Richard Thornton | Aug 9, 2017 | 5
Why Sequoyah’s Cherokee Syllabary Looked like the Circassian Alphabet
The famous Cherokee scholar, Sequoyah, probably never even saw the “Cherokee Syllabary” used today. The current Cherokee Syllabary was created in 1827 by Elias Boudinot, editor of the Cherokee Phoenix Newspaper and the Rev. Samuel Worcester, missionary to the Cherokees at New Echota. Sequoyah had been living on the frontier, west of the Mississippi for six years at that time.
Sequoyah was not even his original name. That was his mother’s last name. He is called George Gist on a medal awarded to him in 1825 by the Cherokee National Council. Since he was not able to travel east to receive the honor, it was later taken to him. These are just two of many “dirty little secrets” that surround the life of George Gist. In fact, most historians agree that there is very little about George Gist’s life that today can be collaborated by hard evidence. There are so many contradictions within the individual versions of Sequoyah’s life, it is almost impossible to determine what is 100% factual.
Perhaps what is equally surprising is that the mother of Sequoyah, Wutah, had name that was either African or Gullah. It has no meaning in Cherokee or Creek. The word means, “witch” in Gullah and many West African languages. Later in life, Sequoyah and his wife would be charged with witchcraft by some North Carolina Cherokees. Their lives were saved by Captain John Ridge, Commander of the Georgia Cherokee Lighthorse.
However, if one digs deeper into the linguistic and historic evidence, the situation gets far more complex than even the historians acknowledge. Most academicians are not even aware that the Cherokee syllabary is not the same thing as the Sequoyah Syllabary. You certainly won’t be told that tourist literature or official Cherokee histories, offered to the public.
Oh . . . did we mention that the Circassians call themselves the Cherikess?
The old and new Cherokee syllabaries
George Gist had created a quite different syllabary, which primarily consisted of complex curves. Many of the letters are identical to those of Circassian Medieval Script and slightly less similar to Armenian and Georgian Medieval Scripts. All three peoples lived east of the Black Sea in the southern Caucasus Mountains. Standard histories of Sequoyah say that he had seen writing systems, but could not read English. How in the world would he have been exposed to obscure writing systems from the Caucasus Mountains?
George Gist’s letters were difficult to mold into the metal types, used for printing newspapers. Furthermore, many whites considered them to be the work of the devil, because they were so different than the Roman alphabet. Boudinot and Worcestor therefore created a new syllabary that more closely resembled the Cyrillic alphabets, used in Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
So the Cherokees, who learned Sequoyah’s original syllabary, had to learn a new one, when the Cherokee Phoenix began publication. In truth, the Cherokee syllabary portion of the newspaper was never more than two columns, and by the end of the newspaper’s life in 1832, had dwindled down to a token presence. Sequoyah’s syllabary played a major role in the unification of the Cherokee People in the 1820s. From then on, the syllabary became more of a statement of ethnic identity than a useful tool for trade and government. The Cherokees learned that it was of little value in a world controlled by white men, when they had to deal with white men.
The Circassians were originally a cluster of tribes, speaking similar languages, within the first Christian nation, the Kingdom of Georgia. King Mirian declared Christianity to be the official state religion of the nation in 337 AD. However, Zoroastrianism effectively functioned as a second state religion, well into the Middle Ages. Zoroastrianism is quite similar to the traditional religion of the Cherokees, which involves the conjuring of demons in fires and springs in order to guide decisions.
Many of the Circassian tribes were forcibly converted to Islam during the Middle Ages, but the Circassians refused to switch to speaking Arabic or use the Arabic writing system. Until the majority were forced to change their religion, there was little culturally, which distinguished the Circassians from their neighbors, the Georgians and Armenians. Some Circassian tribes to this day remain Christian and continue to resist pressure to convert.
Because of their refusal to accept Arabic cultural traditions, the Circassians were treated by their Persian and Turkish Muslim overlords in the same manner as Christians and Jews. During the Middle Ages most Muslims were exempt from forced military service. However, Christian, Jew and Circassian males were drafted. The rugged mountain shepherds and farmers of the Circassians became known as excellent soldiers. Hence they received the name that they call themselves today Çherikess. The word means “Warrior People.”
