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Sequoya [archive]

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Born about 1760 - Died August, 1843


Sequoya, whose gift of the Cherokee syllabary removed the shackles of illiteracy from an Indian Nation, left a mark upon all Indian history by providing a means to record and transmit the language of his people. Although unable to speak any language but Cherokee, and incapable of reading or writing anything, Sequoya was aware of the benefits of a written word by which events could be recorded as they happened, and a precise statement made which could later be reviewed.

Work on his "talking leaves," as the symbols were called, began about 1809 and consumed most of Sequoia’s time until the system was perfected in 1821. The syllabary was proven and adopted by the Cherokees in the winter of 1821-22. Within a relatively short time all members of the Cherokee Nation could read, a printing press had been set up, and a newspaper had begun publication. Piles of The Cherokee Phoenix from 1828 show a wide range of subjects discussed, the paper being printed partly in English and partly with the Cherokee characters, which had been cast into type.

Sequoia’s arrival upon the scene was somewhat shadowed, his birth date being placed at from 1760 to 1775. The birth dates of some of his kin have been recorded, but none was definitely set for him. He was born to Nathaniel Gist (also recorded Guest or Guess) and a Cherokee woman, in Tuskegee, Tennessee, on the Tennessee River in the Overhills country. Grant Foreman, who wrote one of the best books on Sequoya, titled Sequoya, sets his birth date at 1760.

Sequoya, a silversmith and blacksmith, was lame as the result of a hunting accident. His work in perfecting the syllabary made a virtual recluse of him, and earned him jibes from his tribesmen. All this was changed upon the introduction of his "talking leaves," and he became a recognized leader of his people. His greatest concern was for the Cherokees. He made several trips ~ Washington in the interest of the Cherokee Nation, and was active in tribal governmental affairs.

Late in life Sequoya became interested in a group of the Cherokee people who were living in Mexico and, in 1842, undertook a trip from his home in the Cherokee Nation to Mexico, in order to urge them to return to the Fast. It is thought he was about eighty years old at the time, and he died in Mexico in August 1843. Members of the Cherokee tribe went to Mexico to verify the fact and report that Sequoya was buried in the vicinity of San Fernando, Mexico.

A Gift of "Talking Leaves"

Whereas our Fathers have existed as a separate and distinct Nation, in the possession and exercise of the essential and appropriate attributes of sovereignty, from a period extending into antiquity, beyond the records and memory of man, and whereas these attributes, with the rights and franchises which they involve, remain still in full force and virtue, as do all the national and social relations of the Cherokee people to each other and to the body politic, excepting in those particulars which have grown out of the provisions of the treaties of 1811 and 1819 between the United States and the Cherokee Nation, under which a portion of our people removed to this country and became a separate community. But the force of circumstances having recently compelled the body of the Eastern Cherokees to remove to this country, this bringing together again the two branches of the ancient Cherokee family, it has become essential to the general welfare that a union should be formed, and a system of government matured, adapted to their present condition and providing equally for the protection of each individual in the enjoyment of his rights:

Therefore we, the people composing the Eastern and Western Cherokee Nation, in National Convention assembled, by virtue of our original and inalienable rights, do hereby solemnly and mutually agree to form ourselves into one body politic, under the style and title of the Cherokee Nation.

In view of the union now formed, and for the purpose of making satisfactory adjustment of all unsettled business which may have arisen before the consummation of this union, we agree that such business shall be settled according to the provisions of the respective laws under which it originated, and the courts of the Cherokee Nation shall be governed in their decisions accordingly. Also that the delegation authorized by the Eastern Cherokees to make arrangement with Major General Scott for their removal to this country shall continue in charge of that business, with their present powers, until it shall be finally closed and also that all rights and title to public Cherokee lands on the east or west of the river Mississippi, with all other public interests which may have been vested in either branch of the Cherokee family, whether inherited from our fathers or derived from any other source, shall henceforward vest entire and unimpaired in the Cherokee Nation, as constituted by this union.

Given under our hands, at Illinois Campground, this 12th day of July 1839.

By order of the National Convention.

I GEORGE LOWREY, President of the Eastern Cherokees

GEORGE GUESS, His X Mark, President of the Western Cherokees

(As noted, Lowrey signed the treaty, Sequoyah used his name, George Guess, and applied his mark to the agreement.)

In the search for quotations made by Sequoyah very little material has been unearthed, and this only of a few sentences. However, he was the subject of several interviews, and lengthy discussions were published as a result. In April 1828, the Missionary Herald carried a report by their corresponding secretary, Jeremiah Evarts, who was a very capable writer. Evarts was one of the founders of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and was manager for the American Bible Society. In his article Evarts reported on the progress of the Cherokee newspaper, and gave his impressions of Sequoyah, which revealed him to be an engaging person with a keen insight into the needs of the Cherokees.

The Niles Register of September 5, 1829, gives a lengthy resume' of a speech made by Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, a noted lecturer on literary subjects, in which he discusses in detail an interview with Sequoyah. He gives a complete account of Sequoia’s explanation of how he conceived and developed the syllabary, but not once does he give a direct quotation, since the interview was carried on through the services of an interpreter.

Albert Gallatin, who was secretary of the treasury of the United States from 1801-14, was reported to have included an interview with Sequoyah in some of his prolific writing.

John Howard Payne became interested in the Cherokees and in 1835 had Sequoyah dictate to him, again through an interpreter. In spite of developing a method to make records of time and events, the modesty of Sequoyah has left very little upon which to base writings concerning him. The older people carried their knowledge to the grave and very little was left recorded by either the "talking leaves" or the English language to adequately trace the course of this great and humble man across the face of Cherokee and American history.

Additional Reading

 Cherokee Syllabary
 Cherokee Language
 The Cherokee Indians
 Cherokee Stories
 Cherokee Indian History

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