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The strange case of Sequoyah Redivivus: achievement, personage, and perplexity.

IT TAKES ONLY ONE BOOK TO MAKE A LEGEND. GEORGE WASHINGTON NEVER would have chopped down that cherry tree without Mason Locke Weems's "biographies," A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington (1800) and The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen (1806). The anecdote is a reminder that one cannot underestimate the importance of simply being first, when it comes to biography; how many unavailing generations of historians have labored to banish the story from texts? Now a teacher might note that the story is a myth--but it still bears classroom repetition because, after all, it is a snappy story. The annals of American biography sometimes refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Sequoyah (c.1760-1843?) was one so vetted for greatness. Marion L. Starkey's faded landmark, The Cherokee Nation, introduces "one of the most modest of Cherokees," with some immodest praise: Sequoyah "belongs in a category beyond ordinary historical fame. His place is not far below that of those primal geniuses who made civilization possible by inventing the bow and arrow and the wheel, by discovering that fire can be kindled and controlled for pleasant purposes. Sequoia is just such another as Prometheus" (48). The official website of the Cherokee Nation seconds that notion: "Between the years of 1809 and 1821, he accomplished a feat, which no other person in history has done single-handedly. Through the development of the Cherokee Syllabary, he brought our people literacy and the gift of communicating through long distances and the ages. This one person brought to his people this great gift without hired educators, no books and no cost" ("History of Sequoyah").

Testimonies to Sequoyah's brief celebrity abound to the point of faddishness in nineteenth-century literature. In the twentieth century, many of Sequoyah's biographies have been geared toward schoolchildren, of which Janet Klausner's Sequoyah's Gift: A Portrait of the Cherokee Leader collects between two covers an impressively complete stock of Sequoyah legend. "His vision and boldness," writes Duane H. King in an afterword, "continue to inspire those who dream of a better future." Straight-shooting frontier icon Sam Houston, the governor-elect of Tennessee who lived among the Cherokees at various times throughout his life and became the first president of Texas in 1836, is said to have declared, "[Sequoyah], your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hand of every Cherokee" ("History of Sequoyah"). Thomas Underwood writes in The Story of the Cherokee People (1961), "Sequoyah was probably the greatest of all Cherokees" (25). No superlative suffices for Sequoyah; his scribes are reduced to hyperbole. From the time of its invention, the mere existence of the alphabet (a bit of a misnomer, as I will explain) has been cited persistently as evidence for the general superiority of the Cherokees among the American Indian nations. In 1975 linguist Willard Walker was moved to deem Sequoyah's achievement "one of the most remarkable tours de force in American history" (Perdue, "The Sequoyah Syllabary" 118).

It is the version familiar to many of us from the date-and-fact school of history: Sequoyah, exalted hero of the most civilized tribe, was the only person to create an entire alphabet from scratch. The only problem is that the history catechism version is demonstrably inaccurate. As a matter of common sense, we know the singularity of Sequoyah's achievement to be at least improbable. The origins of most scripts are lost to antiquity and thus cannot be ascribed to a particular individual, but it beggars reason to conclude that no single person had invented a script before. So precisely what was Sequoyah's achievement? And just who was he?

My interest in Sequoyah began with what I thought would be a simple enquiry about a figure who has become emblematic of Cherokee pride. I soon realized that Sequoyah scholars run into a thicket of biographical hearsay, strange conspiracy theories, and assorted misinformation. The same might well be said of George Washington, but what is regrettable in Sequoyah's case is that he is a Native American eminently worthy of proper biography but about whom almost nothing reliable has been written. Oral tradition supports the existence of the man; written tradition seems mainly to obscure him. It may well be that this trail will always run cold, but my purposes are to set out the biographical data for which I was able to find some verification, to put Sequoyah's achievement in context and, to the extent possible, to acknowledge some of the perplexities surrounding a historical person completely overshadowed by his historical personage.

Sequoyah's Achievement

To begin with, it would be more accurate to say that Sequoyah, whose "English" name is sometimes given as George Guess, was the first widely-reported non-literate creator of a syllabic writing system. It may seem like hair-splitting, but technically Sequoyah created a syllabary, not an alphabet. A syllabary contains the symbols of a syllabic writing system. These syllables in turn are combinations of phonemes, the smallest contrastable particles of phonetic (that is, "heard") speech. Thus, a syllabary contains symbols that represent combinations of sound segments (generally the consonants around a vowel); an alphabet contains the segments themselves. For example, if we used a syllabary in English, we would have a single symbol for "wa." But English presents a staggering number of syllabic permutations, whereas Cherokee offers a relatively small set. Hence, conventionally, Cherokee is "tsa la gi," and requires just three of Sequoyah's characters to write.

So if one put it in a more qualified way, how could one describe what Sequoyah did? Prentice Robinson, in the introduction to his Cherokee Dictionary, distinguishes Sequoyah's achievement this way: "Cherokee is unique in that one of their own harnessed the tones and identified them by symbols. This is the work Sequoyah did" (ii). Even if it were true during Sequoyah's lifetime, Robinson's statement must be set against other instances of "unsophisticated inventors." According to linguist Peter T. Daniels, who studies grammatogenesis (the invention of a writing system), inventors of writing systems can be subdivided into two classes: sophisticated and unsophisticated (579). Sophisticated grammatogenists (writing system creators) are literate folk, generally outsiders, who possesses some knowledge of phonetics. By contrast, unsophisticated grammatogenists cannot read in any language, and they are few in number. Sequoyah belongs to this latter class.

