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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 1, No. 2
October, 1921
THE PATERNITY OF SEQUOYA
THE INVENTOR OF THE CHEROKEE ALPHABET

By Albert V. Goodpasture

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There is a bold mountain stream that rises in the Blue Ridge, in North Carolina, cuts its way through the Great Smoky Mountains that separate North Carolina from Tennessee, penetrates the Valley of East Tennessee, and empties itself into the Tennessee River near Loudon. It is now called the Little Tennessee. Its waters are pure and sparkling, its valleys green and inviting, and its hills fair and sunny. It was greatly loved by the Cherokees. Their Overhill towns lay along its southern border from the mouth of Tellico, eastward.

Henry Timberlake, a young Virginia soldier, spent the winter of 1761-2 in these towns, and has left us an account of them, with a map giving their names and locations.1 For my purpose, it will be necessary to mention only four of them—Tennessee and Echota, governed by Oconostota, the great warrior and principal chief of the Nation; and Mialaquo and Tuskegee, governed by the renowned Attakullakulla, remarkable for the peaceable attitude he always maintained towards his white neighbors. Tennessee, which has given its name to the State of Tennessee and its great river, was the earliest known






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capital of the Cherokee Nation; while Echota, with its namesake, New Echota, were its capitals from the time of Oconostota until the western emigration. Mialaquo was the early home of the able, but irreconcilable chief, Dragging Canoe, who split off from the old tribe, and founded the celebrated Chickamauga towns; and Tuskegee, its sister village, lying under the walls of Fort Loudon, about five miles from Echota, was the birth-place of the great Cherokee syllabist, Sequoya, who is also called George Guess, or Guest, or, more correctly, Gist, presumably after his father. Sequoya is believed to have been born about the time the famous fortress of Fort Loudon was taken by the Cherokees, in 1760. This approximate date seems to be fairly established by Sequoya himself. An Iroquois peace delegation visited the Cherokees at Echota about the year 1770.2 Sequoya, then a small boy living with his mother at Tuskegee, was present at this treaty, and was old enough to remember some of its incidents, which he detailed to his cousin, James Wafford. He must, therefore, have been something near ten years of age at the time, which would fix the date of his birth at about the year 1760.

Sequoya continued to reside at Tuskegee until he was, probably, thirty-two years of age. Dragging Canoe, formerly of Mialaquo, died in his bed at Running Water, about the first of March, 1792, and Colonel John Watts, of Echota, was invited to take his place as principal chief of the Chickamaugas. Watts accepted the position, but did not settle at Running Water, nor, indeed, at any of the five original Chickamauga towns. He chose to fix the seat of his government at Willstown, on the Coosa River, in the present State of Alabama. The encroachments of the white settlers had already rendered the condition of the Overhill towns intolerable, and many of Watts’ friends followed him to the south. Sequoya, among others, emigrated to Willstown, probably at this time (1792).

In 1809, after he had passed the meridian of life, Sequoya conceived the idea of devising a written language for the Cherokee people. It was a bold conception. It would have been a rash undertaking for the most learned philologist of his time; but Sequoya, reared as he had been in an Indian village on the Little Tennessee River, spoke no language but his own, and



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had never acquired so much as a rudimentary knowledge of letters. His scheme was independent of all other written languages. For twelve years he labored patiently and unremittingly on its development, unaided even by the sympathy of his fellows, who ridiculed his dogged persistence, as he recovered from one failure after another, until his system was finally completed in 1821.

Among all the schemes of symbolic thought representation, from the simple pictograph of primitative man to the finished alphabet of civilized nations, Sequoya’s syllabary of the Cherokee language stands second only to the Cadmean alphabet3; and if we might begin anew and devise a system for our own exclusive use, it would be the most philosophical of them all.4 Sequoya ascertained the number of syllables in the Cherokee tongue, and formed a distinct character for each syllable. There is no spelling under his system, which eliminates all the perplexing questions of orthography that continually arise under our system. As soon as the eighty-five characters of the syllabary are mastered, which may be done in a few weeks, the whole written language is acquired. We are assured that in a single month the Cherokee child reaches a proficiency in reading and writing that takes our children at least two years to attain.

