Before the arrival of Europeans, the entire North American continent was composed of pre-literate societies. Many were complex, to be sure. And remnants of those vast civilizations are still prominent across the map: from our cuisine to place names to our DNA and even to our Constitution. Still, none of these societies could read, and none could write. Such literacy as existed came from indigenous adoption of Spanish, English and French: all writing systems that evolved over hundreds, even thousands of years.
Sequoyah would change all of that in less than two decades.
Born sometime between 1770 and 1780 near Knoxville to the daughter of a Cherokee chieftain (and, though disputed most probably a Scotsman named Nathaniel Gist), Sequoyah was an only child of a reasonable prosperous and influential family. Raised by a single mother, he was maimed as a young adult (either in battle or hunting), leaving him ill-equipped to be a warrior or farmer. As a youth, he had served as a White Sticks auxiliary in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, but following his injury, he became an artisan. He was particularly renowned as both a blacksmith and silversmith in the region.
The inquisitive Sequoyah, left to his own devices, used his time wisely. After the family relocated to Alabama, he spent his time inventing, while his mother ran a local trading post. Despite being in close proximity with settlers, Sequoyah never learned English, nor did he ever learn to read and write in that language. But the magic of the “talking leaves” used by merchants at the trading post fascinated Sequoyah.
Through these “leaves,” the white man wielded extreme power. They could convey information, bargain for goods, pass along traditions, prevent and declare war, establish ownership, set forth rights, condemn the guilty, create and protect wealth, provide notice of the laws. Sequoyah was convinced that such a system made the Europeans powerful. And, in 1809, he concluded that to protect his people, it was necessary for the Cherokee to have their own writing system.
What followed over the next decade was practically unique in human history.
Only twice do we have contemporaneous evidence of the creation of a writing system: Seqouyah is one of them. Working single-handedly from the caverns of North Alabama, he took Cherokee’s complex Iroquoian language — with its 86 distinct phonemes — and created an entire syllabary, alphabet, and writing system.
His work was not done, however. No sooner had the ink dried, than Sequoyah hit the road, teaching his writing system to the young, elders, communities leaders, educators, missionaries — anyone that would learn, as he evangelized for the power of the written word.
Within just a decade, Sequoyah had become a living legend in the Cherokee nation, as his writing system moved from Alabama, into Georgia, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Tennessee. It became so ubiquitous that the Cherokee established the first native newspaper in the nation, the Cherokee Nation, a publication in parallel English and Cherokee.
Even as the Cherokee nation was being torn to ribbons during the forced relocation of Andrew Jackson’s genocidal Indian Removal, Sequoyah took his ideas west. He moved first into the Arkansas Territory, then settled later into Indian Territory (Oklahoma). And, wherever he lay, he set up a smithy in both states and continued to teach his language to all who would learn.
In his final years, Sequoyah as elder statesman attempted to reunite the Cherokee, looking to Mexico for bands of Cherokee that had fled Indian Removal. He died during the journey, and his final resting spot is still dispute. But, his influence did not die with him.
The impact of his life’s work is inestimable, and the Cherokee Nation have his campaign of literacy in no small part to thank for that. The result of Sequoyah’s efforts was the diffusion of the Cherokee syllabary and the growth of the language that eventually resulted in the tribe having greater literacy rates than the settlers around them. And, just a decade ago, archaeologists found what are believed to be some of the first Cherokee writings in Kentucky, inscribed in a sacred burial cave in Southeastern Kentucky.
In many ways, Sequoyah was correct; the written word was power. Today, the Cherokee are among the most numerous, wealthiest, and politically powerful tribes in the nation. While the language is not spoken much in 21st century America, it is still active in its written form, and Sequoyah’s syllabary is still taught in tribal schools and tribal colleges, with a host of materials available for the advanced learner, as well as children’s primers and coloring books.
The impact of his alphabet was not merely felt in Indian Country, or even among the indigenous population of North America. The syllabary he created inspired the Cree script in Canada. From there, a freed Cherokee living in Liberia shared the language, which resulted in the formation of the Liberian Bassa script. Other West African nations followed suit, creating their own syllabaries.
Today there are 21 written languages scattered across the globe — and as far-flung as China — that are directly traceable to the work Sequoyah began in a North Alabama cave 200 years ago.
There are now just three days until football season.
P.S. If you’re interested in reading more, you could do worse than April Summitt’s Landmarks of the American Mosaic series on the development of this first indigenous written language and its remarkable creator.
You can also start learning online today: