixties, Sequoyah was no longer a young man. However, true to his love for his people, he set out with a small group of men to find a “lost" band of Tsalagi which had gone into exile in past years, and reunite them with their nation.
Sequoyah found them living in northern Mexico (an area that is possibly now a part of Texas), but the exertion of the journey had been too much. After their grueling journey into Mexico, the party had became lost. Sequoyah was unable to continue, so he took shelter in a cave while the others went for help.
In the service of the Tsalagi people, Sequoyah disappeared in Mexico, never to be seen again. The year was 1843.
¹A set of written characters for a language, each character representing a syllable.
² John Ross - Cherokee leader - first and only elected chief of the Cherokee nation.
³ Trail of Tears - On May 17, 1838, General Winfield Scott arrived at New Echota with 7,000 men. Early that summer, General Scott and the U.S. Army began the invasion of the Cherokee Nation. Men, women, and children were taken from their land, herded into makeshift forts with minimal facilities and food, then forced to march a thousand miles. About 4,000 of 17,000 Cherokee died as a result of the removal. The route they traversed and the journey itself became known as "The Trail of Tears" or, as a direct translation from Cherokee, "The Trail Where They Cried" ("Nunna daul Tsuny").