Sequoyah (also known as George Gist)


Sequoyah is one of the most important Tennesseans, and one of  the most important members of the Cherokee Nation, to have ever lived.

Sequoyah invented a written language by creating a syllabary, one symbol at a time, which allowed a person to write down any Cherokee word. This enabled the Cherokee people to become the first American Indians to have a written language.

A TN History for Kids retreat at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum

It was a remarkable achievement. “Sequoyah is the only person in recorded history who created a writing system without first knowing a written language himself,” says Dr. Duane King, director of research at the Gilcrease Museum in Oklahoma.

However, the man who invented a written language never wrote a book about his life. So today, stories about Sequoyah are all derived from a combination of oral tradition and conjecture.

You can see the Cherokee town of Tuskegee (near Fort Loudoun) on this map that Henry Timberlake sketched out around 1758

We know he was born in Tuskegee, one of the man Cherokee villages along the Little Tennessee River. Like other Cherokee villages such as Tanase and Chota, Tuskegee is now permanently underwater – buried beneath the waters of Tellico Lake.

We are not certain when Sequoyah was born, although many accounts say it was around 1776.

This display at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum tells the story of Sequoyah’s childhood

Most sources indicate that Sequoyah’s mother was full blooded Cherokee named Wut-teh, and his father was a fur trader from Maryland named Nathanial Gist (a named that is often spelled “Guess”). But there are other accounts.

Within the Cherokee Nation, his father’s identity was not important. Sequoyah was a member of the paint clan.

The man went by two names. His Cherokee name was Sequoyah. His English name was George Gist (or Guess). This practice of having two names was very common at the time in the Cherokee world in which Sequoyah lived.

Charlie Rhodarmer at a TN History for Kids event in 2020

Sequoyah had a limp, but we don’t know why. Since the name Sequoyah means “pig’s foot” in Cherokee, many believe he was born with a disability. However, some accounts claim that he was injured in a hunting accident, or even injured in military service. “I have read 25 different accounts of why he limped,” says Charlie Rhodarmer, director of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.

Like many other Cherokees, Sequoyah fought on the American side during the Creek War. Many of his biographers have assumed that he was present at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, on March 27, 1814. However, “just what part Sequoyah played in the fighting is not on record,” says Stan Hoig, in the book Sequoyah: The Cherokee Genius.

A living historian at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum demonstrates what Sequoyah did for a living

Sequoyah was a silversmith and a blacksmith. This means that, by standards of the time, he was well off and could buy household necessities as he needed them.

Before he invented his syllabary, Sequoyah invented a numbering system out of his need to run his blacksmith business. “I think he invented the numbering system as a way of keeping track of who owed him money, and how much they owed him,” says Rhodarmer. “After all, he made his living doing things like making nails, jewelry and tools. He did so at a time when many of his customers couldn’t pay when they picked things up. So he had to keep up with all this.”

All stories about Sequoyah seem to agree that he spent a lot of time alone, inventing his syllabary

We don’t know exactly what led Sequoyah to invent his syllabary. According to some stories, Sequoyah originally got the idea watching American soldiers stationed at the Tellico Blockhouse, near his home. However, a story in the Cherokee Phoenix, published in 1828, said that the idea came to Sequoyah when he overheard a conversation about the ability of white men to put their language on paper.

Sequoyah’s syllabary

“Mr. Guess, after silently listening to their conversation for awhile, raised himself, and putting on an air of importance, said, ‘You are all fools; why, the thing is very easy; I can do it myself,” and, picking up a flat stone, he commenced scratching on it with a pin; and after a few minutes read to them a sentence, which he had written by making a mark for each word. The inventive powers of Guess’s mind were now roused to action; and nothing short of being able to write the Cherokee language would satisfy him. He went home, purchased materials, and sat down to paint the Cherokee language on paper.”

We don’t know when Sequoyah moved from Tennessee to present-day Alabama. Because of this, no one really knows whether he was already working on the written language when he moved to Alabama, or whether the idea came to him after he moved there.

Sequoyah’s syllabary is often known as the “talking leaves,” as this display at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, N.C. points out

Sequoyah had many detractors. All the accounts of Sequoyah’s life seem to maintain that other member of the Cherokee Nation, including his wife, thought he was crazy. At some point, long after Sequoyah started working on his project, she reportedly destroyed all of his work. Sequoyah was frustrated, but he started all over again.

A book called Old Frontiers by John P. Brown attributes the following quote to Sequoyah: “If our people think I am making a fool of myself, you may tell them that what I am doing will not make fools of them,” he said. “They did not cause me to begin, and they shall not cause me to stop.”

Sequoyah’s demonstration of his written language to the Cherokee people was dramatic. Most accounts claim that Sequoyah, under suspicion of witchcraft, demonstrated his written language to tribal elders with the help of his daughter Ayoka.

Here is an account of this demonstration that I found on, the official web site of the Cherokee Indian nation:

Cherokee storyteller Candice Byrd has a short video about Sequoyah’s life.

“Although the system was foolproof and easy to learn, Sequoyah and Ayoka were charged with witchcraft, and were brought before George Lowery, their town chief, for trial. Due to a Cherokee law enacted in 1811, it was mandated to have a civil trial before an execution was allowed to take place. Lowery brought in a group of warriors to judge what was termed a ‘sorcery trial.’ For evidence of the literacy claims, the warriors separated Sequoyah and his daughter to have them send messages between each other until they were finally convinced that the symbols on paper really represented talking.”

We do not know when Sequoyah died or where he is buried. We think he died in Mexico, where he was trying to find Cherokee people who had moved there from the United States.

Finally, none of this uncertainty about Sequoyah’s life detracts from the man’s significance.

In 1825, only four years after he had begun showing it to others, the Cherokee nation adopted Sequoyah’s writing system. With the help of missionaries, they began printing a newspaper in Cherokee called The Phoenix. Soon the literacy rate of Cherokees was higher than the literacy rate of the American settlers in that part of the South.

The print shop at New Echota State Park in Georgia, where the Cherokee Phoenix was first printed

Sequoyah, who many people had thought was crazy, was praised not only by his own people but also by the American government and newspapers around the world.

Sadly, Sequoyah’s writing system was not enough to keep the Cherokees from being forced to leave their homeland, in what is now known at the Trail of Tears. By that time, Sequoyah had moved west, to what is now Oklahoma.

Click here for a short video about Sequoyah’s life produced by the Cherokee Nation.