Sequoyah is one of the most important Tennesseans to have ever lived. But no matter what book you read, video you watch or website you click on, you’ll find a different account of his life.
This is the great irony of Sequoyah. The man who invented the Cherokee written language never wrote an autobiography. So our stories about Sequoyah are all derived from a combination of oral tradition and conjecture.
We are not certain when Sequoyah was born; accounts of his life say he was born anywhere from 1760 to 1778. We do know where he was born: present-day Monroe County, where you will find the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.
We are not certain who his parents were. Some sources indicate Sequoyah’s mother was a full-blooded Cherokee named Wut-teh, and his father was a fur trader from Maryland named Nathanial Gist (a named that is often spelled “Guess”). But there are other accounts.
Sequoyah had a limp, but we don’t know why. Since the name Sequoyah means “pig’s foot,” many believe he was born with a disability. However, some stories claim he was injured in a hunting accident or even in military service.
“I think I have read 25 different accounts of why he limped,” says Charlie Rhodarmer, director of the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.
Like many other Cherokees, Sequoyah fought on the American side during the Creek War. His biographers have always assumed, therefore, he was present at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. However, “what part Sequoyah played in the fighting is not on record,” says Stan Hoig in the book "Sequoyah: The Cherokee Genius."
Sequoyah was a silversmith and blacksmith. This means he could buy household necessities as he needed them. However, many videos about Sequoyah show him using a knife and bark to create his language. “I laugh at that idea,” says Rhodarmer. “He would have been able to buy as much pen and paper as he would have liked, and I’m sure he did.”
Some believe Sequoyah inventing a crude numbering system before he invented his syllabary. “After all, he made his living doing things like making nails, jewelry and tools,” says Rhodarmer. "He did so at a time when many of his customers couldn’t pay when they picked things up. So he had to keep up with all this.”
There are numerous accounts about why Sequoyah invented his syllabary. Hoig’s book cites several separate explanations. According to some stories, Sequoyah originally got the idea watching American soldiers during the Creek War. However, an 1828 story in the Cherokee Phoenix said the idea came to Sequoyah when he overheard a conversation among young men talking about the ability of white men to put their language on paper.
We don’t know when Sequoyah moved from Tennessee to present-day Alabama. Because of this, there are people in Tennessee who say he invented the syllabary here, and there are people in Alabama who say he invented the syllabary there.
Sequoyah reportedly had his share of detractors. All the accounts of Sequoyah’s life seem to maintain that other Cherokees thought he was crazy. At some point, long after Sequoyah started working on his project, his wife reportedly destroyed all of his work. Sequoyah was frustrated but started over.
Sequoyah’s demonstration of his written language was said to have been dramatic. Most accounts claim that Sequoyah, under suspicion of witchcraft, demonstrated his written language to tribal elders with the help of his daughter Ayoka.
We know Sequoyah died in August 1843, but we don’t know where he was buried. We think he died in Mexico, where he was trying to find Cherokee people who had moved there from the United States.
None of this uncertainty about Sequoyah’s life detracts from the man’s significance.
In 1825, only four years after he shared it with others, the Cherokee Nation adopted Sequoyah’s writing system. With the help of missionaries, they began printing a newspaper in Cherokee called The Phoenix. Soon, the literacy rate of Cherokees was higher than the literacy rate of the American settlers in that part of the South.
Sequoyah, who everyone had thought was crazy, was praised not only by his own people, but also by the American government and newspapers around the world.
Sadly, Sequoyah’s writing system was not enough to keep the Cherokees from being forced to leave their homeland. By that time, Sequoyah had long since gone west of the Mississippi River.
Bill Carey is the founder of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers cover social studies.