Sequoyah, named in English George Gist or Guess, was a Cherokee silversmith who in 1821 completed his independent creation of a Cherokee syllabary, making reading and writing in Cherokee possible. This was the first time in recorded history that a member of an illiterate people independently created an effective writing system. After seeing its worth, the Cherokee Nation rapidly began to use his syllabary and officially adopted it in 1825.
Sequoyah's heroic status has led to several competing accounts of his life that are speculative, contradictory, or fabricated. James Mooney, a prominent anthropologist and historian of the Cherokee people, quoted a cousin as saying that as a little boy, Sequoyah spent his early years with his mother in the village of Tuskegee. Estimates of his birth year ranged from 1760-1776. His name is believed to come from the Cherokee word siqua meaning 'hog'. This is either a reference to a childhood deformity or a later injury that left Sequoyah disabled.
His mother Wut-teh was known to be Cherokee, belonging to the Paint Clan. Mooney stated that she was the niece of a Cherokee chief. Sources differ as to the identity of Sequoyah's father. Mooney and others suggested that he was possibly a fur trader, who would have been a man of some social status and financial backing. Grant Foreman identified him as Nathaniel Gist, a commissioned officer with the Continental Army associated with George Washington. In one Cherokee source, his father is said to be a half-blood and his grandfather a white man.
Sequoyah first married Sally, with whom he had four children. After her death, he married Utiyu, with whom he had three children. At some point before 1809, Sequoyah moved to Willstown, Cherokee Nation, in present-day northeast Alabama. There he established his trade as a silversmith.
As a silversmith, Sequoyah dealt regularly with whites who had settled in the area. The Native Americans were impressed by their writing, referring to their correspondence as "talking leaves." Around 1819, Sequoyah began work to create a system of writing for the Cherokee language. At first he sought to create a character for each word in the language. He spent a year on this effort, leaving his fields unplanted, so that his friends and neighbors thought he had lost his mind. Sequoyah did not succeed until he gave up trying to represent entire words and instead developed a symbol for each syllable in the language. After approximately a month, he had a system of 86 characters, some of which were Roman letters that he obtained from a spelling book.
Unable to find people willing to learn the syllabary, he taught it to his daughter Ayokeh, and then traveled to present-day Arkansas where some Cherokee had settled. When he tried to convince the local leaders of the syllabary's usefulness, they doubted him, believing that the symbols were merely ad hoc reminders. Sequoyah asked each of them to say a word, which he wrote down, and then called his daughter in to read the words back. This demonstration convinced the leaders to let him teach the syllabary to a few more people. This took several months, during which it was rumored that he might be using the students for sorcery. After completing the lessons, he was further tested by writing a dictated letter to each student, and reading a dictated response. This test convinced the Arkansas Cherokee that he had created a practical writing system.
When Sequoyah returned east, he brought a sealed envelope containing a written speech from one of the Arkansas Cherokee leaders. By reading this speech, he convinced the eastern Cherokee also to learn the system, after which it spread rapidly. In 1825 the Cherokee Nation officially adopted the writing system. From 1828 to 1834 writers and editors used Sequoyah's syllabary to print the Cherokee Phoenix, the first newspaper of the Cherokee Nation with text in English and Cherokee.
Life in Arkansas and further west
After the acceptance of his syllabary by the nation in 1825, Sequoyah walked to the new Cherokee territory in Arkansas. There he set up a blacksmith shop and a salt works. He continued to teach the syllabary to anyone who came to him. In 1828, Sequoyah journeyed to Washington, D.C. as part of a delegation to negotiate a treaty for land in Oklahoma.
His trip brought him into contact with representatives of other Native American tribes from around the nation. With these meetings he decided to create a syllabary for universal use among Native American tribes. With this in mind, Sequoyah began to journey to areas of present-day Arizona and New Mexico seeking tribes there.
In addition, Sequoyah dreamed of seeing the splintered Cherokee Nation reunited. Between 1843 and 1845, he died during a trip to Mexico seeking Cherokees who had moved there. His burial location is unknown.
Sequoyah's Cabin, a frontier cabin which he lived in during 1829-1844, is located in Oklahoma. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.