Sequoyah (ca. 1770–1843), the inventor of the Cherokee syllabary (a set of written symbols that represent spoken syllables), became the only individual in world history to invent a written language by himself.
Sequoyah was born in Taskigi, now within the state of Tennessee. His father was an American trader and his mother a Cherokee. He spent his early life as a hunter and fur trader but was crippled in a hunting accident (he subsequently worked as a silversmith). In the Creek War of 1813 and 1814, Sequoyah served under General Andrew Jackson.
In 1809, Sequoyah initiated work on a Cherokee alphabet. He hoped to aid his tribe in becoming literate in their own tongue, a tool that not only would help the tribe communicate in new ways and over many miles, but also would ensure, he hoped, the survival of the Cherokee language and cultural identity. After much frustration—and after his workshop was burned down by skeptical tribespeople— Seqouyah realized that an alphabet based on the Cherokee language would be exceedingly difficult to master. A syllabary based on phonetics would be easier to learn, Sequoyah concluded, and worked to perfect his system. His syllabary consists of eighty-six characters.
Although Sequoyah's project was met with skepticism by some Cherokees, his project was embraced within a few years after the official recognition of the project by tribal leaders. Nearly twelve years after the commencement of his project, Sequoyah presented his syllabary to the Cherokee Council in 1821. In a short time—some suggest only a few months—children and adults were able to read and write using Sequoyah's system. Soon after, parts of the Bible were translated into Cherokee, showing how missionaries hoped to incorporate the language into their work. In addition, the Cherokee constitution (1828) and the Cherokee Phoenix and Indian Advocate, a weekly newspaper first published in 1828, were printed in both English and Cherokee. Today, the syllabary is still used by many Cherokees, both in Oklahoma and North Carolina, and it represents a strong tie to a heritage distinct from other American cultural groups.
The syllabary's completion and dissemination throughout the Cherokee Nation in 1821 occurred at an important time of change for the Cherokees and other tribes. Unlike the tribes that used a lack of literacy as a powerful form of resistance, the Cherokee used their syllabary as a form of defiance in the face of growing pressures from the United States, pressures that would eventually force the relocation of most of the Cherokees. The syllabary continues to symbolize cultural independence among many Cherokees.
Sequoyah accompanied the Cherokees forcibly removed by the U.S. government on the Trail of Tears in 1838 to Indian Territory, which would later become Oklahoma. Once there, he became president of the western Cherokees and presented the Cherokee Act of Union, which united the eastern and western Cherokee peoples. Sequoyah's death is something of a mystery. In 1842 he joined an expedition to locate a lost band of Cherokees who migrated west during the American Revolution. He never returned and his remains were never found. Many believe that Sequoyah died in Mexico and is buried somewhere near San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Still, Sequoyah, who never learned English fluently, is honored in a variety of ways by his tribe, by the state of Oklahoma, and by the giant redwood trees along the northern California coast that bear his name.
Amy M. Ware
Bender, Margaret. 2002. Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.; Foreman, Grant. 1938. Sequoyah. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Mooney, James. 1996. Myths of the Cherokee. New York: Dover Publications.