SEQUOYAH (ca. 1778-1843)
Inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, Sequoyah, also known as George Guess or Gist, was probably born in the late 1770s at Tuskegee, which is now covered by Tellico Lake in Tennessee. Although his paternity is debated (he may have been the son of Nathaniel Gist, a Virginia soldier at Fort Loudoun, or of George Gist, a Dutch peddler) he was probably the son of the former. His mother was Wurteh, a full-blood Cherokee and sister of Old Tassel, a Cherokee chief.
Sequoyah fought in a Cherokee company against the Red Stick Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814. The year after his discharge he married Sally Waters, a mixed-blood Cherokee. In 1817 he signed a treaty exchanging Cherokee land in the southeast for an area in Arkansas. Although Sequoyah agreed to move west, he recanted in 1819. He still lost his home, however, and moved to Willstown (Ft. Payne), Alabama.
Having noted that white men could convey their thoughts through "talking leaves," Sequoyah believed he could devise a similar method for the Cherokee. Although he may have had the idea earlier, Sequoyah probably began his work at Willstown. He first attempted to make a symbol for every word but found that cumbersome. He then struck upon the idea of making a symbol for every sound in the Cherokee language. Eventually he came up with eighty-six sounds (later reduced to eighty-five). He used his daughter, Ahyokah, to prove his system before the Cherokee Council in 1821.
In 1824 the Cherokee National Council voted Sequoyah a medal "as a token of respect and admiration for . . . [his] ingenuity in the invention" of the Cherokee syllabary. That same year he left Alabama for Arkansas. Four years later, when the federal government determined they could not secure the Arkansas land on which the Cherokees had settled, Sequoyah was one of the Old Settler delegates to Washington, D.C., who signed a treaty exchanging their Arkansas domain for a region in the Indian Territory (present Oklahoma). While in Washington, Sequoyah sat for his only portrait, a work by Charles Bird King.
Sequoyah moved from Arkansas to the Indian Territory in 1829 and settled near present Sallisaw. Sequoyah's cabin still stands and is open to the public. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NR 66000634), and is owned and maintained by the Oklahoma Historical Society.
When the Cherokees under John Ross were removed to Indian Territory in 1838, Sequoyah attempted to unite the Old Settlers with the Ross Party. He signed the Act of Union and a new Cherokee constitution in 1839. In 1842 he went in search of Cherokees who had migrated to Mexico. He died in Mexico the following year.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Stan Hoig, Sequoyah: The Cherokee Genius (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1995). Grant Foreman, Sequoyah (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938). George E. Foster, Se-Quo-Yah, The American Cadmus and Modern Moses (Philadelphia: Office of Indian Rights Association, 1885). John Howard Payne, "Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Sequoyah or George Gist," Journal of Cherokee Studies 2 (Fall 1977).
William L. Anderson
© Oklahoma Historical Society