Between 1514 and 1823, the Ottoman and Persian Empires fought 11 wars. All of these wars included military campaigns in Armenia, Georgia and Circassian. All three were vassals of Muslim nations, but the Turks and Persians typically treated the non-combatants in territory held by their enemy as the enemy, even though the Christians and Circassian Muslims in Eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus were little better off than serfs and also unarmed.
The scale of Turkish and Persian Muslim brutality in this region is unimaginable. In 1500, 1/3 of the population of the Ottoman Empire was Christian and about 80-90% of eastern Anatolia (Turkey) was Christian. At least three million Armenian civilians were killed in the 16th century alone. Another three million were either enslaved or exiled by the Turks, or deported to central Persian by the Iranians. These numbers might be conservative. During one campaign, Turkish soldiers killed over 250,000 unarmed Christians in two days on one city!
The Circassians didn’t fare much better. Although fewer Circassians were massacred, unless they were Christians, vast numbers of Circassians were deported to other parts of the Ottoman or Persian Empires. Furthermore, lacking full citizenship, their young men were drafted to serve in the vast armies and fleets that the Ottoman Empire assembled in its repeated efforts to capture the Vatican by the 1000th anniversary of Mohammed’s death. Many never returned home. Mohammed had prophesized in the Qu’ran that all Christendom would be conquered by the Muslims within 1000 years.
The Circassian alphabet enters the world of espionage.
Thousands upon thousands of Eastern Christian and Circassian prisoners of war fell into Spanish hands as Christianity won more and more battles against the Ottoman Armies. Christians were usually freed, but could not live in Spain unless they converted from Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism. These battles occurred during the same period of time when Spain was colonizing the New World. Most of the galley slaves in the Spanish navy were Muslim prisoners of war, captured in the wars with the Turks. Undoubtedly, a substantial percentage of those were Circassian Moslems. The galley slaves in the Ottoman ships were mostly Christians.
Somewhere along the line, Spanish scholars became aware of the Circassian Medieval Script. Jesuits devised a double cipher secrete code for the extensive network of Spanish spies in Europe called the Circassian Codex. The coded messages were written in the Circassian alphabet, but the meanings of the letters were changed. So even if an enemy was able to translate Circassian letters, the resultant translation would still appear to be gobbledygook.
During the 1600s and early 1700s the Circassian Codex became the favorite means of covert communication between Spanish spies, but also between exiled Sephardic Jews. Very, very few people knew how to convert the Circassian alphabet into the Roman alphabet. Even if they did, they would need a second cipher sheet to understand a message’s meaning.
The French became aware of the Circassian Codex around 1665 during a war with Spain in what is now Belgium. Spanish agents within and near Versailles Palace communicated with each other as they planned the assassination of King Louis XIV. One of the agents was captured then tortured until he confessed the full contents of the double cipher, which revealed the names of the other conspirators. Thereafter, both Spain and France used the Circassian Codex in their espionage work, but the letters became increasingly similar to that of the original “Sequoyah” Syllabary.
Sephardic Jewish merchants and pirates often used their version of the Circassian Codex in a triple cipher which also included Arabic and Hebrew letters. As such they were extremely difficult to translate by their enemies . . . primarily the Spanish, Jesuits and Holy Office (Roman Catholic Inquisition).
Sequoyah’s mysterious ancestry
One of the major problems with determining anything factual about Sequoyah’s life is that there are at least three different versions . . . mainstream history books, official Cherokee Nation and the far more detailed account by Traveler Bird, a Kitoowah Cherokee, who claimed to speak for Sequoyah’s descendants. These versions have his father being either a white man (traditional), a halfbreed (Cherokee) or a full blood (Traveler Bird). They have different dates for his birth and death. They have different locations for his birthplace. Two say that Sequoyah never returned to the east after moving to Arkansas and that a Cherokee man named William Maw posed as Sequoyah, when his portrait was painted in Washington, DC by Charles Bird King.
Two versions say that as a young boy, Sequoyah was lame so he couldn’t play sports and go hunting with the other Cherokee boys, yet two describe him going off at age 15 to fight for the Chickamauga Cherokees and three describe Sequoyah fighting in the Creek Red Stick War and going hunting out West when he was an elderly man.
Sequoya was not this famous man’s name. It was his mother’s last name. George Gist, the real name of this scholar, wanted to get rid of his European name, so he took his mother’s last name, probably without knowing its real meaning. The Cherokee spelling of her adopted name is Wuteh S-si-qua-ya. Here name may have actually been Wotah or Wutah. Remember, it was written down by white English speakers.
