Sequoyah

c.1770-c.1843
Linguist, Educator, Statesman

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Sequoyah was born in the Cherokee Nation between 1760 and 1775. His parents were Wut-teh,the daughter of a Cherokee chief, and Nathaniel Gist, a Virginia trader. He took his English name, George Gist, from his father.

Sequoyah’s Cherokee name means “pig’s foot,” and refers to his disabled leg. Challenged by that disability and lacking a written language, Sequoyah drew upon a keen sense of observation about society and a courageous heart to make his mark on history.

Around the beginning of the 19th century, he moved his family to Alabama at Will's Town in DeKalb County. There he established himself as a pioneer craftsman, trader, entrepreneur and leader of his people. Hospitality, politics, business and culture flourished at his shop and home on the Alabama frontier. Sequoyah and other Cherokee allies joined Andrew Jackson in the U.S. campaign against the Creek Confederacy, finally devastating the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

About 1809, Sequoyah began to formulate his hallmark invention, a Cherokee alphabet.

In 1821, from his new residence in the West, he finalized the research and dream of reducing his language to a written code. He released a Cherokee syllabary of eighty-six symbols (later 85) in which a symbol was designed for each syllable of spoken Cherokee, and the symbols were combined to make words. The syllabary was so simple and elegant that Cherokees could often master reading and writing in several days. Sequoyah returned to his Eastern brethren in 1822 to distribute and teach the system that spread quickly, bolstered by the reverence he enjoyed among his people.

Sequoyah's syllabary ushered in a new age of Cherokee civilization in which the tribe produced literature, newspapers, laws, and a constitution. They conducted business and government in writing, preserved their oral traditions, and explored Christian scripture and hymns.

Sequoyah continued to instruct and guide his people even after the U.S. government forced them from their ancestral lands in the East. As a leader of the Cherokee Nation, he participated in political affairs, negotiated treaties and acted as conciliator between the Western Cherokees and the dispossessed Eastern Band. In 1842, though aging and declining, he was concerned for a lost band of Cherokees, rumored to reside in Mexico. He is believed to have died there on a search mission in 1843.

This Native American is highly worthy of distinction in Alabama, where his linguistic genius and public service began. Sequoyah stands tall as a national legend in the history of the United States, like the majestic redwoods named in his memory.