The mother of Sequoya was an Indian woman of good family; who his father was has not been satisfactorily determined. Phillips and those who follow him assert that he was the son of George Gist, an unlicensed German peddler from Georgia, who came into the Cherokee nation in 1768, married an Indian girl for the purpose of obtaining cheap protection and board, and departed long before his son was born. “We might denounce him,” he adds, “as a low adventurer if we did not remember that he was the father of one of the most remarkable men who ever appeared on the continent.”5

Aside from the improbability that a man of the character and genius of Sequoya should be the son of a low adventurer, which we are not constrained to believe in this instance, I have already shown the physical impossibility of Phillips’ assertion, insomuch as Sequoya was born some eight years before the







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German peddler’s advent into the nation—probably in the year 1760. We, may, therefore, dismiss the claim of George Gist as unquestionably fictitious.

Only one other man—Nathaniel Gist—has ever been suggested as the father of Sequoya, and his claim has not received serious consideration on account of the manner in which it was presented. The story as told by John Mason Brown is that Nathaniel Gist was captured by the Cherokees at Braddock’s defeat in 1755, and remained a prisoner with them for six years, during which time he became the father of Sequoya. On his return to civilization he married a white woman in Virginia by whom he had other children, and afterwards removed to Kentucky, where Sequoya, then a Baptist preacher, frequently visited him, and was always recognized by the family as his son.6 In reply to this claim Mooney points out that the Cherokees were allies of the British during the war in which Braddock’s defeat occurred; and that Sequoya, so far from being a Baptist preacher, was not even a Christian. For these positive errors, and some other improbabilities in Brown’s story, he classes it as one of those genealogical myths built on a chance similarity of name.7

Notwithstanding its manifest errors, there is a sub-stratum of truth back of Brown’s story that lends credence to the essential fact of a tradition that has clung to the family after its historical setting has been forgotten. Nathaniel Gist was a soldier in the French and Indian war; for his services he received a tract of several thousand acres of land in Bourbon County, Kentucky, on which he built the famous old homestead called Canewood, long remembered for the hospitality it dispensed.8 Probably in Braddock’s campaign, but certainly in that of General Forbes, he was closely associated with the Cherokees; and after the fall of Fort Duquesne in 1758, he spent much of his time in their nation up to the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

In the year 1753 George Washington was dispatched by Governor Dinwiddie on an important mission to the French on the Ohio. He was then only twenty-one years old—an age at







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which fast friendships are readily formed. At Will’s Creek he met with Christopher Gist, father of Nathaniel Gist, and engaged him as guide in his expedition. Christopher Gist was one of the earliest and most intelligent explorers of the country west of the Alleghanies. Three years before, he had been employed by the Ohio Company to explore their immense grant lying between the Monongahela and Kentucky Rivers. Originally from Maryland, he was at that time living on a farm near the home of Daniel Boone on the Yadkin River. On his return from his first expedition it was his fortune to stand on a mountain and view the magnificent country of Kentucky, long before it was beheld by his neighbor Boone.9 The tradition that Gist saved Washington’s life while crossing the Alleghany River may not be literally true,10 but they suffered terrible hardships and dangers together, and a warm friendship grew up between them. When hostilities broke out Gist, who had formed a settlement near Fort Necessity, attached himself to Washington, and continued with him until operations in the West terminated with the evacuation of Fort DeQuesne by the French in 1758.

In the campaign against Fort DuQuesne great effort was made to engage the Cherokees in the British interest; Washington thought their presence indispensably necessary. Many of them were engaged. Among others, a chief whom Washington calls Antasity,11 undoubtedly meant for Outacite (the mankiller), of Tomotley, known on the border as Judge Friend. At the close of the Cherokee war in 1762 Outacite went to England with Henry Timberlake, where he created a great furore, was visited by thousands of people, had an audience with the king, and received many presents; among others one from Oliver Goldsmith, which, either from its appropriateness or the manner of its giving, so excited his gratitude that he embraced the great poet, and incidentally smeared his face with oil and red ochre.12 Another chief with Washington was the great warrior, Scollacutta (Hanging Maw), afterwards head chief or the nation and a man of peace.13 Ranking both of these was Attakullakulla (Little Carpenter), of Tuskegee, who was then in the zenith of his power.14













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On Washington’s recommendation, Captain Christopher Gist was put in charge of the Indian affairs of the army. Nathaniel Gist, who had been elevated to the rank of lieutenant, entered the department of service of which his father had charge, and commanded a detachment of Indian auxiliaries. This was the beginning of the long and intimate friendship that subsisted between him and the Cherokee Indians.