This is when it gets real interesting. Sequoya is the Anglicization of the Cherokee-nization of Sikuya, which meant “slave” or “war captive” in the 18th century Creek languages. It makes no sense that his mother would be named a slightly modified Cherokee word for pig, siqua, as some references state.
Wuteh and Wutah are African and Georgia Gullah words for witch! All three versions of his life acknowledge that Sequoyah and his wife were charged with witchcraft. Two versions claim that he and his wife were tortured and maimed before escaping. The sanitized Cherokee version says he wasn’t . . . BUT . . . a well-researched biography on the Ridge Family (Major Ridge, John Ridge) states matter-of-factly that John Ridge, as commander of the Georgia Cherokee Light Horse raced up to North Carolina to save his friend Sequoyah and his wife as they were at the time being tortured until death for witchcraft.
It sounds like that Sequoyah’s mother was a Mustee (mixed African-Native American) slave from the Creek-speaking part of South Carolina or Georgia. In the various versions of Sequoyah, she is either operator or the owner (highly unlikely) of a trading post. All three versions state that George Gist grew up in a household headed by his mother. One version says he was an only child. Another says that he had a couple of half-siblings, whose fathers are unknown. The third version says that he was a full blooded son of a father and mother, living together with a large family.
In the late 1700s, almost all the Cherokee and Creek trading posts were owned by white Indian traders, based on the Savannah River in Augusta, GA or slightly farther south. They preferred using Mustee slaves or freewomen to manage their branch trading posts. The Mustees were usually either mixed Uchee-African or Creek-African, whose cultures had long traditions of being involved with regional trade systems.
George Gist and his mother are described as being poor. As such she would have had no capital to stock up a trading post. If she actually owned the trading post, she would not have been poor. She would have been one of the wealthiest Cherokee women in her area, and thus would have had Cherokee men “beating down her doors” to be her husband . . . or at least, live-in lover. This would not to be the case if Wutah was known to be a witch. Not being ethnic Cherokee, she would be immune to execution, but nevertheless, been taboo.
Along with Charles Hicks, David Hicks, David Vann and John Ridge, Gist was among the survivors of the disastrous Battle of Etowah Cliffs in Rome, GA on October 17, 1793. They fled to the Natchez village of Pine Log in what is now northern Bartow County. Ridge’s sister lived there. Gist lived for several years in Pine Log where he made a living as a silversmith for wealthy Cherokee families such as the Ridges and Vanns.
That leads to a very pertinent question. If Gist lived in poverty with his mother until age 15 then was on the warpath until late 1793, how in the world did he learn how to make professional quality silverware. That is skill that very few whites would have had? This is one of many contradictions in all the versions of Sequoyah’s life.
Did George Gist really create the letters for his syllabary?
All three versions of George Gist’s life agree that in 1824, the Cherokee National Council created a silver medal to honor his creation of the Cherokee Syllabary. The mainstream story of Sequoyah says that he worked independent to create an entirely new syllabary over a period of 20 years . . . from when the Chickamauga War ended in 1793 until just before the War of 1812. The Official Cherokee version says that he worked independently on entirely new syllabary symbols from the end of the Redstick War in 1815 to around 1821.
The Traveller Bird version tells an entirely different story. He stated that the Cherokees had a writing system for many centuries. Supposedly, a “poor tribe from the west named the Talliwa arrived in their territory long in the past.” This tribe had a writing system, which was maintained on gold foil. In gratitude for being taken in, the Taliwa taught the Taskegi Clan of the Cherokees how to write. The Taskegi were known for their intelligence and powerful memories. Afterward they kept the writing system and tribe’s history recorded on gold foil.
According to Bird, the Taskegi writing system was utilized by the Chickamauga Cherokees in their war with the white settlers in Tennessee. Cryptic messages were carved or painted on to trees so war parties could communicate with each other. While fighting for the Chickamauga’s learned this cryptic system.
Again according to Bird, the Cherokees continued to use the Taliwa symbols after there was peace. The leaders of the Chickamaugas soon became the dominant faction of the Cherokee Nation. Meanwhile, while working as a silversmith, Sequoyah began adapting these symbols and some more he created into a system that symbolized the syllables in the Cherokee language. While fighting in the Red Stick War, Sequoyah began teaching the more sophisticated use of the Taliwa symbols to other Cherokee soldiers.
