Just a few steps south of the Bristow Cemetery, just barely inside Etowah County from DeKalb County, is the actual site where Sequoyah first invented his syllabary or Cherokee alphabets. The old oak tree that he studied under has been gone for several years but many alive today remembers it. Many in our area do not realize that Sequoyah lived here for a few years, much less inventing the Cherokee alphabets in what is now Etowah County. After he left, one of his family, perhaps a brother, remained here until around the removal.
Sequoyah was born near what is Vonore, Tennessee at Fort Loudoun. His father name was Nathaniel Gist, a Virginia fur trader. His mom name is Wut-teh, the daughter of a Cherokee Chief. Of his mother, it is known that she was a Cherokee and belonged to the Paint Clan.
The names Sequoyah or Sequoia are both spellings given by missionaries, as corruptions of the Cherokee name Sogwali, or Sikwâ’y, which is believed to be derived from the Cherokee word siqua meaning ‘hog’. This is either a reference to a childhood deformity or a later injury that left Sequoyah disabled.
The fact that Sequoyah did not speak English may be an indication that he and his mother were abandoned by his father. At some point before 1809, Sequoyah moved to Willstown next to today’s Bristow Cemetery. Here he established his trade as a silversmith and a trader.
Sequoyah became a clever silversmith, making various articles from the silver coins of the French and Spanish trappers and the English traders. It is said that these articles were skillfully made with tasteful designs. None of his work is known to have survived.
Sequoyah’s trading house became a sort of general meeting place for all of the members of the tribe who lived in that section of the country, and it seems certain that he was looked upon as a leader. The whites often referred to him as a chief but he never held such a position officially.
Once, in the year 1809, the conversation in Sequoyah’s shop turned on the ability of the white man to send messages from one to the other by means of “talking leaves.” The majority considered it to be the work of sorcerers, others thought of it as a special gift, and some considered it mere imposture.
Sequoyah had listened in silence, but at length remarked that he did not consider it a divine gift, an act of magic or mere imposture, but that the marks on the paper stood for words. He said that he believed he could invent a plan by means of which the Cherokees could talk on paper like the white man. He then took up a whetstone and began to scratch figures on it.
The company laughed at him and ridiculed his statements. This taunting ridicule extended until even some of his own family took part in it. He determined to work at it until the Cherokees could talk on paper.
Almost immediately Sequoyah began work to create a system of writing for the Cherokee language. At first he tried to make a different character for every word, but gave it up after several months because the number of characters was too large to be remembered.
He then tried to make a separate character for every idea but found that there were too many difficulties in such a system. His family found this to be almost as bad as drunkenness, for during the years he was at work on the alphabet he neglected his business.
After attempting to create a character for each word, Sequoyah decided to divide each word into syllables and create one character for each syllable. He obtained an old English book, and, although he had no idea of the sounds represented by the English characters, he decided to adapt these characters to his use. After taking some of the letters, modifying others, and inventing some forms of his own, Sequoyah had an alphabet, or rather a syllabary, with which he could write any word in his native language.
The forms were simpler and more distinct than the ones he had been making, they were more easily read and remembered and were easier to make. Utilizing the Roman alphabet, he created 86 characters to represent the various syllables. This work took Sequoyah 12 years to complete.
After the alphabet was completed he had considerable difficulty in teaching it to his prejudiced and superstitious tribesmen. His first pupil was his daughter, Ah-yo-ka, who was quite young at the time but who rapidly learned to read and write.
George Lowrey, a half-breed Scotch-Cherokee was town chief, and in order to get clear of the responsibility, he recommended that they send to one of the five Chickamaugua towns for a group of young men to try Sequoyah and his daughter.
When the warriors who were to try them arrived, they separated the father and daughter and then asked Sequoyah to write messages which were carried to Ahyoka, who was out of sight and hearing. She read these and wrote others which Sequoyah interpreted for them.
After a number of trials the young men were convinced that they could make the paper talk and asked to be taught so that they could return to their homes and teach others. Within a week all of them were able to read and write.
By 1823 the syllabary was in full use by the Cherokee Nation. In 1824 the General Council of the Eastern Cherokees voted to give Sequoyah a large silver medal as a mark of distinction. Sequoyah wore the medal throughout the rest of his life and when he died it was buried with him. The writing system was made official by the Cherokee Nation in 1825.
After the acceptance of his syllabary by the nation, 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.
From 1828 to 1834 the language was used in the Cherokee Phoenix which represented the Cherokee Nation
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 all Native American tribes. With this in mind, Sequoyah began to journey to areas of present day Arizona and New Mexico seeking tribes there.
Unfortunately, he died in Mexico (now Texas ) in 1843 after visiting family in a band of Chickamauga Cherokee who had moved there earlier.
The immediate results of what Sequoyah did have no parallel in history. Not a school house was built and not a teacher was hired, but within a few months a nation of Indians, called savages by their enemies, rose from a condition of savage illiteracy to one of culture, unaided save by one man.