Famous Native Americans: Sequoyah Part 2

About the famous Native American Sequoyah, his biography and place in United States history and how he invented an alphabet.

SEQUOYAH (c. 1770-1843). Inventor of an alphabet.

In 1828, Sequoyah was named one of a delegation of Arkansas Cherokees that went to Washington to attempt to settle with the Federal Government all the unfulfilled promises of all previous treaties. Sequoyah's fame preceded him, and he was the subject of much attention in the capital. Charles Bird King asked him to sit for a portrait, and many newspapermen requested interviews. Jeremiah Evarts asked him why and how he had invented the alphabet and later wrote this account of Sequoyah's answer:

He had observed, that many things were found out by men, and known in the world, but that this knowledge escaped and was lost, for want of some way to preserve it. He had also observed white people write things on paper, and he had seen books; and he knew that what was written down remained and was not forgotten. He had attempted, therefore, to fix certain marks for sounds, and thought that if he could make certain things fast on paper, it would be like catching a wild animal and taming it.

The result of the Washington visit was that the Cherokees agreed to yet another treaty by which they exchanged their lands in Arkansas for new and more extensive ones in what is now Oklahoma. Most of the Cherokees were still clinging desperately to their ancestral territories in Tennessee and Alabama, but the Arkansas band, to which Sequoyah now belonged, once again uprooted itself and moved westward to Oklahoma. Sequoyah, now in his 6os, built himself a new cabin with his own hands, tended his little farm, and at intervals traveled up through the woods to the salt springs. There he would live for days or weeks at a time filling his kettles, tending his fires, scooping out the salt and, Thoreau-like, pausing in his work to talk to anyone who--out of curiosity to see and speak with the now-famous Cherokee philosopher--sought him out there.

But the Great Spirit did not allow Sequoyah to end his life in the tranquility of the forest around Lee's Creek. The Federal Government, which had for so long coveted the Cherokees' ancestral land in Tennessee and Alabama, contracted a treaty of removal, and well-armed soldiers drove some 17,000 Cherokees from their homes. The long trek westward began, months of suffering ensued, and some 4,000 Cherokees died before the great mass of them began to arrive in the Oklahoma territory in the spring of 1839. Problems arose immediately. The new arrivals greatly outnumbered the already established inhabitants; there were profound conflicts over the land, over the makeup of the local government, over everything. Sequoyah, foreseeing an irreparable breach, brought his influence to bear on the side of reason and necessity. At a meeting of the tribe, an act of union was adopted, and the Cherokees of Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma joined together to become the Cherokee Nation.

But even then Sequoyah could not rest. According to tradition, a band of Cherokees had migrated west of the Mississippi at just about the time that Sequoyah was born. Where were they now, these lost Cherokees who did not know of his alphabet or the new Nation? Sequoyah, now aged, set off with a party of 9 horsemen and headed south. Legend has it that before he died, somewhere deep in Mexico, he did find the lost Cherokees. Not long afterward that genus of California redwoods that included the largest trees in the world was named "sequoia" after the only man in history to conceive and perfect in its entirety an alphabet or syllabary.

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