The Mysterious Origin of the Real Sequoyah Syllabary
Native American Brainfood
It’s a dirty little secret that very few people know and even fewer are willing to discuss publicly. Even the author of the Wikipedia article on Sequoyah didn’t know this secret.
The Cherokee Syllabary used today . . . commonly known as the Sequoyah Syllabary . . . was actually created in 1827 by Cherokee Phoenix Editor, Elias Boudinot and the Rev. Samuel Worcester. As can be seen below, there are some similarities between the original syllabary and the one used today, but original system was far more similar to the Aramaic alphabets of eastern Turkey and the Caucasus Region. Many of Sequoyah’s letters are identical to a form of Georgian used in the late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. We will explain the significance of that later.
Of course, the true genius of George Gist or Sequoyah was the design of a system to ascribe each sound in the Cherokee language to an abstract symbol. Wherever he got the inspiration for those symbols, they were most likely from an alphabet, not a syllabary . . . so there was probably no relation between his symbols and the original sounds that they portrayed.
Handwritten Georgian script from the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s is virtually identical to the original Sequoyah writing system. Obviously, at somewhere and sometime, George Gist came in contact with someone, who was a refugee from that region.
Almost everything that you read today about this man is the product of campfire tales, hearsay, academic conjecture or mythology. When added up, all these stories are quite incongruous, but few historians have had the guts to say so. As historian John B. Davis wrote, there were very few primary documents describing facts of Sequoyah’s life. Currently, we only know that he was probably born between 1760 and 1776.
He was a real man, though. George Gist was listed on the muster roll of the Indian Regiment, commanded by Brig. Gen. William McIntosh at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In contradiction, most stories about Gist simultaneously state that throughout his life he had a chronically swollen knee, which prevented him from hunting or doing farm chores. So how could he march 200 miles to fight in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend?
In 1825, the General Council of the Cherokee Nation presented George Gist with a silver medal inscribed “for his ingenuity in the invention of the Cherokee Alphabet.” He really did create the Cherokee Syllabary.
Gist was supposedly born at Tuskegee on the Little Tennessee River. It is not clear if it was the Tuskegee in Tennessee or the Tuskegee in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. He supposedly never knew his father. At an early age, his mother opened up a trading post near where the Sequoyah Museum is now located.
There is a prevailing story that he left home at age 15 to join the Chickamauga Cherokee warriors, which is validated circumstantially. We do know that in 1793 he ended up in the company of some of the prominent Chickamauga Cherokees such as Major Ridge, Charles Hicks, Uwatie and the Vann Brothers. They fled to Pine Log, GA after their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Etowah Cliffs. Gist continued to live in Pine Log and make silverware for his new friends, until around 1799, when the Ridges set up a plantation on Oothlooga Creek at what is not the border between Bartow and Gordon Counties, GA. Gist is believed to have moved on to Turkeytown, AL where Principal Chief Pathkiller was based.
Sequoyah also often signed the silverware and silver bowls that he created for the Cherokee elite, such as the Vann’s, Hick’s and Ridge’s. That fact leads to the never addressed question, “How in the heck did he learn how to be a master silversmith?” All of his life up to 1800 seems to be accounted for. He either was a fatherless boy, living with his mother at a trading post, fighting a fierce guerilla war in the mountains of eastern Tennessee or making silverware in Pine Log, GA. Articles about Sequoyah state vaguely that he came in contact with white men and learned how to work silver from them, even though he didn’t know English. However, during that period he was trying to kill the white men and they were trying to kill him. Very few English-speaking white men would have known how to work silver anyway.
Wuteh or Wutah is an African name
Google Wuteh or Wutah and you get one Cherokee name and 24 pages of names from West Africa. Wuteh and Wutah were very common names for African slaves, kidnapped from Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast. That fact has great significance. Wutah means “fire.” It is also both the name of a Voodoo goddess and a type of Voodoo priestess.
The current story about George Gist’s mother, Wutah, just does not hold water either. Supposedly she was a young, poor Cherokee woman with a half blood illegitimate child, who only spoke Cherokee. However, in the late 20th century, she became Cherokee nobility . . . supposedly being the niece, sister or cousin of several famous Cherokee chiefs of the late 1700s. If she was from such royalty, many Cherokee men would have sought to have her as a wife. However, she never married, or list according to legend, she never married.
