Sequoyah and the secrets of the syllabaryOct 1st, 2011 | By JCrutchfield | Category: History Mystery, In Every Issue
Sequoyah and the secrets of the syllabary
by Jennifer Crutchfield
A disabled man named George did something in 1825 that had never been done before in the history of the entire world. For the first time ever and only time since a man who could not read or write created an effective writing system for an illiterate nation. In the history of language and cultures that has never happened before and when it did it changed Chattanooga and the Cherokee Nation.
In the Cherokee tribal system it was the line of the mother’s clan that was important in a child’s life. Sequoyah was born into the Red Paint Clan and the famous tribal chiefs Old Tassel and Doublehead were his grandfather and great uncle.
When Sequoyah was a boy he was injured in a hunting accident and became disabled, his Cherokee name reflecting his foot injury, “Pig’s Foot”. The Cherokee were hunter-gatherers and young boys learned life lessons from their elders and the land with bows in their hands searching for prey in their ancestor’s lands. As George returned to health he learned from his elders and became adept as a silversmith and blacksmith.
Sequoyah, also known as George Gist (or Guess) was the son of an English fur trader named Nathaniel Gist who had served with George Washington in the Continental Army and a woman who was the daughter of a tribal chief. Sequoyah was 18 years old when Doubletree and Old Tassel were assassinated at a Peace Conference his uncle, Young Tassel, became the hand-picked successor to the famous warrior chief Dragging Canoe. Dragging Canoe had taken his warriors from eastern Cherokee lands to a new set of towns where they called themselves the Chickamaugas. They lived in seven villages in places we know now as Reflection Riding, Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga and Brown’s Ferry.
Sequoyah served in the Cherokee Regiment during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, fighting the Creek Indians alongside Americans. In 1813 the Cherokee had already ceded vast amounts of land to the French, British and, finally, Americans. While Sequoyah served alongside Americans he had a family history of mistrust that kept a wary eye on his fellow soldiers.
Young George Guess (Gist) had a wife and children and watched while fellow soldiers read loving words from their family members and orders from their commanding officers while he and his fellow Cherokee couldn’t communicate except through runners. He recognized that his nation could not survive within this nation without a way to communicate, record their history and govern their future.
Sequoyah knew that they needed a written language in order to protect them from the treaties and “talking leaves” that came with each new government and stream of encroaching pioneers. A life of patience and passionate politics must have given him the strength to endure the ridicule of his neighbor’s and his family as he spend 12 years identifying the 86 syllables that make up the Cherokee language.
With his daughter Ayoka Sequoyah tested his syllables and took his written messages to the Cherokee tribal leaders who had already migrated to the Arkansas territory. Sequoyah took his syllabary to the Brainerd Mission and the message of literacy spread like wildfire in the Cherokee Nation. Literacy among the Cherokee surpassed that of European settlers as messengers took the lessons of the syllabary to the farthest corners of the Nation; Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
The average Cherokee could learn to read with Sequoyah’s system in a few months and there was a printing press, newspaper and system of formal government in just a few years as the Cherokee Nation forged ahead as a nation within a nation, led forward by the syllables Sequoyah created.
Where to take your kids:
Brainerd Mission Cemetary
The Brainerd Mission was the only settled area in Chattanooga other than the trading post at Ross’s Landing and the school compound was the first agrarian school in the country. Across from the China Moon at Eastgate Mall is the remaining plot of land with gravestones of both Cherokee and white missionaries. It is open to the public and is a fascinating picnic adventure to have with your children.
New Echota in Calhoun, Georgia is less than an hour’s drive away and is an amazing state park with many buildings from the Cherokee Nation’s capitol replicated and a wonderful hiking path. It is a great place for a family daytrip during Fall Break with your children.