To give an example of a "sophisticated" inventor of a writing system, we may note Samuel Pollard (1864-1915), a Methodist missionary in southern China, who invented a script for the language now called Western Hmong. Subsequently his system was adapted to about a dozen Southeast Asian languages. (1) The case of English-born James Evans offers a much closer parallel in terms of Native American literacy. Evans immigrated to Lower Canada in 1820 and, following a camp-conversion, later became a Methodist minister. As a missionary, teacher, and amateur linguist, Evans hatched an Ojibwe syllabary after abandoning the Roman alphabet, and later invented one for Cree. As with Sequoyah, his invention was credited for a rapid rise in native literacy rate, and his alphabet remains widely embraced by the Cree (Hutchinson).

Missionaries and anthropologists devised writing systems where needed, but we must remember that Sequoyah was nonliterate. If Sequoyah were unique, as some of his biographers claim, we would expect him to be the only "unsophisticated" inventor of a script. But he is not alone; in fact, he is in a small but illustrious company. A Winnebago speaker adapted a system from Fox speakers in 1884; in 1904, Silas John Edwards, monolingual and barely acquainted with script, launched a unique writing system for the Western Apache. Around the same time, Uyaqoq, more widely known by his name translation, "Neck," devised a script at a Moravian mission in Southwest Alaska. Elsewhere in the world we find other examples: early in the twentieth century, King Njoya of the Bamum tribe of central Cameroon was bemused by the literate doings of missionaries, so he invented a script after receiving a dream about it. Other historically recent examples come from Suriname and the Caroline islands (Daniels 583-85). All things considered, these "alphabets" comprise a very small set, and Sequoyah's story furnishes one of the earliest examples.

Of course, if Sequoyah follows the trend among these alphabet inventors, he may have quite literally dreamed up his alphabet. Many later accounts suggest that he was a dreamer. Many stories of unsophisticated grammatogenists point to a nexus between divine inspiration, vision, and the invention of writing: the script inventor receives divine inspiration in a dream while outside the social unit. He strives to bring heavenly benefits to his people and to allow them to emulate literate societies so that messages may carry beyond speaking distance. (2) In Sequoyah's case, most accounts mention that he was intrigued by "the talking leaf"--his term for printed pages--and, as Theda Perdue writes, "most Cherokees believed that writing was spiritual rather than mechanical, a gift of the gods rather than a creation of man" ("The Sequoyah Syllabary" 121).

Remarkably--and tantalizingly for those who would reconstruct the invention of written language--these unsophisticated grammatogenists share a set of common traits. Most inventors begin with a logographic system (wherein each symbol represents a word); all of them subsequently create a syllabary--not an alphabet. Sign order is random; similar syllables do not share graphic similarity. Indeed, Sequoyah's story marches in lockstep with the pattern, although there is some dispute over precisely how it evolved. Conventionally, he began by creating symbols for every word (a logographic system), a process interrupted when his wife, Sally Waters, cast them in the fire. (3) In fact, many accounts suggest that Sally Waters was concerned to protect her husband from accusations of witchcraft, a charge much in keeping with the supernatural origins often associated with writing systems (Bender 30-33). Regardless, the unflappable Sequoyah, well schooled in marital diplomacy, reportedly went back to the drawing board. But he was inspired to try a more economical system. Many versions of Sequoyah's story (e.g., Klausner and Bass) suggest that he switched to a phonetic system (one based on the sound components of language). Other accounts dispute this, and claim that Sequoyah began with a pictographic or ideographic system (wherein symbols look like what they represent, e.g., [??] for "sun").

In any event, Sequoyah had his work cut out for him. Ordinarily, societies acquire writing by borrowing from or elaborating upon an existing system. Viewed in this light, most writing systems are acquisitive, evolutionary, and more often than not, borrowed. Old Persian cuneiform is an early example; so too, the undocumented Korean, and more recent Cree. But, as Daniels acknowledges, "the most celebrated, and the earliest that was observed by interested outsiders" is Cherokee (579).

"Interested outsiders" are the key words here. In 1823 John Pickering--a "noted philologist" according to Willard Walker and James Sarbaugh--set out to create a Cherokee writing system by building on an earlier orthography he had developed for writing native languages. The idea was that the Cherokee system should avoid the "monolingual bias that occurred when European language speakers tried to record the pronunciation of Indian language sounds ..." (Kalter 331). Picketing later abandoned his grammar, in part because it was moot--the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had elected to adopt Sequoyah's syllabary (Walker and Sarbaugh 91n10). In working out his system, Picketing relied on his apprentice David Brown, a student at the Cornwall School for native missionaries. And Brown, in turn, was a classmate of Elias Boudinot and John Ridge (whose son, John Rollin Ridge, was a Cherokee writer). Elias Boudinot and Samuel Austin Worcester collectively produced the first Cherokee-language newspaper and printed materials. Moreover, it was Samuel Worcester who designed the Cherokee type font which was ultimately used to print the "alphabet." Worcester was far from fluent; he seems to have relied extensively on Boudinot, a native speaker.

In other words, a white missionary, working in tandem with his translator, was responsible for carrying the syllabary into print. A number of accounts place Ayhokeh, Sequoyah's daughter, with him when the alphabet debuted in 1821, and some historians have credited her in its creation. "Neither [Sequoyah or Ayhokeh], however," notes Willard Walker, "was responsible for the syllabic characters which have been used since the late 1820s" (610). All of which is to say that there were very few degrees of separation among Sequoyah, missionaries, and sympathetic Cherokees with an interest in publishing in native languages; indeed, some of them hailed directly from Sequoyah's community. It seems an extraordinary coincidence that an entire team of missionary-scholars converged upon an almost-anonymous Cherokee man who had happened to dream up an alphabet. Of course, the evidence is merely suggestive--not, as a lawyer might say, dispositive. So without discounting the possibility that Sequoyah did indeed invent the writing system, one might point out that the chain of provenance lacks many links, but does not want for interested parties who would vault the Cherokee man into celebrity.

On the other hand, sources suggest that some missionaries expressed reservations about the system. Worcester proved a strong backer of the Sequoyan alphabet even while other linguists endorsed various systems. But according to John B. Davis's early monograph on Sequoyah, some members of the missionary board that pushed for a Cherokee Bible translation "objected to Sequoyah's alphabet because of its Indian origin and the fact that it was being used by conjurers in heathen incantations" (169). There was some basis for this accusation. Alan Kilpatrick, the son of scholars who recorded many Cherokee sacred formulae, explains that "for well over one hundred years the Cherokee Indians have been recording their magical texts in the native script of the Sequoyah syllabary and preserving them in pocket-size ledger notebooks" (xiv; see also Perdue "Sequoyah Syllabary"). In sum, the exact sequence by which Sequoyah handed over his alphabet is lost to us. In the end, however, corroborating Sequoyah's alphabet pales beside the task of substantiating the basic circumstances of his life from the written record.

Biographical Perplexity

The first thing one learns about Sequoyah is that it is hard to say when he was born within ten years or when he died. The second thing one learns is that there is no settled spelling of his name (given as Sequoia, Se-quo-yah, Seequoyah, Sequoya, S-si-qua-ya, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], etc.) or his English name. Variants for the latter include George Guess (the spelling reported in 1828 in the Phoenix for Guess's signing a treaty for the Western Cherokees), Gist (the spelling on the back of the medal provided by the tribe commemorating his invention), Gyst, and Guyst. (4)

As to Sequoyah's lineage, one early account states that only "his grandfather on his father's side was a white man" (G.C.; Davis 5). Other accounts claim that Sequoyah was a full-blooded Indian. More often, historians identify his father as George Gist, a German peddler, or as Nathaniel Gist, a friend to "I-Cannot-Tell-A-Lie" George Washington. (5) John Howard Payne (9 June 1791-9 April 1852) intended to write a biography of Sequoyah. His manuscript may offer one of the earliest sources for biographical information about Sequoyah apart from the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper. One might argue that Payne's account is a primary source, since it purports to transcribe an interview, but this, too, is cloudy; Payne specifies that members of the tribe were translating a document that supposedly recorded some of the incidents of Sequoyah's life. Payne claims to have interviewed Major Lowry, "a near relative of Gist," who was either Assistant Principal or Principal Chief at the time of Payne's interview. He holds that Sequoyah's "father was Col. Gist of Virginia," and declares that "the father of George Gist was a white man." (6)

Accounts in this vein tend to attribute Sequoyah's genius to his mixed blood. Sequoyah: Leader of the Cherokees (1956) states the view with typically unselfconscious racism: "It never occurred to Sequoyah to wonder if he thought of writing in this way--as the most important single thing in the world--partly because his own father had been a white man" (Marriott and Riger 99-100).

It was around the turn of the twentieth century that Sequoyah's lionization reached its apex. A New York Times editorialist writing in 1901 sided with those who favored renaming the Indian Territories "Sequoyah" rather than the other favorite, "Jefferson" ("Topics of the Times"). At the unveiling of Sequoyah's statue at the Capitol on June 6, 1917, a number of speeches gave embarrassingly contradictory accounts of his life and work (Davis 152). Piqued by these events, John B. Davis waded into the curious muddle of Sequoyah biography and attempted to put the record straight with a 1930 article in Chronicles of Oklahoma. He cited as the "principal sources of information" for researchers: 1) a sketch of Sequoyah in Thomas Loraine McKenney's History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1838), 2) "Se-quo-yah," an account that ran in September of 1870 in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and 3) George Foster's Sequoyah, the American Cadmus (1885) (149). Each of these sources is of doubtful reliability at best, as Davis admits, but in all that was written about Sequoyah afterwards, one can find distinct traces of them. Indeed, almost all subsequent accounts would give some permutation of facts obtained from them. For example, the belief that Sequoyah tended cows, was the "greatest silversmith of his people" (though, as Davis notes, no metal relic survives), and that he suffered fors a time from alcoholism can all be traced directly to the Harper's account and, before it, to the Payne papers.

But as Davis would discover, a composite of these early sources cannot settle the basic facts of Sequoyah's life. Even the translation of his name is unsettled; some translate it as "he guessed it" (perhaps from his anglicized surname), others as "sparrow" and, still others, as an unflattering "pig in a pen" or perhaps even an unidentified foreign borrowing (Kilpatrick and Kilpatrick 5). A colorful explanation comes from Gertrude Ruskin's Sequoyah, Cherokee Indian Cadmus. She recollects Reverend Sibbald Smith, interpreter for ethnographer James Mooney, as saying that the name, meaning "hog's foot," derived from Sequoyah's game leg (Ruskin 13).

