Sequoya or George Gist: Cherokee

Sequoya or George Gist

Sequoyah, also spelled Sequoya or Sequoia, Cherokee Sikwayi, also called George Gist, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, born about 1760, in the Cherokee town, Tuskegee, died in August,. 1748, near San Fernando, New Mexico, was the son of a German trader, named George Gist, and of a Cherokee woman of mingled white and Indian blood belonging to a good family. Her name has not been preserved. She became a widow or a deserted wife before the birth of her son, who received the name of his father. His Indian name, spelled Sikwayi in the Cherokee language, cannot be translated. As the son grew in years, he assisted his mother in her domestic duties, in the cultivation of her small farm, and in taking care of her horses and cattle. He early showed great mechanical ingenuity and as he grew to manhood became a fine silversmith. Like most of his people he was also a trader and hunter. He had no educational advantages, as he was a man of middle age when missions were established among his people; nor did he ever even learn to speak broken English, an attainment not uncommon with many of the Cherokee half- breeds of his day. In short, George Guess was a totally illiterate man, but a man of profound thought and close observation.

In 1809 a chance conversation with some of his people led him to think deeply over the prob¬ lem how it was possible that white people could communicate thought by means of writing. He then and there resolved to devise a similar system for his own people. A hunting accident after this making him a lifelong cripple, his now enforced sedentary life gave him all the leisure to evolve his great invention. He was during these years a man of some note among his people, for he was one of the signers of the treaty of 1816. After this he made his home in Will’s town, situated in the present DeKalb county, Alabama. Here he devoted five years of thought and labor to the subject that was ever uppermost in his mind. He first invented or fabricated ideographic characters, each character representing a word in the Cherokee language. But after much labor, he realized that these characters would be too numerous, and their acquisition far beyond the power of the average memory. At last, in 1820, at his home in Will’s town, after years of turmoil, exposed all the time to the ridicule of his friends, he at last evolved a syllabic alphabet, representing eighty-six syllables, perfectly suited to the Cherokee language. In 1821 he submitted his invention to the leading men of the Chero- kees; it was accepted as a success, and the name of George Guess became immortal as the Cadmus of his race. “Without advice, as¬ sistance, or encouragement—ignorant alike of books and of the various arts by which knowledge is disseminated—with no prompter but his own genius, and no guide but the light of reason, he had formed an alphabet for a rude dialect, which, until then, had been an unwritten tongue.” The Cherokee syllabary was soon recognized by the Cherokees as an invaluable invention for their elevation as a people and everywhere, in their cabins and along the roadside, they began to teach it to each other. Guess, of course, was its first teacher. “The invention of the alphabet had an immediate and wonderful effect on Cherokee development. On account of the remarkable adaptation of the syllabary to the language, it was only necessary to learn the characters to be able to read at,once. No school houses were built and no teachers hired, but the whole Nation became an academy for the study of the system, ‘until in the course of a few months, without school or expense of time or money, the Cherokees were able to read and write in their own language!’”

In 1822 Guess went on a visit to the Cherokees in the Arkansas Territory, constituting one-third of the Cherokee people, and introduced among them his syllabary. It was readily accepted and a correspondence was soon opened between the two divisions of the Cherokee people. Having accomplished his purpose, Guess returned to his eastern home, where he remained but a short time, and then, in 1823, emigrated permanently to the west. He never after visited his people in the east. In the fall of 1823, the general council of the Cherokee Nation, in appreciation of Guess’ great service to his people, awarded to him a silver medal, which bore on one side two pipes, on the other, a head with this inscription, “Presented to George Gist, by the General Council of the Cherokee Nation, for his ingenuity in the invention of the Cherokee Alphabet.” The inscription was the same on both sides, excepting that on one side it was in English, on the other in Cherokee, in the characters invented by Guess. The medal was sent to Guess, then in the west, through John Ross, the president of the Council, who sent with it a written address.

The first literary productions in the Cherokee syllabic alphabet were made, copied, and circulated in manuscript. In 1827 the Cherokee National Council, having resolved to establish a National paper in the Cherokee language and characters, types for this purpose were cast in Boston, and the first issue of the paper, Tsalagi Tsulihisanunhi or Cherokee Phoenix, printed in English and Cherokee, appeared in New Echota, February 21, 18 28, Thenceforth, year after year, a large amount of literature in the Cherokee language and alphabet was created, educa¬ tional, legal and religious works, that were suitable for a people rapidly advancing in a Christian civilization.

Guess became a prominent man in the public affairs of the western Cherokees. He was chosen one of the delegates that visited Washington and negotiated the treaty of May 6, 1828. He and three other delegates signed their names to this treaty in the Sequoyan alphabet. While in Washington much attention was paid to Guess by various parties, who felt an interest in him on account of his wonderful invention. In 1838, in the re-organization of the Cherokee Nation, Guess as the President of the Eastern Cherokees, signed the act of union. In 1843, imbued with the tradition that there was a band of Cherokees, long segregated from their people, living somewhere in Northern Mexico, he left home to seek for this lost band. He had gone far on his journey, when worn out with age and toil, alone and unattended, he sank under his efforts and died, near the village of San Fernando, in Mexico. Before his death, news of his condition having come back to his people, a party was sent to his relief, but they arrived too late to find him alive.

An annual pension that had been previously granted to Guess was continued to his widow. Besides his wife, he was survived by two sons and a daughter. Sequoya district of the Cherokee Nation was named in his honor. His name too is forever preserved in the big tree (Sequoia gigantea) and the red wood (Sequoia sempervirens) of California, and even in the sequoiene distilled from its needles.

References. —McKenney and Hall’s Indian Tribes of North America (1842), vol. i, pp. 63- 70; Handbook of American Indians (1910), part a, pp. 510, 511; Mooney’s Myths of the Chero¬ kee, pp. 14, 108-110, 135, 137, 138, 139, 147, 148, 219, 220, 353, 355, 485, 501; Fifth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology (1887), pp. 230, 302; Harper’s Encyclopaedia of United States History , vol. 8, p. 130; Phillips’ Sequoya , in Harper’s Magazine , pp. 542-548, September, 1870; Pilling’s Iroquorian Bibliography (1888), p. 21; Foster’s Sequoya , the American Cadmus and the Modern Moses (1885); The New International Encyclopaedia (1909), p. 815; Drake’s Indians, fifteenth edition, p. 364.