Sequoyah at Work: Creating the Cherokee Syllabary

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Sequoyah and his Syllabary

Sequoyah began working as a silversmith in Willstown, Alabama in 1809. Due to the quality of his work, he soon earned a reputation as a master of his craft. Having a limited knowledge of English, Sequoyah created a unique code system for his business records.

With symbols representing products and customers, Sequoyah’s code became cumbersome as his business grew. Noticing how his white customers made “marks” on paper, (“leaves”) Sequoyah began to experiment with similar marks.

For years, he had signed his products with a symbol representing his English name—George Gist. However, Sequoyah wanted to make Cherokee a written language so he would be able to maintain his own records in his mother tongue. As his workspace was already crowded with the materials of his trade, it became necessary for Sequoyah to construct a new workhouse—to allow him privacy in this endeavor.

Skepticism and Suspicion

While any writer can recognize the need for privacy, the fact that Sequoyah sequestered himself soon became a source of concern for his friends and family. His closest associates did not understand the need have a written language.

As his work consumed him, Sequoyah’s wife began to suspect that he was either involved in witchcraft or insane. While his business began to endure the strains of his frequent absences, Sequoyah remained dedicated to his task.

This does not mean that he withdrew totally. In fact, he participated in the Creek War. War Department records have his name listed among the recruits for the Cherokee regiment that supported the United States in its campaign against the Red Stick Creek. Noticing how the white solders would write letters to their family members, Sequoyah soon realized that a written language would benefit his people.

Trial and Error

At first, Sequoyah simply assigned characters to represent individual Cherokee letters. This resulted in an impossibly large alphabet. Sequoyah soon realized that it would be easier to break up the individual syllables of his native tongue and assign special characters to represent them.

The result was a syllabary; a system in which an individual character represents an entire syllable. This was a massive undertaking, even for a skilled craftsman such as Sequoyah. It would be nearly twelve years before he would complete his project. As a template, Sequoyah used an educational tool originally designed to teach children the English alphabet. Instead of the 26 letters used in the English alphabet, he developed an 84 character syllabary to represent the sounds of the Cherokee language.

The Completed Syllabary

The finished syllabary was written is Sequoyah’s own hand; a beautifully scripted series of characters that were unique. When matched with their corresponding syllables, these characters allowed the Cherokee language to have a new form of expression—the written word.

Some have claimed that Sequoyah borrowed heavily from the English, Greek, and Latin alphabets. This is not true. In fact, Sequoyah’s handwritten syllabary is quite different than the one that was eventually produced and distributed. This was the result of artistic license on the part of the printer and not the author.

After completing his project in 1821, Sequoyah subsequently dedicated himself to introducing the written form of the Cherokee language to his people. This would prove to be just as much an adventure as creating the syallabry in the first place.

Sources:

  1. Mark C. Carnes, Ed., U.S. History. (New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996).
  2. John Ehle. Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation. (New York: Anchor Books, 1989).
  3. Michael Garrett. Walking on the Wind. (Rochester:Bear and Company Publishing, 1998).
  4. Ruth Bradley Holmes and Betty Sharp Smith. Beginning Cherokee. (Norman; University of Oklahoma Press, 1977).
  5. David M Jones and Brian L Molyneaux. Mythology of the American Nations. (London: Anness Publishing, 2006).
  6. Peter Matthiessen, Ed., George Catlin: North American Indians. (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).
  7. James M. McPherson. “To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents. (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2000).
  8. Marilyn Miller, Ed., The American History Desk Reference. (New York: MacMillan, 1997).
  9. Carl Waldman, The North American Indian. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.)
  10. Carl Waldman, Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2006).
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