Sequoyah Early Life
Birth and Family
Sequoyah (pronounced in Cherokee, S-si-quo-ya) has been credited as the first person in history to create a written language alone without being literate in another language. He is known as the creator of the Cherokee syllabary, a list of syllables representing unique sounds in the spoken Cherokee language. Although his contributions to history are well-known and widely acknowledged, little is known about the early life of this famous man.
The best estimation for his birth is between 1760 and 1776. He was born in the Cherokee town of Tuskegee, pronounced “Tasgigi” or “Taskigi” by the Cherokee people. It is located in present-day East Tennessee just a few miles from Echota, the former capital of the Cherokee Nation. His mother, Wu-te-he (other spellings Wurteh or Wut-teh) was Cherokee and belonged to the Red Paint clan, one of the seven Cherokee clans.
Information about his father is more ambiguous. Some sources claim his father as Nathaniel Gist (or Guest), who may have been an associate of President George Washington and a Virginia diplomat and soldier, or a Dutch or German peddler. One story claims that Gist rescued President Washington from drowning and that he (Gist) lived among the Cherokees during the mid-eighteenth century. According to the Cherokee Nation, Gist was also a descendant of the Blair family of Washington, DC. As an adult, Sequoyah used the English name George Gist (sometimes Guess or Guest). While his exact identity remains a mystery, it is evident that Sequoyah’s father either abandoned his family or died while Sequoyah was an infant, leaving him exclusively in the care of his Cherokee mother.
Sequoyah was part of an important family among the Cherokee. According to the Cherokee Nation, Wu-te-he had five brothers who were distinguished chiefs in the latter part of the eighteenth century. These family connections were important for Sequoyah as Cherokee tradition recognizes the significance of the maternal lineage. In fact, children often received training and socialization from their mothers’ brothers. Wu-te-he’s brothers were named John Jolly, Old Tassel, Tahlonteskee, Pumpkin Boy, and Doublehead. Pumpkin Boy, Tahlonteskee, and Doublehead were known for their opposition to white settlement in Cherokee land. Sequoyah also had two brothers named Tobacco Will and Dutch (U-ge-we-le-dv). Tobacco Will was a blacksmith and a signer of Cherokee Constitution and Dutch was an important chief.
Cherokee Childhood and Youth
Before the training and socialization years, Sequoyah, like other small children, would have spent his first years with his mother. Cherokee men and women shared labor. Typically, men were responsible for hunting, defense, and fishing while women worked in the fields and turned raw goods into finished products. As women tended their daily tasks, they often placed their babies in cradleboards. These wooden cradleboards included fastened pouches of animal hide that kept babies warm and secure. Women hung the cradleboards on tree branches as they worked outside, allowing babies to sleep or observe the world around them. When Sequoyah became older, he would have joined his mother in labor participating in tending, gardening, hoeing, and harvesting crops. Wu-te-he owned horses, and she taught Sequoyah how to care for them. In an excerpt from, Sequoyah: Inventor of the Cherokee Alphabet author Jane Shumate describes Sequoyah as an ingenious boy:
“He was an inventive boy and often amused himself or made his tasks easier by creating things. As a small child he made little houses of sticks in the forest, but when he was older, he constructed various milking devices for his mother and a small wooden house over a stream to keep the cows’ milk cold. He also carved animals out of wood and drew pictures of animals and people, mixing colors out of crushed bark, berries and leaves (Shumate 38, 39).”
After acquiring skills from his mother, Sequoyah would have begun defense training around the age of fifteen. He, like other Cherokee boys and some girls, acquired war skills and rigorous training. He learned to subject his body to pain while witnessing others doing the same. Patience became a virtue as he also endured periods of hunger. Sequoyah was taught how to use the bow and arrow, the spear, and the tomahawk. Sitting in the woods or near a river for several days, he would listen quietly to the sound of animals and observe their behavior.
When he was mature enough, he joined the older men in hunting. He learned their rituals of cleansing morning and evening in the river, praying, and pardoning his actions of killing deer by apologizing to the souls of the deer. Another method of training was a violent, fast-paced ball game similar to lacrosse. Young Cherokee men were praised for their performance skills, endurance, speed, and strength.
At some point, Sequoyah developed lameness in one of his legs, causing him to limp throughout the rest of his life. Some sources attribute this to an illness like polio, or to a hunting accident. According to the Cherokee Nation, an account in the Cherokee Advocate (June 26, 1845) states that “he was the victim of hydro arthritic trouble of the knee joint, commonly called ‘white swelling‘, and this affliction caused a lameness that characterized him during life.” It is believed because of his disability, he acquired an interest in trade, the occupation of his mother. After her death in 1800, he continued her business and became a successful silversmith and blacksmith. Sequoyah made his own tools and constructed his own forge.