Ruskin typifies the amateur historians who have tried to pick up the thread of Sequoyah's story. And her life story, with its Horatio Alger overtones, is interesting in its own right. Born and orphaned in the mountains of North Carolina, she was raised in New York by the Phillips family (of Exeter fame) before moving to Atlanta, where she married prominently and embarked on a life of cheerful service to all things Cherokee. Ruskin's rare, self-published book is a curious mixture of Babbitt-like civic boosterism and the sincere fetishizing of a woman described variously as having "a bit of Cherokee Indian blood herself" and as a "one-thirty-second" Cherokee (Ruskin 19, 141). She drafted a ceremony to be performed wherever Sequoia redwoods are planted, as well as several plays based on the life of Sequoyah, in which she subsequently performed. According to her memoir, when the Georgia legislature formally repealed removal-era anti-Cherokee legislation, the Women's Club torch-bearer thanked them in traditional garments, saying, "It is never too late to do the right thing" (142). The mantle of honorary chiefdom was bestowed on her by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee nation (144). Eventually her fascination with Sequoyah led her to Mexico City in a tenacious but unsuccessful attempt to find his remains.

Her tale from that point forward resembles a bizarre detective story, involving a bishop in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the claim that Sequoyah was a Catholic convert; a professor studying Kickapoo Indians (living on land granted by the Mexican government); a Masonic Grand Secretary who claims that George Guess was a Mason; and an intrepid bush pilot (Ruskin 106-33). But Ruskin was not only chasing down a series of leads which she considered plausible; she was also riding the crest of a vogue for outdoor theatre featuring Indians, a fad touched off by the Carolina Playmakers' founding father, Frederick "Proff" Koch, and epitomized by Paul Green's best-known outdoor drama, "The Lost Colony," and Kermit Hunter's "Unto These Hills," an analogous play set in the mountains. In "Authentic Cherokee Indian Historical Drama" Ruskin gives roles to Rattling Gourd and Bark, two figures who appear in Payne's account.

Derived from so few documented facts, Ruskin's fantastic results seem less strange. In fact, she clearly had some familiarity with earlier speculations. Her book title echoes the early canonical Sequoyah biography, George Foster's eccentric Se-Quo- Yah, the American Cadmus and Modern Moses (1885), a work notably untroubled by fact. (Its subtitle is "A complete biography of the greatest of redmen, around whose wonderful life has been woven the manners, customs and beliefs of the early Cherokees, together with a recital of their wrongs and wonderful progress toward civilization.")

Foster's book, in turn, may have inaugurated the school of Sequoyah biography which casts him as an exemplar of "Indian improvement." Foster's rapturous praise of Sequoyah offers the latter-day Noble Savage view, but every age has its skeptics, and not everyone subscribed to these polarities. For instance, one exasperated anonymous reviewer groused in the ninth issue (1887) of The Dial about E.S. Brooks's contemporaneous Noble Savage-themed The Story of the American Indian:
 As a rule only mature readers would be interested in a work whose
 literary tone is that of a treatise, and they might feel disposed
 to question the truthfulness of the picture the author has drawn of
 the Indian. Not but that he is true to his own convictions and
 sincere in his presentation of the Indian character as it is found
 in past and current history; but his vision is warped by personal
 feeling. The red man is to him an unqualifiedly noble being, who
 has been degraded by centuries of outrage from the conquering
 Saxon; and, in relating his story, the blame of treachery and
 wrong-dealing is thrown on the latter exclusively. (193)

On the other hand, as Theda Perdue points out, even the Cherokee-edited Cherokee Phoenix brimmed with paternalistic advice against paganism, drinking, and gambling (and in one perplexing case, described a sudden and mysterious death caused by simply an excess of joy, bringing to mind Mencken's definition of Puritanism as the fear that someone, somewhere, may be having fun) (Perdue, "Rising" 213). The newspaper also ventilated the views of missionary Daniel S. Butrick, who ardently believed that the Cherokee were descended from the lost tribes of Israel, a myth which has since been applied to various of the "little races" of the South, including the mysterious Melungeons of Tennessee (Reed).

Because so little that is credible has been written about Sequoyah, researchers might be pardoned for turning to secondary sources. Failing that, even a reconsideration of his fictional treatment offers valuable clues about an evolving legend. Among early unheralded Sequoyah quasi-biographers, Francis Robert Goulding (1810-1881) ranks high. His parents served as Presbyterian missionaries in Georgia, and some of his earliest memories recollect journeys from coastal Georgia to the Cherokee frontier, which was already closing to the west. Each book in a cycle of novels he dubbed the "Woodruff Stories" takes a Cherokee word for its title and each is richly crammed with Goulding's childhood memories, as well as accounts of various Indian encounters. The final book of the series, Sal-o-quah, or Boy Life among the Cherokees (1870), offers a prescriptive Boy Scout Guide approach to Indian folkways, sketching such tactics as fish doping with crushed buckeye root and making a poultice from a tree fungus. And more to the point, it features an entire chapter devoted to Sequoyah: "'A modern Cadmus,' cousin Aleck called him. But George Guess was more." (7)

Much of Goulding's account is familiar; he takes care to show precisely how the syllabary--he creditably underscores the term and distinguishes it from an alphabet--works, providing examples of characters in translation. However, his retelling of the Sequoyah story departs from convention in several fascinating and crucial respects. Goulding identifies Sequoyah's English alphabet model as a spelling-book--not Sally Waters's Bible, as cited in the Payne account. Moreover, Goulding truly puts his story in a league of its own by depicting Sequoyah as one who consistently hates white people (although he is outwardly cordial). (8) He also makes the point that Sequoyah does not cotton to the white man's religion, another striking feature of this version:
 I have noticed ever since that those who become sincere and earnest
 Christians are apt to show it by trying to have all whom they love
 brought to experience the same blessing. In the case of
 See-quo-yah, however, there is reason to believe that this desire
 was never realized. He soon left the neighborhood and went back to
 Wills Valley; after that he moved farther West, wishing by each
 remove to get away farther from the white man and his religion. He
 was always a moral man, but it is said that he never became a
 Christian by profession, and never ceased to express dislike for
 the change which had come over the religion of his people. (65)


This version is notably at odds with the agenda of the missionaries who lionized Sequoyah. Goulding does not condemn Sequoyah for keeping to his native ways but rather wishes "peace to his ashes" and holds him out as the embodiment of "two prominent traits of Indian character--taciturnity, and a proud self-reliance" (58-59). Like some later biographers, Goulding adds to the mystery of Sequoyah's final resting place by writing that he hears from Arkansas that his remains are in some "romantic valley in New Mexico" (58).

