Se-quo-yah proved to his tribe that his syllabary could be
used for communication in a dramatic demonstration with
the help of his daughter.
Early in 1821, Se-quo-yah, one of America's least-known
geniuses, called together the leaders of the Eastern
He had recently returned to his home in Willstown, Alabama,
following a visit to the Western Cherokee settlement in
Arkansas. With him he carried a sealed letter, written in
the Cherokee language to one of their number by a friend
in that community.
Se-quo-yah broke the seal and read the message aloud,
impressing the listeners with news of their fan of kinsmen.
He then invited the men to his house, where he "wrote
down whatever was suggested by any of the visitors; and
now calling in his daughter, she read it off unhesitatingly
to the wonder-stricken assembly.
Try the Cherokee Alphabet: Click on the link and you will see each of the symbols Se-quo-yah assigned to Cherokee
sounds. Go to this link "Cherokee Syllabary" and click on a symbol to hear the sound, see its meaning and use it in
Overview of Se-quo-yah's Discovery
Se-quo-yah single-handedly develop a written language. He had been a silversmith who made jewelry. He wanted to
sign his name on each work, but he was illiterate and could not read or write in any language.
Se-quo-yah began working on his idea, going around to everyone he knew to have them speak all the sounds they
knew in the Cherokee language.
Then, he created a symbol for each word but after making over 1000 symbols, he decided it was too many for
people to learn. Next, he assigned a symbol for each of the 86 sounds used in the Cherokee language.
The symbols he created were borrowed from a Bible and a school reader, so most of the symbols look like shapes in
Latin, Greek or English.
While working to perfect his alphabet, Se-quo-yah met with opposition from many of his neighbors, other
members of his tribe, and his own family. They thought he was a witch because of his unusual interest and
obsessive work on symbols that were strange to them.
When he had finished developing the alphabet, he demonstrated that a letter written in the Cherokee language
hundreds of miles away, could be opened and read by a person it was sent to. He convinced the Cherokee elders of
the value of the alphabet.
The Bible and many books, including the Cherokee Constitution and the New Testament, were translated into the
Cherokee alphabet, and a newspaper called the Cherokee Phoenix was started using only Se-quo-yah's alphabet.
By 1890, the Cherokee had a 90% literacy rate (read and write), compared with a rate of 10% among Whites.
A small Oklahoma State Park preserves the cabin Se-quo-yah lived in after he joined the Cherokees in Indian
Territory, now northeast Oklahoma.
Details of Se-quo-yah's Life and Invention
Se-quo-yah (Sikwo-yi is Cherokee for "pig's foot"). He was born with a handicap, which most believe was a "club
He was born around 1770, on the Tennessee River near a Cherokee village called Tushkeegee. His mother was
called Wu-teh and his father was a German fur trader named Nathanial Gist (some spell it Guess or Guest). His
mother was a member of the Cherokee Indian Paint Clan. It is believed that his father abandoned his Indian wife
before Se-quo-yah was born, and that he never saw his father.
Although Se-quo-yah was named George Gist and became a fur trader like his White father, he was raised with the
Cherokee culture. He was given the Cherokee name Se-quo-yah, meaning pig" foot, because of his malformed foot.
Se-quo-yah married a Cherokee woman and had a family. He and his family moved to Cherokee
the Cherokee Nation where he was born and raised his family. He
never attended school, and throughout his life he never learned to
speak, read, or write the English language.
Even though Se-quo-yah never learned to read or write English, he became captivated by the White Man's ability
to communicate by making marks on paper and reading from "talking leaves," as he called the pages of a book.
Most have difficulty understanding Se-quo-yah could invent a written alphabet (syllabary), when he did not know
how to read or write in any language. This makes his invention even more astounding.
As an adult, it had become increasingly difficult for Se-quo-yah to get around because of his foot deformity, so
he learned silversmithing and blacksmithing.
As he developed his skill, he became proud of the silver jewelry he made, and decided that he needed to sign his
name on the back of each jewelry piece like the White silversmiths did, which Se-quo-yah had noticed while
visiting a store that sold White Man's silver jewelry.
The Idea For the Alphabet Develops
He talked with others about the lack a written language among the Cherokee. The following week, Cherokee
warriors had taken a White man prisoner, and in his pocket they found a crumpled piece of paper, a letter. The
shrewdness of the prisoner prompted him to interpret this letter for his own advantage.
The story the "talking leaf" told filled the Indians with wonder and they accepted it as a message from the Great
Spirit. The matter was laid before Se-quo-yah, who was even then accounted by them as a brave favored by the
gods. He believed it to be simply an invitation of the white men.
"Much that red men know, they forget," he stated. "They have no way to preserve it. White men make what they
know fast on paper, like catching the wild panther and taming it."
But Se-quo-yah was intrigued. He pondered the mystery of the "talking leaf" for weeks and months. In whatever
work he was engaged the longing to solve the problem followed him. He never forgot the mystery of the written
From this time on he watched the use of books and papers in white men's hands. He could neither read nor speak a
word of English, but chance put him in possession of a whole bundle of "talking leaves:' in the form of an old
English speller. Eagerly he searched this book in the seclusion of his wigwam, attentively he listened, but not one
of the talking leaves as much as whispered to him the secret they concealed. He was not discouraged.