Facts: Abstract symbols have been found on ancient trees within the territorial boundary of the Cherokee Nation in Georgia. The memoir of Captain René de Laundonniére, Commander of Fort Caroline (1564-1565), specifically mentioned that the Apalache Creeks in Northeast Georgia manufactured gold foil and exported it to other tribes in the Southeast. He stated that the foil was used to record information.
While camped out in the Tuskeegee Community, NC, I found a Sephardic Jewish inscription on the mountain overlooking Fontana Lake, which was dated September 15, 1615. That means that Sephardic Jews were in direct contact with Taskegees by that date or earlier.
Eyewitness accounts by Richard Briggstock in 1653, James Needham & Gabriel Arthur in 1673 and Governor James Moore of Carolina in 1693, place Spanish and Portuguese colonists in North Georgia and Eastern Tennessee in the 1600s. Needham and Arthur also encountered a large European town, built of brick, near the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers. The town contained a brick church with a bell tower containing a single massive bell. The bell tolled three times a day to call Christians there to pray. This is a precise description of Armenian, Georgian and Christian Circassian towns of that era in the Caucasus.
Horse manure: Taliwa was also the name used by other Cherokee storytellers to label a mythical town on the Etowah River, which the Cherokees supposedly razed in 1755 and in doing so, captured all of North Georgia. There was no tribe and no town named Taliwa, anywhere in the United States or Mexico. The ruins that the Cherokees claimed were Taliwa, where of a large town abandoned around 1600 AD. Archaeologists have never found an example of writing at the so-called Taliwa town site in Cherokee County, GA.
The Taskegi (Tuskegee in English) were a major branch of the Creek Confederacy. They were originally located on the Little Tennessee River in present day Graham County, NC and were visited there in the spring of 1540. Their neighbors to the east were the Chiaha, who were Itza Maya immigrants. Taskegee Creeks where shown to still be living at that location on the 1701 map of Mexico and La Florida by the French mapmaker, Guillaume de Lisle. By 1717, the majority of Taskegee had been forced out of the North Carolina Mountains and were then shown living in Northwest Georgia and along the Upper Coosa River in Northeast Alabama.
The Taskegee towns eventually settled on the Middle Coosa and Chattahoochee Rivers. Nevertheless, there was a Cherokee village built on the burned out ruins of the Creek town of Taskegi. The location is on the banks of Fontana Lake and is the source of the name of Tuskeegee Community.
Plausible Speculations: The word “Charakeys” first appeared on a map in 1715. Their villages were shown to be located in the exact same region where Needham and Arthur encountered an Eastern Orthodox Christian town. Prior to 1715, French maps show Northeast Tennessee occupied by Chiska, Shawnee, proto-Creek and Tongoria towns.
(1) It is possible that the origin of the Anglicized ethnic label, Cherakees, is the actual name that the Circassians called themselves . . . Cherikess. The connection might seem far-fetched, but there were hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Georgians and Circassians wandering around the world at that time due to their expulsion by the Otttoman Empire.
(2) It is quite possible that interactions and marriages between Eastern Orthodox colonists and local indigenous peoples allowed the transfer of knowledge about writing systems to be partially absorbed by subsequent generations of mixed-heritage peoples. Perhaps at some point, the descendants knew the alphabetical letters, but didn’t know their meanings.
(3) French officers, marines and traders began exploring eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina in the 1680s. By then senior officers involved with clandestine activities would have known the French version of the Circassian Codex. The French built a large fortified trading post on Bussell Island at the confluence of the Tennessee and Little Tennessee Rivers during that period. It was still there in 1715. Perhaps
(4) The Sequoyah Syllabary may have been derived by George Gist from a Creek writing system, learned by his mother, Wuteh, Wutah or Wotah. If she was indeed a slave, as indicated by her last name, there is no telling what her ethnic background was or who she had been in contact with in the past.
A sample has been found of a Creek writing system from the mid-1700s. (See below) I predates the Cherokee system by several decades. Of course, Principal Chief Chikili presented a example of a complete Apalache-Creek writing system to the leaders of Savannah on June 7, 1735 . . . so the Cherokee’s claim to have been the only tribe in the United States to have ever been literate is just not true.
If historians could ever determine how Sequoyah learned the skills of a silversmith, the understanding of the origins of his syllabary might become more obvious. Until then there will always be many mysteries about this man, who called himself Sequoyah.
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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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