Richard Thornton | Aug 9, 2017 | 5
Was Sequoyah the son of an African Slave or a Mustee War Captive?
A thorough study of the business practices of Indian traders in the Southeast by Uchee researcher, Lonzado Langley, POOF’s on-going linguistic research and circumstantial evidence suggest that Sequoyah’s mother was not who the tourist brochures say she was.
Over and over again, we find examples of how the propensity of American universities to pressure graduate students into citing academic authority figures, rather than do original research into primary sources and eyewitnesses, has created a spiderweb of semi-accurate or downright false Native American history. I could fill a rental storage bin with the number of history & anthropology dissertations/theses, I’ve read that quoted the bogus translations of Creek words by John Swanton, rather than going to the “trouble” to open a Creek dictionary.
For example, last year, I found absolute proof in the French and English colonial maps that there was a French fort on Bussell Island in the Tennessee River near Knoxville until the 1720s. There are even references to this fort in the Carolina Colonial Archives, but if 20th century scholars even noticed the fort’s mention, they noted that the person had confused this fort with one somewhere else.
Almost all references state that Fort Toulouse was built in southeastern Alabama no earlier than 1717, but probably in 1720. However, I found French and British maps that show Fort Toulouse being constructed immediately prior to the Yamasee War in 1715. The French obviously had a covert role in the hostilities.
For two centuries, the Tennessee River fort’s existence was overlooked by Tennessee’s academicians. The surviving timber palisades of this fort were actually unearthed by an archaeologist working for the Smithsonian Institute in the 1880s, but his discovery had been forgotten by the time that the Fort Loudon dam was completed with great urgency, during the early stages of World War II. The late 19th century archaeologist assumed that the fort was built by “Cherokees,” because most of the artifacts, he uncovered were European and dated from the late 1600s or very early 1700s.
Of course, several maps show the Little Tennessee River’s confluence with the Tennessee to be occupied by Koasati villages until the 1720s. It could not be a “Cherokee Fort” and there is no record of the Cherokees knowing how to build a palisaded fort. The ruins of the fort were probably destroyed by the construction of the World War II era dam or the erection of Tellico Dam in the 1970s.
The Cherokee Syllabary
Because of the discovery of the original Creek Migration Legend in England last March, we now know for a fact that the Creeks, or at least the Apalache Creeks of Northeast Georgia, had a complete writing system, when the first British settlers arrived in the Carolinas . . . a full century and a half before Sequoyah’s syllabary. This strongly suggests that Sequoyah may have derived his glyphs from the Apalache system, or maybe not. The true story of the Cherokee syllabary is in a fog created by fabricated history.
Sequoyah, known in his time as George Gist, was the creator of the original Cherokee Syllabary. It is not used today. This is kept a secret . . . because the letters are typical of the Armenian, Anatolian and Circassian alphabets. Only some of Sequoyah’s glyphs were retained in the modern Cherokee syllabary.
In 1827 the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, Elias Boudinot, and the Rev. Samuel Worcester, a Protestant missionary, created another set of symbols that looked more like the Roman alphabet, so that white Americans would not feel as threatened by the new Cherokee writing system. The designs of the letters were also much simpler to convert into type for printing The Cherokee Phoenix.
Even though this second system is today called the Sequoyah Syllabary, George Gist (or Sequoyah) probably never saw it. He was living west of the Mississippi in 1827 and soon died in Mexico. You will occasionally see the original syllabary in references, but it is described as “handwritten Cherokee Syllabary” even though the symbols are generally very different. One is not told that they predate the current system by at least 25 years.
Will the real Sequoyah please stand up?
There is very little about Sequoyah’s life that can be firmly supported by documentation. The date of his birth was some year between 1760 and 1776 – probably 1770. None of the paintings said to be of Sequoyah are actually him, but other Cherokees, filling in as “models” for painters. What fills the information vacuum for publication in tourist brochures is a mixture of academic conjecture, Cherokee folklore, plus mythology created by white Americans, who lived after his time. There are many inconsistencies in these versions of Sequoyah’s life story.
Visitors to the Sequoyah Museum in Vonore, TN are given the impression that Sequoyah created the syllabary near there. However, this great Cherokee left the Little Tennessee Valley at age 15 to fight for the Chickamauga Cherokees and never returned. The Treaty of Hopewell in 1785 gave northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama to the Cherokees. Apparently, his mother moved to Turkeytown in northeast Alabama after then. Official maps continued to show Turkeytown, however, as a Creek town, until around 1800.