Goulding may have gleaned his recapitulation of the Sequoyah story from popular accounts of the period and familiarity with the Phoenix chronicles. But I am not altogether convinced of it; after all, his story predates Foster's early biography by eight years. Given his unusually intense interest in. Indian affairs, his proximity to Indian settlements, and his detailed accounts of Indian life in the former Cherokee territories, it seems reasonable to believe that he could have acquired some of his knowledge either by firsthand observation or through traffic with Cherokees (or he may have learned it from knowledgeable whites). In any case, in his text Goulding did claim to have met Sequoyah.

Most important, his writing might help shore up some of the gaps in the records. Given the gaps in the historical record concerning Sequoyah, and the lack of impartial writing about Indian culture, Goulding's work may very well merit reevaluation. While it can hardly be granted anthropological accuracy, one rough gauge of Goulding's accuracy comes from his importation of native words.

As the following chart shows, Goulding appeared to have at least a rudimentary sense of certain Cherokee words, although his transcriptions sometimes appear approximate and anglicized. Water, which he gives as "armah," is a very reasonable phoenetic inference from "ama"; in the R-less tidewater dialect, it may have sounded just so to his ear. Other words he appears to have gotten wrong altogether; for example, "nawske," possibly meaning "steal," is a word that he might very well have heard but misappropriates to mean "yes." One wonders how often he heard this word in conversation. He devotes considerable ink to explaining the precise circumstances that led Cherokees to steal. I think that Goulding may have heard these words, or that they otherwise came under his observation. Some he might have simply borrowed from the Cherokee Phoenix, the first four years of which were printed close by in upland Georgia, or from other popular accounts, but if he did so, one would expect him to write them correctly. Instead, he blusters through them. In sum, I would suggest that Goulding's work merits further examination for insights on Cherokee culture and Sequoyah biography.

It may be that literary accounts of Sequoyah's life furnish additional clues to his biography. In any event, from obscurity Sequoyah rose, and despite his celebrated life, to obscurity he returned. Secondhand accounts of Sequoyah's last days are uniformly depressing. He is said to have led a venturesome party into Mexico, purportedly to search for a lost tribe of Cherokee who had moved before the American Revolution. Sequoyah's chief companion and guide was an inauspiciously named Cherokee, The Worm (Foreman 48). (9) As with all Sequoyah stories, this one must be taken with a grain of salt, but it seems that Sequoyah suffered from malnutrition throughout his exodus. The ill-equipped party was relieved of their horses by thieves outside San Antonio. When the more able-bodied members of the party set out to find replacement horses, they left Sequoyah sheltered in a cave. The unsuccessful provisioners were turned away so they decided to walk to a Cherokee village in Mexico, a mere 160 miles distant. When they finally found Sequoyah, displaced from his cave and wandering alone, he was fatally weakened. He never regained his health and died in a Mexican house while his companions attempted once again to equip the party (Foreman 66).

It is as if Sequoyah's historical anonymity was perfected with this final disappearance. His fate was ultimately paradoxical: to become an American icon, conscribed to mythic fame, yet consigned to factual oblivion, a cultural steppenwolf who died starving in the search for his own people. The fact is, no one has documented with certainty what happened to Sequoyah in his final days or where his mortal remains rest. His stock portraits, beginning with Charles Bird King's 1828 ur-portrait, from which all others derive, depict him wearing a tignon more commonly associated with blacks and the Caribbean fringe, but perhaps a more generic signifier of racial otherness. There is no forensic evidence to corroborate his existence, although a number of living people claim descent from him, including Sequoyah Guess, interviewed in this issue, and so there are traces of Sequoyah in some genealogies and in oral tradition (see Starr).

It is precisely the lack of information that no doubt drives continuing speculation over his fate. One search party reported finding the gravesite but, in a story with suspiciously Christ-like undertones, found it empty. (10) Dr. Charles Rogers, a physician from Brownsville, Texas, grabbed an Associated Press headline by claiming to have solved the mystery (3/4/2001). Rogers said he was tipped off by a Mexican family, which he describes as "a good and honorable family, which has protected the stone [barring the entrance to a cave crypt] for generations." He added, "They are part Cherokee." When pressed about why they divulged the secret to him, he replied, "because we were dressed right and acted right." Needless to say, this tale has yet to be confirmed (Martindale).

By now it should be apparent that hearsay is the mainstay of Sequoyah's story. So it should come as no surprise that at least one person has disputed the notion that Sequoyah invented the Cherokee syllabary in the first place. Traveller Bird, who claims descent from Sequoyah, wrote that the historical Sequoyah was really named "Sogwili" (ironically, given the Mexico fiasco, this translates to "Horse") and that he was the unwitting pawn of government agents and missionaries who colluded to wrest away the authentic native syllabary. Unconventionally, Bird's "real" syllabary contains ninety-two symbols. The story only gets stranger: Bird avers that an Indian cabal transmitted the original syllabary, that it was invented in 1483 by a secret society as a kind of visual Indian lingua franca (Bird, Introduction).