After the fall of Fort DuQuesne, Nathaniel Gist returned to his old haunts and friends on the Yadkin River; and there is little reason to doubt that he found an early opportunity to visit his new friends on the Little Tennessee. Indeed it seems certain that he had visited the Long Island of Holston before 1760. There are few places in Tennessee around which cluster so much of early romance as is wreathed about the Long Island of Holston. It was opposite this Island that Colonel William Byrd erected Fort Robinson in 1758, which he was still occupying when Fort Loudon fell in 1760. Fort Robinson was rebuilt in 1776 under the name of Fort Patrick Henry; from which in 1779, Colonel John Donelson embarked on his perilous voyage down the Tennessee and up the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers to Nashville, freighted with the mothers of Middle Tennessee. The first pitched battle with the Cherokees in 1776, was fought at Long Island Flats; and there the Virginia and North Carolina forces under Colonel William Christian, assembled for their first expedition against the Overhill towns. Long Island was a favorite treaty ground of the Cherokees; there they held their first treaty with the States of Virginia and North Carolina in 1777, and their second in 1781. On account of its sanctity as a treaty ground the legislature of North Carolina excluded it from the operation of the act of 1783 which assumed to appropriate the Indian lands by right of conquest; and the Cherokees continued to hold it until 1806.

There is a curious reservation in the treaty of 1777. The provision is in these words:

“Memorandum before signing: That the Tassel yesterday objected against giving up the Great Island, opposite Fort Henry, to any person or country, except Colonel Nathaniel Gist. for whom and themselves it was reserved by the Cherokees.

“The Raven did the same this day in behalf of the Indians, and desired that Colonel Gist might sit down upon it when he pleased, as it belonged to him and them to hold good talks on.”15



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There is an interesting romance leading up to this extraordinary expression of friendship for Colonel Gist, the details of which are now lost; but we still have a few fragmentary facts that sufficiently indicate its character. After Colonel Gist returned from the West he abandoned himself to the life of a hunter and explorer. He was the companion and friend of Daniel Boone. They visited the Holston together in 1760; hunted down its south, or main fork; camped at Wolf Hills, where Abingdon, Va., now stands. Here they disagreed and separated, Boone taking the Indian trail leading to Long Island, and Gist following the trail leading to Cumberland Gap.16 It was on this excursion into East Tennessee that Boone carved on a tree the oft quoted inscription: “D. Boon cilled a bar on this tree in the year 1760”; which I would not again repeat except that it fixes a date important to my story.

Though Gist did not follow Boone to Long Island, he had already seen it and been attracted by its desirable location. It was the most conspicuous point on the Tennessee side of the mountains. As early as 1757 Richard Paris, an Indian trader located on the Holston River, addressed a letter to the Governor of Virginia requesting a grant of the land on Long Island. Instead of going directly to Long Island, Gist continued his journey southwardly until be reached the Cherokee towns on the Little Tennessee River. This appears to me to have been about the time the father of Sequoya must have been at Tuskegee, where his mother lived; and so friendly were Gist’s relations with the Indians that they sold him the Long Island of Holston within a year. In his petition to the legislature of Virginia asking them to confirm his Indian title to the same he represents that he obtained it in 1761. This is the origin of his claim to Long Island which called forth the remarkable reservation in the treaty of 1777, to which attention has been drawn.

Gist spent much of his time in the Cherokee Nation for the next sixteen years. He lived with them on terms of the greatest intimacy. He was so much in their confidence at the time of the Cherokee invasion of 1776, that his loyalty to his country was questioned. On July 8, of that year, Jarret Williams informed the Watauga settlers that Alexander Cameron,



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a British Indian agent, had determined to send Captain Nathaniel Gist, William Faulen, and Isaac and Jarret Williams with the invading forces for the purpose of finding out and leading over to the Indians any king’s men among the inhabitants.17 Such ready credence was given to Williams’ information that the Virginia Council of Safety instructed Colonel William Christian, commander of the expedition against the Overhill towns, to insist on the Cherokees giving up all persons among them who had been concerned in bringing on the war—particularly Stuart, Cameron, and Gist.18