Most of the work on the Cherokee syllabary was actually done during the 1790s and early 1800s in the village of Pine Log in Bartow County, GA. At this time, Sequoyah had much leisure time due to the income received from making silverware for elite Cherokee families living nearby.
That leads us to another mystery. One version of his bio says that he was always lame and couldn’t play with other boys. Yet he was definitely a Chickamauga warrior and was fit enough to be one of the few survivors of the Battle of Etowah Cliffs in 1793. Within a few years, he was a master silversmith.
How in the heck did he learn to be a silver smith, if the account of the first 15 years is true? Taskegi (Tuskegee) was certainly not a place overrun with master European silver smiths and there is no mention (and really no time period) where he could have gone to Charleston or Savannah to be an apprentice.
Trading Post concubines and slaves
During the past year, Uchee researcher and POOF member, Lonzado Langley, has been pouring through the Carolina and Georgia colonial archives to obtain a more accurate understanding of the operation of Indian trading posts in the 1600s and 1700s. There is a very pertinent reason. The ancestors of Langley’s family and several of his tribe’s members were either Creek or Mustee (mixed Native-African) wives of the famous Indian trader, George Galphin. He had at least five wives.
Galphin followed the practice of almost all Indian trading companies of the period. They could not trust white men to manage the branch posts, which were scattered all over the Southeast and Mississippi Valley. The white branch managers often both cheated their bosses and their Native American customers . . . hence the principal cause of the Yamasee War.
After the Yamasee War, traders began stationing female African slaves or “marrying” local female Native American slaves. The multiple wives were designated the managers of branch trading posts. Irate Native American customers were less likely to torch a trading post that in their tradition was “owned” by a Native American or Mustee woman.
This is the exact reason that Indian trader, James Adair, married a Chickasaw woman at the large Chickasaw town of Ustanauli in NW Georgia. She was actually at least half Jewish. Her father was a Sephardic Jewish miner and trader. When Northwest Georgia was given to the Cherokees in 1785, the Irish-Jewish-Chickasaw Adairs offspring of James Adair remained and became Cherokee leaders. However, most of the town of Ustanauli moved to Chickasaw territory in western Tennessee.
Keep in mind, that Native American slavery was legal in the colonies until 1752 and continued to be practiced by Native Americans until the Trail of Tears . . . or later. It is also important that the man that many history books describe as Sequoyah’s father was named Nathaniel Gist. He is remembered as German or German-Jewish Indian trader, who was living among the Cherokees at the onset of the American Revolution.
The inconsistencies of his mother’s official bio
Tradition is that Sequoyah’s mother, Wu-teh or Wu-tah, was a full-blooded Cherokee woman, who grew up in the village of Tuskegee on the Little Tennessee River. Neither “tah” or “teh” are separate Cherokee syllables. Late 19th century ethnologist, James Mooney, elaborated on that tradition to say that she was of “royal lineage, a niece of a chief.” Late 20th century researchers elaborated on that interpretation to say that that she was a niece of Chief Doublehead, an important leader of the hostile Chickamauga Cherokees.
Descriptions of 18th century Cherokee genealogy should be viewed with extreme caution. Contemporary Ancestry.com addicts with a trace of Native heritage have created a Europeanized mirage of Cherokee family life. Because of a series of plagues and incessant warfare, the Cherokees maintained polygamy and non-European concepts of male-female relationships as a means of replenishing horrific population losses. Most Cherokees only had a single adult name, unless their father was European. It is very difficult to create accurate descriptions of familial relationships among 18th century Cherokees.
Throughout the 18th century, affluent Cherokee men typically had multiple wives and even more temporary concubines. Many of those wives and concubines were war captives from tribes scattered across Eastern North America. It was also common for Cherokee women to experience a series of relationships in their lives, each producing children, unless the relationship was with another female. Lesbian and bisexual relationships have always been quite common among the Cherokees and were not repressed in the 1700s.
