Sequoyah of the Tsalagi

It is said that in ancient times, when writing first began, a man named Moses made marks on a stone. I can agree with you by what name to call those marks and that will be writing and can be understood."

When Europeans first landed in North America, they found an industrious race of warrior people called the Tsalagi living in what is now eastern Tennessee and the Carolinas. The whites called them "Cherokee." From this nation would come a man whose extraordinary abilities would greatly serve and protect his people. His name was Sequoya.

Few questioned the abilities of Native Americans as warriors. And the Tsalagi were one of the foremost warrior nations. But some questioned the intelligence of the Native Americans. Were they truly capable of high intellectual attainment or were they merely savages? Among others, Sequoyah would put this racist silliness to rest.

Most agree that Sequoyah was born sometime in the 1770s in the Tsalagi village of Tuskegee on the Tennessee. His mother, Wurerth, belonged to the Paint Clan. Some argue that Sequoyah's father was a white man from Virgina named Nathaniel Gist (sometimes rendered "Guess"). Sequoyah is sometimes referred to as George Guess or George Gist. Others insist that Sequoyah was a full-blood.; that he let himself by portrayed as a half-blood to give more credence to his alphabet. (Also read this on the subject.
Young Sequoyah

In any event, young Sequoyah was raised in the customs and traditions of the Tsalagi people. As a young man, Sequoyah was injured in a hunting accident and became partially lame. Perhaps this made him more introspective. Sequoyah understood that much of the power white men wielded at the expense of Native Americans came from their ability to read and write. This stored information far more efficiently than oral tradition and story-telling. In about 1809, he began to plan his alphabet of the Tsalagi language. Even so, Sequoyah was no intellectual manque. He took part in the War of 1812 as a warrior in spite of his physical handicap. During that service, Sequoyah became more than ever convinced that the Tsalagi needed writing. Unlike whites, Tsalagi warriors could not write letters home, or receive mail from loved ones. Orders had to be commited to memory. Sequoyah began to concentrate more and more on his "talking leaves."
The Cherokee Alphabet

At first, Sequoyah conceived of a pictographic language (similar to Chinese) where words or concepts are symbolized with graphics. He quickly realized that such a system would require an unmanageable number of symbols. All the while he worked, Sequoyah was harrassed by those who did not approve of his work or appreciate what it would mean to the Tsalagi people. Sequoyah then began to experiment with a phonetic alphabet where symbols represented individual sounds rather than concepts or things. This was much more manageable. He set to work and discovered that there are 85 vowel and consonant sounds in the Tsalagi language. Sequoyah assigned a character to each of these. This was the core of the Tsalagi or Cherokee alphabet.
Proposal and Accceptance

In 1821, Sequoyah demonstrated his alphabet before Tsalagi leaders who were amazed and impressed by the accomplishment. It was quickly adopted as the official written language of the Tsalagi.
Tsa La Gi Tsu lehisanunhi--Cherokee Phoenix

Because of the simplicity of Sequoyah's alphabet system, many Tsalagi became literate in a short time. In 1827, the Cherokee Phoenix--Tsa La Gi lehisanunhi--was established. Funded by the Cherokee Council, this first Native American newspaper was published in New Echota, Georgia Elias Boudinot was the first editor and Reverend Samuel Worcester, a missionary, was director. On February 21, 1828, the first issue of the paper was printed. In time other works including the Holy Bible would be printed in Sequoyah's syllabry.
Sequoyah Moves Westward

Sequoyah moved westward shortly after the publication of the Phoenix. He lived first in Arkansas and then Oklahoma. Sequoyah was already resident in Oklahoma when Chief John Ross led the Tsalagi to the terriotry on the infamous "Trail of Tears."
The End...

In 1842, Sequoyah was no longer a young man. Although his age cannot be exactly determined, he was probably in his mid-sixities. He set out to find a band of Tsalagi who had left the traditional tribal homelands in the southeastern United States to reunite them with their nation. Sequoyah discovered them living in Mexico, but the strain of the journey was too much. In 1843, Sequoyah died in Mexico in the service of the Tsalagi people.
The Legacy

When Sequoyah created the Tsalagi Alphabet, he settled once and for all the old issue of the intellectual capacity of Native Americans. Not only did he create a writing system from scratch, he created one that was at once so simple and utilitarian that virtually an entire nation became literate in slightly more than a year. Sequoyah was a warrior and a statesman but above that, he was a thinker. It is only just that numerous elementary and high schools across the nation are named in honor of this brilliant Tsalagi leader.

Biographical links

Alphabet Links

Other Tsalagi Sites