One evening some young braves were lounging around the campfire, and the topic of conversation was the superior
talents of the white man. One said that the pale faces could put their talk on paper and send it to any distance,
and those who received it could understand its message. They all agreed this was strange, but they could not see
how it was done.
Picking up a flat stone, he began scratching on it with a pointed stick, and after a few moments he read to them a
sentence which he had written, making a symbol for each word. His attempt to write produced a general laugh, and
the conversation ended.
The laughing hurt Se-quo-yah like the taunting he had received in childhood about his deformed foot. He seemed to
become determined to put the Cherokee language in writing.
This set Se-quo-yah on the path of discovery, and like many inventors in history, it became his obsession which
was not stopped even when he was tortured as a witch by others in the tribe.
Se-quo-yah's Quest to Develop a Written Language Begins- 1809
He began work on developing a Cherokee writing system in 1809. During the war, he became convinced he was on
the right path. Unlike white soldiers, he did not write letters home and could not read military orders.
After the war Se-quo-yah began in earnest to create symbols that would make words. He and his daughter,
Ayoka, played games using the symbols. He became obsessed with developing a new Cherokee alphabet writing
system because he knew it would help his people. Se-quo-yah became a recluse in his obsession to perfect the
writing system. He endured constant ridicule by friends and even family members, who said he was insane or
His first attempt involved a form of picture writing, but he "soon dropped this method as difficult or impossible"
when the symbols numbered in the hundreds. Next, he began using symbols of his own creation to represent
sentences, then words, and finally syllables, eventually settling on 86 characters that represented all the sounds
in the Cherokee tongue.
When asked why he wasted so much time with his efforts to develop a written language, Se-quo-yah replied that
"If our people think I am making a fool of myself, you may tell them that what I am doing will not make fools of
them. They did not cause me to begin, and they shall not cause me to give up. . . ."
Resentment and Fear Surround Se-quo-yah- Called a Witch
Even his wife Sally, whom he married in 1815, began to believe that this project on which he labored so diligently
was inspired by some form of evil. To find peace with his work, Se-quo-yah left his home and moved into a cabin,
where he could pursue his quest undisturbed.
While he was away from his home on a visit to a friend, his neighbors burned down his house, along with his
collection of symbols which he had carved on wood tiles. Finally, his wife's family had enough and sent him packing.
Se-quo-yah was caught by Indian vigilantes and mutilated for his "strange" ways. They branded his head and back,
his ears were cut off, and his fingers were cut off up to the second joint. This was verified in 1871 by his
A warrant for his capture and death was actually issued in Knoxville, Tennessee by John Ridge. The warrant was
published in the Knoxville Gazette in 1817. The request by the Cherokee Tribe to the paper is as follows: The
warrant, (a "wanted poster"), describes Se-quo-yah's appearance,
which is important because there is no actual undisputed image of him.
Se-quo-yah moved west to Arkansas and continued his work. After working on the symbols for 12 years, and
withstanding ridicule, abuse, and torture, he reduced the alphabet down to 86 symbols. A demonstration of the
written language's ability to communication on paper over long distances in 1821, convinced the elders of the
Cherokee Nation to adopt his alphabet.
Within a few years, Sequoyah had taught many Cherokees how to read and write in his new alphabet (syllabary),
and they taught others until thousands were literate in the Cherokee language.
The Cherokee National Council in New Echota, in the state of Georgia, gave him a silver medal for his
contribution to the Cherokee People. He wore the medal proudly for the rest of his life.
He died while in his 80's in 1843. He had been in Mexico searching for a lost band of Cherokees who were believed
to have moved there before the revolution. He wanted to reunite all Cherokees into one Nation. Sequoyah never
stopped following his dreams.
Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet. Cherokee Phoenix, 13 Aug 1820.
Carpenter, Iris. Tallest Indian. American Education. August-September. 1976.
Davis, John B. The Life and Work of Sequoyah. Chronicles of Oklahoma. Vol.8 (2), June 1930.
Hodge, Frederick Webb. Sequoyah's Syllabary. Masterkey for Indian Lore and History. Vol 20.
Kinsey, Ron. New Vision of Sequoyah. Masterkey for Indian Lore and History. Vol 53. 1979.
|"You will confer a favor on certain citizens of the Cherokee Nation, by giving
publicity of the following description of a Cherokee, who committed a crime of
witchcraft, and murder to one of our citizens on the 22nd December last.
This man is called by the white people, Sequoyah. He is about 6 feet high, upwards
of 50 years old; his appearance is rather rough, and attempts some times to speak
English; his face is somewhat slender, and several weeks ago, he was disfigured by
cutting his ears and fingers off by another Indian.
He, I believe, has a circle on his forehead, artificially placed by burning. He has
sparse whiskers, most of them bear frost of age. His hair, I believe is about