Sequoyah Birthplace Museum illustration
It took Sequoyah a dozen years to invent his Cherokee syllabary, which is based on syllable sounds rather than alphabet letters.
Many recognize Sequoyah as the man who invented a writing system for the Cherokee Indians, but during his lifetime, Sequoyah had a mixed reputation. Some, including his own wife, thought he practiced witchcraft. Others saw this blacksmith as an artist. Still others hailed him as a genius.
The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum in Vonore, Tenn., provides a number of educational programs that celebrate the life of the man who single-handedly created a written syllabary system for his people.
“It’s a great honor for me to tell Sequoyah’s story,” said Charlie Rhodarmer, manager and director of the museum. “He’s an incredible human being.”
According to Rhodarmer, the facility will undergo a renovation to focus more purposefully on the life of Sequoyah. These renovations will highlight Sequoyah’s life, the significance of what he did, and the period of time in which he lived. A blacksmith shop with live demonstrations is scheduled to open this spring. Other improvements include a shoreline trail and a Cherokee farm.
The museum, which is owned by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, is located on Fort Loudoun Island in Tellico Lake. The facility opened in 1986 after the Tennessee Valley Authority gave the Cherokee a permanent easement to establish the museum. The area is in the Little Tennessee Valley, which was the Cherokee Nation’s ancestral land. The island was built as a compromise after TVA decided to create Tellico Lake during World War II and, in the process, flooded the grounds where the Cherokee had lived, built towns, and hunted for thousands of years. The Cherokee protested the creation of Tellico Lake, as did environmentalists, who fought for the habitat of the endangered snail darter, but the TVA’s lake plan eventually prevailed.
Archaeological information and artifacts were recovered from more than 285 sites from Cherokee towns throughout the region, prior to the lake formation. The facility is an archaeological museum covering about 10,000 years of existence, with a section on Sequoyah’s life. Many cultural changes in the Cherokee Nation occurred during Sequoyah’s lifetime, including the infamous Trail of Tears – the forced removal of the Cherokees to what is now Oklahoma.
Born sometime between 1760 and 1776, Sequoyah was the son of Virginia fur trader Nathaniel Gist, and a Cherokee woman, Wut-teh. His birthplace, the village of Tuskeegee, is located only a short distance from the museum’s site.
Sequoyah used his artistic skills as a silversmith to make jewelry, but buyers waited to purchase his larger works when they had the money. When he became a blacksmith, his journey took a turn. While a jewelry order could be delayed until the buyer had the money, blacksmith services were needed right away, so Sequoyah allowed people to have accounts.
According to Rhodarmer, Sequoyah must have had steady work because he couldn’t remember how much people owed him. He created a numbering system as a solution and drew pictures of customers’ faces along with a symbol of the amount owed as a way of keeping track.
There are several different stories about the inspiration for Sequoyah’s writing system. One story claims that he wanted to sign his name on his silversmith work like a fellow artisan but lacked the skills of writing letters. When Sequoyah fought with other Cherokees alongside the Americans in the War of 1812, he noticed that he and other Cherokee warriors couldn’t write letters to their loved ones, decipher military reports or document events of the battles they fought as white soldiers did. After he returned home, he began to think about coming up with a writing system that Cherokees could use, a system like the white Americans had. He called it “talking leaves.”
In a Cherokee blacksmith shop, Sequoyah announced his intentions.
“In 1809, he begins the 12-year journey of trying to create a writing system,” Rhodarmer explained. “It’s 1821 before he finally finishes it and debuts it to the elders.”
His first attempt with a hieroglyphics system failed because he couldn’t remember what all the symbols meant and knew others wouldn’t be able to either. He built a small cabin where he could work alone in peace. According to some accounts, Sequoyah’s wife, along with some others, burned down the cabin when they feared he might be practicing witchcraft. The Cherokee Nation had a law which imposed a death penalty for practicing witchcraft.
Undeterred, Sequoyah continued with his work, creating 85 different symbols to represent various syllables in the spoken Cherokee language. His strange obsession with these symbols continued to attract attention. Cherokee elders sent for him. But Sequoyah had a plan.
He had already taught his young daughter, Ayoka, the new system. In a stroke of brilliance, Sequoyah would demonstrate his new writing system to the elders. Ayoka was called before the council, but she was separated from her father. The elders talked to Sequoyah about his activities, and he wrote down the conversation. Ayoka read her father’s notes and related exactly what the elders had said to Sequoyah even though she wasn’t present.
This event changed the way the Cherokee looked at Sequoyah’s system and altered their way of life. They no longer considered it evil and realized if a child could do it, anyone could.
Now they could start sending messages in their own language and eventually created their own newspaper, The Cherokee Phoenix. Songs were translated into Cherokee, along with documents, pamphlets, and even the Bible.
Sequoyah’s death is shrouded in mystery. On a trip out West, where he was trying to locate lost members of the Cherokee diaspora, he died alone in northern Mexico in 1843. Some claim he wandered off from a scout party and was never seen again.
Sequoyah made history as the first person to invent a written language without being able to read or write in any language. Today, his name is attached to various schools, sites, a county in Oklahoma where he once lived, and even a presidential yacht used in the 1930s.
For more information, visit www.sequoyahmuseum.org.