Sarah Hughes, a contemporary of Sequoyah’s mother with “royal Cherokee lineage,” was initially married as a teenager to a Tory officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Hughes. When he left the United States after the American Revolution, she returned to Georgia and had at least four more live-in male husbands or companions, plus an extensive number of short liaisons with men, who are today anonymous. Most of the male partners produced offspring.
Tradition has it that as a teenager, Wu-tah had her son, George, with a man named Gist. Which man named Gist, is a subject of debate among historians. Whatever the case, the father was not living with her when George was born. If she was full-blooded Cherokee and the European father had moved on, it seems odd that she would have given the baby boy an English name.
Again, according to tradition, Sequoyah’s mother soon constructed a trading post near Tuskegee, and never married. No scholar has ever questioned the improbability of a teenage Cherokee girl with a young son, no knowledge of English or arithmetic, and no bank account, being able to pay for the construction of a trading post and then purchasing thousands of pounds-sterling worth of European goods from a warehouse in Augusta, GA.
It is also odd that Wu-tah supposedly never remarried, especially considering the serial nature of Cherokee women’s relationships at that time. If she was from a prominent Cherokee family and was wealthy enough to own a trading post, both Cherokee and white suitors should have been knocking on her door constantly. Lesbian Cherokee women almost always married a warrior for personal protection and provision of game meats, but continued their relationships with females simultaneously.
Linguistics may provide an answer
Google Search Wutah and Wuteh. You will see one Cherokee woman by that name and at least 24 pages of people in West Africa, the Caribbean Basin, Belize and Guiana in South America with that name. It is an extremely common name in the same nations in Africa, where most of the slaves brought to America were captured.
According to a Ghanian dictionary, the name Wutah is a Hausa word which means fire. The Hausa were used by Arab slave traders to capture slaves, but were also enslaved themselves, if captured by Europeans on a Muslim slave boat. However, Wutah and Wuteh are also the varying names of a West African – Caribbean Voodoo deity, plus a type of Voodoo priest. This is important, if one takes into account Sequoyah’s later life.
The African origin of an 18th century Cherokee woman’s name could be argued to be a coincidence, except for the meaning of Sequoyah’s name. He took that name from his mother’s alternate name, so he would not have to use a “white man’s name.” In phonetic Cherokee, it is written Si-kwo-ya.
Cherokee and wannabe Cherokee researchers almost never go outside the confines of contemporary Cherokee culture to interpret either their history or pronouns. Invariably, a word that can’t possibly described by a modern Cherokee dictionary is labeled, “An ancient Cherokee word, whose meaning has been lost.”
Thus, for the past two centuries they have struggled to find a meaning for Si-kwo-ya. The closest they could come was that the first two syllables of his name were similar to the Cherokee word for pig . . . not a likely name for George Gist to opt for.
However, in Itsate Creek, the language spoken by most Creeks in Georgia and Southeastern Tennessee, sikuya meant a slave or war captive. Cherokee speakers almost always transliterated a “ku” or “ko” sound in Itsate Creek to “kwu” or “kwo.” Thus, we have a woman with a common West African name, who no Cherokee man apparently wanted to or could marry, with the alternate name of “slave or war captive.”
There is one other intriguing piece of the puzzle that rarely publicized. The reason that Sequoyah suddenly left the Cherokee Nation for points west of the Mississippi . . . was that he was fleeing for his life. Although very popular in NW Georgia and Tennessee, he was kidnapped by the North Carolina Cherokees. Both he and his wife were sentenced to be slowly tortured to death for practicing witchcraft. It has always been assumed that the witchcraft charge was based on his writing system. However, if Wutah’s name came from voodoo, perhaps he and his wife did practice voodoo. We know very little about his wife. Was she also an African or Mustee?
The executioners had been working on Sequoyah and his wife for a couple of days when John Ridge and a troop of Georgia Cherokee Lighthorse saved them. Nevertheless, for the rest of his life, he had ears and fingers missing, plus walked with a limp. It is has been thought that his wife eventually died from the effects of torture.
It seems quite possible that Wuteh (or Wutah) was actually the African or mixed African-Native American slave of a white trader. He was the entrepreneur, who actually constructed the trading post and paid for the wholesale goods. Slave owners usually gave their illegitimate mixed-blood children, English names. If such was the case, it would explain many of the incongruities now appearing in Sequoyah’s life story. It would also be a very different spin on the life of a brilliant, but very mysterious man.
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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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