Sequoyah's Life

   We know far more about Sequoyah's life than that of any of the other New Inventors. 

   Here is a fairly typical biography of Sequoyah:

North Georgia Notables: Sequoyah

Sequoyah (a.k.a. George Gist)


Born: 1776 near Tuskeegee, Tennessee
Died: 1843, near Tyler, Texas.

Developed the Cherokee alphabet

Near the town of Tanasee, and not far from the almost mythical town of Chote lies Taskigi (Tuskeegee), home of Sequoyah. In this peaceful valley setting Wut-teh, the daughter of a Cherokee Chief married Nathaniel Gist, a Virginia fur trader. The warrior Sequoyah was born of this union in 1776.

Probably born handicapped, and thus the name Sequoyah (Sikwoyi) is Cherokee for "pig's foot"), Sequoyah fled Tennessee as a youth because of the encroachment of whites. He initially moved to Georgia, where he acquired skills working with silver. While in the state, a man who purchased one of his works suggested that he sign his work, like the white silversmiths had begun to do. Sequoyah considered the idea and since he did not know how to write he visited Charles Hicks, a wealthy farmer in the area who wrote English. Hicks showed Sequoyah how to spell his name, writing the letters on a piece of paper. Sequoyah began to toy with the idea of a Cherokee writing system that year (1809).

He moved to Willstown, Alabama, and enlisted in the Cherokee Regiment, fighting in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, which effectively ended the war against the Creek Redsticks.

During the war, he became convinced of the necessity of literacy for his people. He and other Cherokees were unable to write letters home, read military orders, or record events as they occurred. After the war, he began in earnest to create a writing system.

Using a phonetic system, where each sound made in speech was represented by a symbol, he created "Talking Leaves", 85 letters that make up the Cherokee alphabet. His little girl Ayoka easily learned this method of communication. He demonstrated his syllabary to his cousin, George Lowrey, who was impressed. A short time later in a Cherokee Court in Chattooga, he read an argument about a boundary line from a sheet of paper. Word spread quickly of Sequoyah's invention. In 1821, 12 years after the original idea, the Cherokee Nation adopted Sequoyah's alphabet as their own. Within months thousands of Cherokee became literate.

The crippled warrior moved west to Arkansas. Mining and selling salt for money he was active in politics. In 1824 the National Council at New Echota struck a silver medal in his honor. Later, publication began on the first Native American newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix in the same town. The painting of Sequoyah was made in 1828 on a trip to Washington to negotiate terms for removal from Arkansas to Oklahoma. Leaving the state in 1829, he had lived in Oklahoma for 10 years when Principal Chief John Ross led North Georgia Cherokee on the "Trail of Tears" to the state.

He died in Mexico (now Texas) in 1843 after possibly visiting family in a band of Chickamauga Cherokee who had moved there earlier.

Perhaps the most eloquent praise paid to Sequoyah was by H.A. Scomp, member of Emory College faculty, when he said "...perhaps the most remarkable man who has ever lived on Georgia soil was neither a politician, nor a soldier, nor an ecclesiastic, nor a scholar, but merely a Cherokee Indian of mixed blood. And strange to say, this Indian acquired permanent fame, neither expecting or seeking it."

... and here is a more detailed account of Sequoyah's invention of his syllabary.

Sequoyah's Talking Leaves

by Priscilla Omega
Language was the heart of the Cherokee people, and their strongest tie with one another and the past. He recognized its value, and believed the Cherokee could advance themselves further with their own written language, rather than the oral tradition that had always been relied upon. Determined to preserve Cherokee culture, Sequoyah began his twelve-year process of creating a written language in 1809. He was nearly 40. Fixing sounds on paper, he would later say, was "like catching a wild beast and taming it."

He drew pictures to represent spoken ideas, wanting to turn sounds such as birds, water, and laughter into permanent marks. He invented a great number of characters for words, then discovered he needed so many separate symbols for a complete set of words, no one would ever learn or remember. For example, a picture of a bird meant "bird," shown flying it was a "flying bird." But what if the bird was "a hawk that circled above yesterday?" It was just too complicated, and he soon gave up.

Meanwhile, he spent more and more time alone, contemplating the talking leaves. He built a cabin in the woods and isolated himself for a year. His friends and family became troubled by his strange "whim." He encountered both ridicule and fear. Former companions passed his home without entering, and some suspected him of practicing witchcraft. His wife, frustrated and angered by his actions, finally entered his cabin one night and threw all of his papers and hard work into the fireplace. Sequoyah saw this not as defeat, but an opportunity to begin again, in another direction.

He tried a different approach. Now, instead of breaking sentences into words, he took the words apart. He began using one character for one syllable. His system could depend on the sound, rather than the meaning of the character. Once he understood that identical sounds were put together in different ways in all spoken Cherokee words, he had the key he needed! By 1821 Sequoyah had completed 86 characters (later reduced to 85). He then demonstrated his new technique to astonished tribal leaders. Convinced there was no trickery involved, his syllabary was accepted by the community. Soon after, he moved to Arkansas, where he continued teaching his language to others. Within a short time, without books, schools or expense, the Cherokee became almost entirely literate, able to read and write in their own language.

In 1825, New Echota, Georgia became the Cherokee capital. It was here, on February 21, 1828 that the inaugural issue of The Cherokee Phoenix made its debut. Printed in parallel columns in both Cherokee and English, it was the first Indian newspaper published in the United States, named for the mythical Egyptian bird who rose from the ashes to live again, a symbol of the Cherokee's attempt to rise above the stereotype of ignorant savages. The Bible, numerous hymns and a novel were also published.