It was soon manifest, however, that Colonel Gist was not a British sympathizer. When Colonel Christian reached the Overhill towns Gist surrendered himself a prisoner, and although the inhabitants of Watauga and Holston had been so exasperated against him that his name was rarely mentioned without being coupled with a threat against his life yet Colonel Christian conveyed him through the settlements unmolested, and he proceeded on without further detention, to the headquarters of General Washington.18

December 27, 1776, the Continental Congress had resolved to raise sixteen new battalions, and authorized General Washington as commander-in-chief, to nominate and commission the officers of the same. Nathaniel Gist having reached Washington’s headquarters January 11, 1777, he was appointed colonel of one of these battalions, and authorized to raise four companies of rangers. For this purpose he was instructed to proceed to the Cherokee or any other nation of Indians, and attempt to procure a number of warriors, not exceeding five hundred, who were to be supplied with arms, blankets, and other necessaries, and, instead of presents, were to receive the same pay as troops in the Continental service.19

March 27, Colonel Gist returned to Washington District, bearing letters from the Governor of Virginia to the Cherokee nation, soliciting them to come in in sixty days to treat and confirm the peace.20 A few of them came in April 20, but nothing definite was done, except an agreement to come in sixty









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days later to treat and confirm the peace.21 It was largely through the influence of Colonel Gist, acting under instructions from the Virginia government, that they were induced to attend the treaty of Long Island, July, 1777.22 In the progress of the treaty the Old Tassel expressed great reluctance to the proposed boundaries, and asked the commissioners to write a letter to General Washington by Colonel Gist23; and later in the conference Colonel Christian proposed that some of the Cherokee young men accompany Colonel Gist to Congress and to the army of General Washington,24 which seventeen of them did.25

Now Colonel Gist was living with the Cherokees on terms of intimate friendship, of which they have given the highest proofs, at the time Sequoya was born, about the year 1760. The family tradition that Sequoya was his son becomes almost a certainty when we consider that it was a general, almost a universal practice for white men living, even temporarily, in the nation, to take Indian wives; not, generally, “until death us do part,” but during the residence of the husband in the nation; after the manner of the Japanese marriage custom celebrated in Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthome. Many soldiers of the garrison of Fort Loudon had Indian wives who, during the siege, furnished them provisions at the risk of their lives; John Watts, father of the distinguished chief of the same name, married a sister of the Old Tassel, and the trader John Benge, progenitor of a less noted warrior, married his niece; General Joseph Martin, while temporarily residing at Echota as Indian agent, married Betsy, daughter of the celebrated Nancy Ward, though he had a wife of his own race back in the settlements; Leonard P. Shaw, memorable as the first United States ethnologist, but not otherwise, married a daughter of an influential warrior called Halfbreed; and Major Robert King, while employed by the government in the nation, lived with a daughter of Scollacutta, and only escaped being killed by jumping through a window, when Captain Beard’s party attacked his town. Return J. Meigs, writing in 1816, after fif-











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teen years intercourse with the Indians, expressed the opinion that almost one-half of the Cherokee nation are of mixed blood by intermarriage with the white people.26

I have already stated that we are not constrained to believe Sequoya was the son of a “low adventurer.” If Nathaniel Gist shall be accepted as his father, then he will have a sire worthy of his distinguished son. He was a man of character and talents, and belonged to a family that claimed kinship with the great Protector of England. Ibis father has been mentioned in connection with the Ohio Company, and the French and Indian war. His brother, Richard, was in the battle of King’s Mountain and fell within twenty-five or thirty steps of the British lines.27 A grandson of his brother, William, was Governor of South Carolina and signed the ordinance of secession in 1860. His own descendants are allied with the foremost families of Kentucky; his widow married Governor Charles Scott, and a granddaughter was the wife of Governor Luke P. Blackburn; a daughter married United States Senator Jesse Bledsoe, and was the grandmother of Governor B. Gratz Brown, of Missouri, Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1872; another daughter married Captain Nat Hart, brother of Mrs. Henry Clay; and still another daughter was the mother of Francis P. Blair, Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1868, and of Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General under President Lincoln.28







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