By Ben T. Traywick

“The giant redwoods of California bear this remarkable halfbreed Indian’s name, for he was a giant among men.”


Lithograph of Sequoyah

From a lithograph in Mc Kinney and Halls “Indian Tribes”. Photograph furnished by the Bureau Of American Ethnology.

One of the most famous Indians in the history of America was the half-breed Cherokee, Sequoyah, a man of outstanding courage and intelligence. He was born at about the same time that a few white settlers moved into the valleys of Wataugs. History does not record the exact date. His mother was the niece of a Cherokee chief, and his father was a white trader, called Nathaniel Gist. Gist deserted his Red bride even before she bore his son. Nevertheless, the young mother named her first-born George Gist. (Many references call him George Guess.)

As a boy, Sequoyah hunted, fished, and farmed in East Tennessee. It was a fine, peaceful life, and he lived it to the fullest. When he grew older, he became a hunter and fur trader. He still was a young man when a hunting accident left him permanently crippled in one leg. During the time it took for his leg to heal, he turned to art and silversmithing. Sequoyah had a remarkable talent for storytelling, which fascinated the Cherokees. Their villages always had ample room for storytellers because, since they had no written language, their religion, taboos, legends, and history were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. The amazing young Indian refused to learn to read and write English. He claimed that he would be less of a Cherokee if he adopted the White Man’s tongue. Though he refused to learn the language of the White man, he was impressed by the printed word. To be able to write down a record of one’s thoughts seemed to him almost comparable to teaching the leaves and grass to talk. Wishing to write like the White Man. Sequoyah took up a task of creating a written Cherokee language. It was very nearly impossible because the Cherokee’s language was meant to be heard rather than read. The meaning of many of their words depended on how they were spoken, or the tone was used. Sequoyah first tried to break down the words into syllables, assigning a symbol to each. But there were not enough symbols to represent all the sounds. Even the Cherokee elders refused to assist him in such a task. Then, around 1820, Sequoyah took himself a wife, called Polly. A daughter, Sally, was born to them in the year of their first marriage.


The hand press at top is similar to the one Sequoyah used to print his newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. As he had learned the White Man’s language, so he learned how to use the White Man’s printing press to publish the first Indian paper.

For more than ten years, Sequoyah labored to give the Cherokees an alphabet. His wife and many of his tribesman considered him possessed by devils. Once, they conspired to stop his work by burning down this house with all his papers and records. However, the loss of those valuable papers did not stop him. In giving symbols to the various sounds of the Cherokee language, Sequoyah found that he could have no less than 86 symbols in his alphabet. Though he did not realize it, the Indian sage had applied the early Chinese pictograph system to his alphabet. Once he had sorted the 86 sounds which go to make up the Cherokee language, he listed them in syllabic form. Using an old English speller and a Moravian Bible, he devised a distinctive, simple character symbol for each syllable. The White Man’s letters were meaningless to him but he used them, adding ling and curlicues, or tilting them from their normal position. “X” was the only letter of the English alphabet that he omitted. With Sequoyah’s alphabet, practically any Cherokee could learn to read and write, and he taught several of the Indian children, among them his own six-year-old daughter, Sally.


The hand press at top is similar to the one Sequoyah used to print his newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. As he had learned the White Man’s language, so he learned how to use the White Man’s printing press to publish the first Indian paper.

When he felt that the time was ripe, Sequoyah presented his work to the tribe’s elders. Chief Jolly and the tribal council listened, but they thought that it was all a waste of time. To convince them of the worth of his work, the young amateur teacher told them to give him a message they would like to send. He would write it down and they could carry it to his daughter, Sally, at whatever distance they desired her to be. She could not possible know the message they had given him, but would read it to them from what he had written. They gave him a rather difficult message, which he wrote down on a scrap of paper. Chief Jolly and two of the elders took it and rode away to Sally, several miles away. Apprehensively, Sequoyah waited. For, after all, Sally was only a six-year-old child. He had taught her all the symbols, but would she be able to remember them all? When the elders returned, Chief Jolly told him that the child had read the message perfectly. Now, his tribesmen were convinced, and they, too, began to learn Sequoyah’s alphabet. Within two years, halfof the Eastern Cherokees had learned to read and write their own language!

Then, Sequoyah was called to Washington to present his work to the American Board of Commissioners for foreign Missions. The proud Cherokee soon became famous. His people struck a large silver medal for him as a token of their acclaim. Now that his people in the east were the most literate Indians on earth, Sequoyah journeyed west, where many other Cherokees had settled, determined that they, too, would learn to read and write in their own language. Soon, a printing press was put into operation. On February 21, 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix, the first Indian newspaper, was published. Its publication continued until the printing press was seized by soldiers.

In the late 1830’s, President Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee nation to go west on the Trail of Tears, where many died.

Again in 1844, the publication of an Indian paper, called the Cherokee Advocate, was begun.

Tribal legend told of a small hand of Cherokees, who long ago had migrated far to the southwest, and Sequoyah was convinced that the band was a group that had started down the Tennessee River years ago and had eventually disappeared. He believed that those Cherokees also should have the opportunity to learn to read and write. Although he was old and crippled now, Sequoyah set out for Mexico to find the legendary band of  Cherokees. Many months passed, and the old Cherokee failed to return. The Council sent Oonoleh to search for him. Oonoleh’s report is now in the National Archives. It was written in Cherokee, dated May 15, 1845, and announced to the Cherokee nation that their beloved Sequoyah had died in Mexico.


Sequoyah set out for Mexico in search of a band of Cherokees, in order to teach them how to read and write. But he never returned.

Today, counties, countries, towns, streets, trails, and parks are named after the Cherokee. Canon Kingsley gave the remarkable Indian’s name to the giant redwoods of California, which was most appropriate, since Sequoyah stood tall among his people, in more ways than one.

Leave a Reply