In fact, Bird advances some "documents" to bolster his claims. Allegedly drawing on "more than six hundred documents written by George Guess himself on thick ruled ledger books, small leather-bound note books, scraps of paper, edges of early eighteenth- and nineteenth-century newspapers, white buckskin, corn shuck paper, and mulberry and cedar bark"--not to mention tribal records and interviews "a little mouldy from being buried in caves"--he purports to have worked out the real story from an impressive array of unaccounted-for primary sources!

The very idea is enough to make historians sputter. Willard Walker begins his article on "The Early History of the Cherokee Syllabary" by stating flatly, "There is no evidence for native literacy in America north of Mexico prior to 1492"--a point with which many might take issue (70). (11) A weker of critical voices soon joined the chorus, but if Bird's book was so utterly outrageous, the debate also seemed a bit factitious, as it could not answer the larger question: who was Sequoyah?

After reviewing the record, Walker concluded that the majority of primary sources support the view that Sequoyah invented the syllabary and that the final printed version did vary but little, if at all, from his version. Most accounts seem to acknowledge that Sequoyah morphed some of his letters from the ones he saw in the Bible. There are echoes of the radical American Indian Movement in Bird's book, Tell Them They Lie: The Sequoyah Myth (1971), filled as it is with allegations of elaborate government conspiracy. On the other hand, one might reply, what better example of government conspiracy is there than the bloody history of Indian dispossession and removal, in which, Sequoyah's mainline biographers assert, the inventor's life was entwined? Walker opines in a footnote that Bird's book "deserves our attention precisely because the oral tradition from which it derives has persisted independently of the academic tradition. Like the oral testimony of a 'native informant,' it should be taken seriously, but not necessarily at face value" (89n6). The book seems a crackpot history, surrealistically and completely out of step without other accounts, such as they are. But given the dark pane we must peer through to glimpse Sequoyah's origins, Bird's version is as good as the next Guess.

Can Bird's odd history be rehabilitated? A few scholars have gone against the current and suggested that conventional historians misapprehend Bird's purpose. Susan Kalter argues that Bird's history is consonant with the Native oral history tradition, replete with fantastic elements. She further points out, quite fairly, that Bird's untruths do not make prior accounts any more truthful. She reaches the conclusion that "we cannot conclude that Traveller Bird contravenes known facts about the past. There is nothing known, even in a journalistic double-sourcing sense, about how the syllabary emerged: from a single nineteenth-century mind or a precontact concert of minds." Additionally, Native histories are characterized by supernatural events which are not "causal" but "fundamental to the story" (338).

Similarly, Arnold Krupat suggests that "regardless of the presence or absence of factual accuracy in some Native histories, these narratives nonetheless have every legitimate claim to be taken as 'real history'" (75). Raymond Fogelson seconds the notion that Bird's study is a fabrication by the standards of historiography yet valuable as an example of ethnohistory written from within. "Like Laotze and other great semi-mythic heroes," writes Fogelson, "Sequoyah disappeared into the wilderness. The scarcity of reliable documentary evidence, thus, makes the task of piecing together the facts of Sequoyah's life reminiscent of the quest for the historical Jesus" (108).

Without rehashing this debate, I would draw a limited comparison to Nat Turner. Accounts of Turner's life stem from a single early account, written by Thomas R. Gray, an educated amanuensis to whom Turner supposedly offered his "confession." When William Styron fictionally recast the tale in his Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), the acclaimed novel generated protest among some black intellectuals and activists. Some premised their objections largely on the idea that Styron had gotten it wrong historically. But where might one turn for an accurate version of events? Gray's highly dubious, motivated, and unauthenticated "deposition"--the only historical record of Turner's words preserved as a gratifying confession--could hardly be said to fill out the historical record.

History repeats itself with the Sequoyah intrigue. In Sequoyah's case it is difficult to tell what texts constitute primary documents: the mark he purportedly made on a treaty to remove from Alabama to Arkansas in 1817? Payne's emplotted, alleged transcript of an account read by a Cherokee (which is embroidered by sentimental conventions, offset quotations, and phrases that read a bit like stage directions)? Like Turner's, Sequoyah's story began with a paucity of biographical "facts" gleaned from a few bare accounts, embellished and codified by retelling to such a degree that the story has taken on a life of its own. The most frequently referenced text is Grant Foreman's biography, Sequoyah (1938), which drifts along agreeably on a raft of hearsay, borne by currents of repeated lore.

The earliest description of Sequoyah comes from an author identified only as "G.C."--in an essay published in an 1828 issue of the Cherokee Phoenix. It occupies just over one column. It mentions Sequoyah's borrowing English characters from a "spelling book," a claim consistent with Goulding's account. In any case, between the years 1828 and 1841, only a handful of written accounts record interviews with Sequoyah, and these are difficult to authenticate. It is, needless to say, a very thin sampler of sources for biographers. Sequoyah was rumored to have kept a diary, but of course it too is "lost."