Suddenly, while single and not being able to speak English, Wutah had the capital and mathematical skills to set up a trading post near the Cherokee metropolis of Chote. Who built and paid for the trading post? Where did Wutah get the money to buy goods from white traders to sell to the Cherokees? By this time the deer skin trade was dead and the fur-bearing animals were near extinction in the Southern Highlands.
There is also the matter of Sequoyah’s name. According to tradition, Sequoyah was actually a last name or nickname used by his mother. Not wanting to have a white man’s name, he adopted his mother’s alternate name. In phonetic Cherokee, it is Si-kwo-ya. For decades, scholars have vainly tried to find some Cherokee meaning to the word. All they came up with, was that part of the word, Sequoyah, is similar to the whole Cherokee word for “pig,”
Whenever transliterating Itsate Creek words, Cherokees changed a Itsate “ku” or “ko” to “kwo.” Muskogee Creeks pronounce a “k” sound in a manner very similar to a Cherokee “g.” During the 1700s, sikuya was the Itsate Creek word for a slave or war captive. Was Wuteh of African descent and actually the slave of the owner of the trading post? Alternatively, she could have been captured in a raid. This would explain why she never remarried.
North Carolina Cherokees and the Cherokee syllabary
There is another dirty little secret about Sequoyah that tourists are not told. The leaders of more progressive Overhill Cherokees in Northwest Georgia immediately saw the cultural value of the Sequoyah Syllabary. The more conservative Cherokees in the North Carolina Mountains did not.
Sequoyah and his wife were kidnapped by North Carolina Cherokees and hauled off to the valley, where the Qualla Cherokee Reservation is now located. Both were convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to death by slow torture. The torture consisted of day after day having bones broken, fingers cut off and ears cut off.
When he learned about the travesty occurring in North Carolina, Sequoyah’s good friend, John Ridge, led a troop of Georgia Cherokee Lighthorse Police to rescue him and his wife. The North Carolina Cherokees had already cut off some fingers and an ear, plus broken his leg. This was the source of his lameness, not a childhood affliction.
Even the Cherokee syllabary created by Elias Boudinot was little known among the North Carolina Cherokees until the late 20th century. When I was a consultant to the Qualla Reservation Housing Authority in 1976, it was just being introduced to the reservation, primarily for tourist promotion purposes. None of the tribal officials, whom I worked with could read it.
The Anatolian-Caucasian Mountain connection
It is obvious that at some point in his life, the real Sequoyah was exposed to the writing systems used by the Christian Anatolians, Armenians, Georgians and Circassians. This exposure was not necessarily from a book. His original symbols are almost identical to the handwriting of the region.
During the 1500s and 1600s, millions of Christians in eastern Turkey, the Caucasian Mountains and northern Mesopotamia were either killed, enslaved or exiled by their Muslim overlords. Until that time Christians were almost the sole occupants of the region and represented over 1/3 of the population of the Ottoman Empire. They were scattered across the face of the earth. Some ended up in northeastern Tennessee.
In 1673, Virginians James Needham and Gabriel Arthur journeyed to Eastern Tennessee in order to set up trading relations with the Muskogean tribes there. “Edited” versions of this story changed the names of these tribes to “Cherokees,” but the word Cherokee was never mentioned in the original journal. In northeastern Tennessee, they visited a town built of brick that had a Armenian style church in it. Nearby was a town, built of wood, inhabited by Africans. Forty-five years later, the first European map to mention the Cherokee Indians, showed their villages located in the exact same locale, where Needham and Arthur found the Christian and African towns. There must be a connection.
Somewhere in the forgotten Early Colonial Period history of Tennessee there must have been a community or at least individuals, who remembered the writing system of the Caucasus Region in the late 1700s. Somehow, George Gist was exposed to that writing system. It is also the most likely situation, where he learned how to be a silver smith. Sequoyah was indeed an important historical figure, wrapped in mystery.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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