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First Americans: Sequoyah

July 27, 2009

This is the final in a series of four columns featuring Native Americans who were important in the shaping of our country.

The Cherokee Indians were once a great nation with a sphere of influence extending hundreds of miles. Centered in the Great Smoky Mountains, the Cherokees lived in a large area now included in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and both Carolinas. They called themselves Tsalagi meaning the people. The Cherokees had their own code of tribal laws and elected officials. Europeans regarded them as the most civilized tribe in America. Already adept as farmers and hunters, they learned trades and skills. They opened mills, foundries, and businesses.

Sequoyah was regarded by many as a crippled, uneducated half-breed with little potential for leadership among his own people. Yet, he became a chief who assisted the Cherokee through the most difficult time in their history and gave to them a gift unrivaled in Native American culture, a written language.

Sequoyah was born before the American Revolution in a Cherokee village on the Tennessee River. His mother was a member of the Paint Clan. Nathaniel Gist, an English fur trader, was his father. Sequoyah was given the English name George Gist. He was raised in the traditional Cherokee ways. As a boy, he was a skilled hunter. After an accident mangled his foot in a steel trap, he was given the name Sequoyah, which means pig’s foot.

Sequoyah developed a talent for craftsmanship as a silversmith and a blacksmith. Sequoyah married a Cherokee woman and had a family. He and his family moved to Cherokee County, Georgia. He and other Cherokees enlisted to fight on the side of the United States for General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 against the British and Creek Nation.

Sequoyah could neither read nor write English. He was fascinated by the ability of whites to communicate by making marks on paper and reading from what he called talking leaves. He began work on developing a written Cherokee language. Sequoyah created symbols that made words. Developing a new Cherokee alphabet became his passion because he knew it would help his people. After twelve years he had reduced the complex language into 86 symbols, each representing a unique sound of Cherokee speech.

In 1821, he demonstrated his new writing to amazed tribal elders. Quickly news of the written alphabet spread. The Cherokees flocked to schoolhouses to learn to read and write their language. By 1823 the syllabary was in full use by the Cherokee Nation.

In 1824 the Cherokee National Council honored Sequoyah with a silver medal for his accomplishment.

The Cherokee Nation officially adopted the written language in 1825. The Bible, hymnals, educational materials, legal documents, and books were translated into Cherokee. Thousands of Cherokees became literate within a few years.

Slavery was a growing issue among the Cherokee people. Some Cherokees were slave owners. Others were abolitionists. Afraid that runaway slaves would seek refuge among the Cherokee, the Georgia legislature voted to confiscate all Indian lands.

After the acceptance of his syllabary in 1825, Sequoyah, aware that their land was being seized, led about 2,000 Cherokees west to new territory in Arkansas. Sequoyah became the principal chief of the newly formed Western Cherokee Nation. In Arkansas, he set up a blacksmith shop and a salt works. He continued to teach the Cherokee alphabet to anyone who came to him.

In 1827, the first Indian language newspaper published in the United States, The Cherokee Phoenix, was printed and distributed from the capital of the Cherokee nation at New Echota, Georgia.

In 1828, Sequoyah journeyed to Washington, D.C. as part of a delegation to negotiate a treaty for land in Oklahoma. Later that year, he moved with the Western Cherokee to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

The fate of the Cherokee Nation turned when gold was discovered on their lands. Since about 1800, momentum had been gathering for the removal of all Indians to reservations west of the Mississippi. The discovery of gold fueled the fire.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson made good on a campaign promise to move all Indians to the western frontier. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, requiring all Indians to relocate.

The Choctaw were removed first, then the Chickasaw, Seminole, and Creek. The troops came last for the Cherokees because of their remote location in the mountains.

The darkest days in Cherokee history came during the winter of 1838-39.
A force of 7,000 soldiers under General Winfield Scott forced 17,000 Cherokees from their land in the Great Smoky Mountains. Their homes were burned.

The thousand-mile walk known as The Trail of Tears began in the winter of 1838. Carrying only light blankets, some infected with smallpox, the weary band was given daily rations of salt pork and corn meal. More than 4,000 Cherokees died along the way.

When the grueling march was over, Sequoyah again proved his diplomatic skill by resolving conflicts between the different groups arriving from the east. He led the effort to establish a unified Cherokee government.

Sequoyah continued to serve the Cherokee people as a statesman and diplomat until his death. In his eighties, Sequoyah fell ill and died in 1843 while searching for a band of Cherokees who had disappeared into Mexico. The location of his grave is unknown.

Today, Sequoyah’s legacy lives on in the hearts the Cherokee people.

Kirk H. Neely

© July 2009

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