Tantalizingly, Foreman's Sequoyah tells of a disappointing interview between John Howard Payne and Sequoyah. Payne notes the wizened scribe's "lame and shrunken" leg, which lends credibility to Ruskin's name translation. But Sequoyah's interpreter would not translate simultaneously, supposedly because he did not want to interrupt the stream of the old man's recollections:
 After interminable conversation between Guess and the interpreter
 altogether in Cherokee, Payne was told that the old man was not
 interrupted for fear of breaking the thread of his recollections.
 The evening was thus spent without yielding to Mr. Payne any of the
 historical material he hoped to secure; so in the morning the
 visitor asked to have the conversation of the night before repeated
 slowly and "linkistered" or interpreted so that Mr. Payne could
 write it down; but he had no sooner placed himself for the task
 than Guess said that he had not remembered the whole tradition
 right "but if he could have his old friend Tobacco Will, and
 another man now at Red River, with him, they could make out to
 recall, among them, enough to do the story proper credit; but,
 unless he could manage thus, he would rather not expose himself to
 be criticized by the old people, who might say he had not reported
 the truth"; and thus the modesty or diffidence of Guess deprived
 posterity of his interesting recollections. (Foreman 44)

It is perhaps possible that Sequoyah has some yet undiscovered correspondence, tucked, for instance, among the papers of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, where Worcester and other elaborators might have written him. There were instances of official government recognition; Foreman mentions "records in the United States War department in the pension office, including the affidavit of Sequoyah's widow Sally," and supporting affidavits from others, collected so that she might receive her deceased husband's pension. He also mentions Sequoyah's discharge papers from the Greek War of 1814. All the documents refer to Sequoyah as George Guess (Foreman 3-4).

But there is no sample, to my knowledge, of anything known to be written in Sequoyah's hand apart from the treaty signature, which has not been authenticated. The story of Sequoyah's life, like that of Nat Turner, remains shrouded by imaginatively reconstructed biographical hearsay--but unlike Turner's case, whites found much to celebrate in George Guess. His fortunes are as variable as those of his people. Tellingly, when Margaret Bender conducted extensive interviews among Cherokees in the mountains of North Carolina in the 1990s, she found limited awareness of Sequoyah's story. "When I asked North Carolina Cherokees if they had heard any stories about Sequoyah, his life, or the invention of the syllabary, they usually said they had not. What they did know they told me they had gathered from the written accounts that began almost simultaneously with the emergence of the syllabary itself, which created an international sensation in the 1820s" (29). Yet most were acquainted with the writing system and, as Bender learned, the alphabet remains an important emblem of cultural pride.

Historically speaking, Sequoyah as a person is as close to a non-entity as he can be. He left no diary, no artifacts. But the personage of Sequoyah is alive and well. Sequoyah has no grave--long live Sequoyah--and, as F.R. Goulding wrote, peace to his ashes!

Works Cited

Bass, Althea, ed. "Talking Stones, John Howard Payne's Story of Sequoya." The Colophon 9.3 (1932).

Bender, Margaret Clelland. Signs of Cherokee Culture: Sequoyah 's Syllabary in Eastern Cherokee Life. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002.

Bird, Traveller. Tell Them They Lie; the Sequoyah Myth. Los Angeles: Westernlore, 1971.

"Books for the Young." The Dial 8.92 (Dec. 1887): 193.

Brooks, Elbridge Streeter. The Story of the American Indian; His Origin, Development, Decline and Destiny. Boston: D. Lothrop, 1887.

Daniels, Peter T. "The Invention of Writing." The World's Writing Systems. Ed. Peter T. Daniels and William Bright. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 579-86.

Davis, John B. "The Life and Work of Sequoyah." Chronicles of Oklahoma 8.2 (1930): 149-80.

Edwards, Brendan Frederick R. Paper Talk: A History of Libraries, Print Culture, and A boriginal Peoples in Canada before 1960. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

Fogelson, Raymond D. "On the Varieties of Indian History: Sequoyah and Traveller Bird." Journal of Ethnic Studies 2.1 (1974): 105-12.

Foreman, Grant. Sequoyah. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1938.

Foster, Geo E. Se-Quo- Yah, the American Cadmus and Modern Moses. A Complete Biography of the Greatest of Redmen, around Whose Wonderful Life Has Been Woven the Manners, Customs and Beliefs of the Early Cherokees, Together with a Recital of Their Wrongs and Wonderful Progress toward Civilization. Philadelphia: Office of the Indian Rights Association; Tahlequah, Cherokee Nation: H.B. Stone, 1885.

G. C. "Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet." Cherokee Phoenix 13 August 1828: 2.

Goodpasture, Albert V. "The Paternity of Sequoya, the Inventor of the Cherokee Alphabet." Chronicles of Oklahoma 1.2 (1921): 121-30.

Goulding, F. R. The Woodruff Stories. 3 vols. Philadelphia: Claxton & Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1877.

"History of Sequoyah, and the Sequoyan Syllabary for the Cherokee Language". The Cherokee Nation. < HistoryPage.asp?ID=192>.

Hutchinson, Gerald M. "James Evans." Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Ed. George Ramsay Cook. Vol. VII. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1966.

Kalter, Susan. "America's Histories Revisited." American Indian Quarterly 25.3 (2001): 329-51.

Kilpatrick, Alan. The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee. New York: Syracuse UP, 1997.

Kilpatrick, Jack Frederick, and Anna Gritts Kilpatrick. The Shadow of Sequoyah : Social Documents of the Cherokees, 1862-1964. The Civilization of the American Indian. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1965.

Klausner, Janet. Sequoyah's Gift : A Portrait of the Cherokee Leader. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.

Krupat, Arnold. Red Matters: Native American Studies. Rethinking the Americas. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002.

Lowery [sic], George. "Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Sequoyah or George Gist." Journal of Cherokee Studies (1977): 385-93.

Marriott, Alice Lee, and Bob Riger. Sequoyah: Leader of the Cherokees. New York: Random House, 1956.

Martindale, Bob. "Cherokee Hero May Be Buried in Mexican Grave." Daily Ardmoreite March 5, 2001. < 030501/new_cherokee.shtml>

McKenney, Thomas Loraine. History of the Indian Tribes of North America, With Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs. Philadelphia: F. W. Greenough, 1838-1844.

Perdue, Theda. "Rising from the Ashes: The Cherokee Phoenix as an Ethnohistorical Source." Ethnohistory 24.3 (1977): 207-18.

--. "The Sequoyah Syllabary and Cultural Revitalization." Perspectives on the Southeast: Linguistics, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory. Ed. Patricia B. Kwachka. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994. 116-26.

Phillips, William A. "Se-quo-yah." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 41.244 (Sept. 1870): 542-48.

Reed, John Shelton. "Mixing in the Mountains." Southern Cultures 3.4 (1997): 25-36.

Robinson, Prentice. Easy to Use Cherokee Dictionary. Tulsa: Cherokee Language and Culture, 1996.

Ruskin, Gertrude McDaris. Sequoyah, Cherokee Indian Cadmus. Weaverville, NC: Crowder's Printing, 1970.

Starkey, Marion Lena. The Cherokee Nation. New York: Knopf, 1946.

Starr, Emmet. History of the Cherokee Indians and Their Legends and Folk Lore. Oklahoma City: Warden, 1921.

Starr, Emmet, and James Julian Hill. Old Cherokee Families: Old Families and Their Genealogy. Norman: U of Oklahoma Foundation, 1968.

"Topics of the Times." New York Times 9 Jan. 1901: 8.

Underwood, Thomas Bryan. The Story of the Cherokee People. Cherokee, NC: Cherokee, 1961.

Walker, Willard. "The Roles of Samuel A. Worcester and Elias Boudinot in the Emergence of a Printed Cherokee Syllabic Literature." International Journal of American Linguistics 51.4 (1985): 610-12.

Walker, Willard, and ]ames Sarbaugh. "The Early History of the Cherokee Syllabary." Ethnohistory 40.1 (1993): 70-94.


Randolph-Macon College

(1) In fact, there is a museum dedicated to probing the connections between missionary work, literacy, and the invention of writing systems, the missionary-inspired Museum of the Alphabet in Waxhaw, North Carolina.

(2) For more on this point, see Daniels.

(3) This is a commonplace of twentieth-century accounts of Sequoyah's life, stated typically in Foreman. It is traceable to earliest accounts, such as John Howard Payne's: "When all his friends had remonstrated in vain, his wife went in and flung his whole apparatus of papers & books into the fire, & thus he lost his first labor ..." (Foreman 42).

(4) This is what a linguist might term "orthographic variation," pardonable confusion in spelling stemming from writers' uncertainty over how to represent allophones (phonetic variants of phonemes).

(5) Foreman's account attempts to trace the lineage to Nathaniel Gist; Albert V. Goodpasture attempts the same in his monograph.

(6) portions of Payne's account have been republished in a variety of sources. Extracts appear in Foreman's biography; see also Lowery and Bass.

(7) Cadmus, the Phoenician who founded Thebes after Athena showed him the right spot, is traditionally credited with bringing the first alphabet to Greece; hence the trope that Ruskin and Foster used. Predating them, the earliest reference that this researcher could find to Sequoyah-as-Cadmus comes from Samuel Lorenzo Knapp, who met the Indian while he visited Washington. "The manners of the American Cadmus are the most easy," wrote Knapp in his original account of the interview, "and his habits those of the most assiduous scholar, and his disposition is more lively than that of any Indian I ever saw" (Foreman 27).

(8) Margaret Bender supports this notion: "Sequoyah was not an assimilationist; the sketchy data available about him suggest that he disliked the changes whites and some Cherokees were trying to bring about in Cherokee society and felt that his system could be used to make the Cherokees more independent of whites" (35).

(9) The strangeness of the name is a matter of cultural viewpoint. Given that an elderly Cherokee informant described the creation of the earth by means of an "angel-worm" (to missionary Worcester's chagrin) that disgorges firmament from the deep, the name has a different register. See Perdue, "Rising" 209.

(10) On the other hand, Margaret Bender points out that "most Eastern Cherokees today see both Sequoyah and Jesus as important sources of 'the word'" (30).

(11) After all, what are petroglyphs if not a form of legible written communication? "The existence of formal methods of written Aboriginal languages prior to European contact in what is today Canada is not an issue of debate--quite simply, the Aboriginal peoples of Canada employed unique and varying methods of written communication before contact" (Edwards ix).
A sampler of Cherokee words from F.R. Goulding's Woodruff Trilogy
[letters refer to the portions of the trilogy: Sapelo (S),
Nacoochee (N), Sal-o-quah (SQ)]

 Given English per Given Cherokee per
PAGE Goulding Goulding

76 S White man Unaika

73 S n/a Saw-nee (a name)

78 S n/a Ka-nee-ka (a name)

90 N Yes naw-ske
 good o-see-u
 money big talla-ackwa

115 N bird (yellow) chescoo-teleneh
 turtle sullicookee

134 N Water Armah
 Squirrel sal-o-quah

54 SQ Hog see-quah

 Possibilities from Lexicon
PAGE Cherokee Lexicon translation

76 S Uneka white

73 S Tsane skunk (?)
 Tsanu trout (?)

78 S ka?ni bullet
 kha ne "give it to him"

90 N Nohski steal (!)
 o si yu hello; very good
 ate la e kwa money big

115 N tsi skwa talo nike ?I bird yellow
 sa liku ki (snapping) turtle

134 N Ama water
 Salo li squirrel

54 SQ Sihkwa Hog
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Author:Giemza, Bryan
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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