Few people are aware that the original writing system created by the great Native American scholar, Sequoya, was changed by a Christian missionary and a Cherokee newspaper editor. His original symbols were identical or similar to letters in alphabets used by Christians and Jews in the Middle East during the Late Medieval Period. Some are also found in the Jewish Kaballah manuscripts.
People fluent in Cherokee today would not have a clue about the meaning of a message written in the original Sequoya syllabary. Sequoya may have never even seen the Cherokee Syllabary now in use. His descendants insist that he never went back east after moving to Arkansas in 1816. There have been so many conflicting stories created about Sequoya, very few facts can be known for certain, other than that he did create a syllabary for the Cherokee People.
It is the time of the American Revolution. The majority of Cherokee leaders have come to realize that they made a terrible mistake when they joined the fratricidal war between the British Crown and American colonies. At the start, hot-headed young warriors, with inadequate leadership, attacked the South and North Carolina frontier without warning. They were supposed to engage Continental army units, but instead indiscriminately massacred frontier families without regard to their political beliefs or ethnicity.
The largely neutral or pro-British Carolina frontier was immediately turned into a hornet’s nest of Patriot fervor. Creek, Yuchi and Catawba Indian farmsteaders in South Carolina were also attacked. The Native Americans in South Carolina had planned to stay neutral, but the Cherokee attacks pushed them into the ranks of the Patriots. They provided both guerilla bands and conventional military units such as the famous, Raccoon Regiment.
The Cherokees quickly found themselves outnumbered by irate frontiersmen and Native Americans with a blood lust for revenge. The hybrid Patriot armies gave no quarter for Cherokees of any gender or age. All Cherokee villages they encountered were burned. The surviving Cherokees were forced to sue for peace, if their people were going to continue existing at all.
A Cherokee war leader, Dragging Canoe, was forced out of the Cherokee Nation, when he refused to abide by a peace treaty between the Cherokee leaders and the Patriots. He settled his people next to the Chickasaw village of Chickamauga on the Tennessee River. Almost immediately his warriors began making hit and run attacks on small groups of travelers. His successes attracted groups of warriors from the Cherokees, Upper Creeks and Shawnees. Chickamauga grew into a cluster of polyglot hamlets.
Between 1776 and 1793 the Chickamauga War raged across the Southern Highlands, but most intensely in eastern Tennessee. During most of that period, Tennessee was part of North Carolina. This war was similar in character to the Viet Nam War. Chickamauga villages became transient, only staying in location for a growing and hunting season. Peaceful Cherokee villages often paid a horrific price for the raids of the Chickamauga renegades, because they were easier to find. Upper Creek towns were seldom attacked because they were more distant, larger and fortified.
The Chickamauga warriors spoke several languages and Cherokee dialects. In order to communicate with each other, they used a writing system that had been kept secret from the Europeans. Messages to other Chickamauga war parties were carved on trees. White militiamen had no clue what the symbols meant.
Kituyah Band Cherokee tradition holds that the writing system came from the “Taliwa” originally on the Etowah River in Georgia, but it was known by the Tuskegee Creeks on the Little Tennessee River in the Smoky Mountains. Supposedly, the “Taliwa” wrote on thin sheets of gold.
The rise of a warrior-scholar
After living with his mother on the Tanasi River (now the Little Tennessee) for five years, a 15 year old half-breed Cherokee lad, possibly named George Gist or George Guess, left home to fight with the Chickamaugas. There he was taught the Taliwa Script in order to communicate with other bands. He supposedly threw off his European name, and from then on, called himself by his mother’s name of Sekwoya.
Some Kituyah Cherokees say that this lad was a fullblood Cherokee named Sogwili, meaning Horse. They say that he grew up in the Cherokee village of Taskigi (Tuskeegee, NC) and was a Taliwa scholar. They say that he was the son of a Talliwa scholar,
In the Kituyah version, the Taliwa were “a poor tribe from the west, who had a writing system” that became the scholars of the Cherokees. Very few Cherokees are aware that Kituya means “sacred fire” in the Alabama language; sikuya meant “war captive” in 18th century Creek: Taskeke means Woodpecker People in Mvskoke (Muskogee-Creek,) while Taliwa means “town” in Conchakee-Creek. In other words, if Sequoyah’s mother was named Sequoya (Sekoya) she was a Creek girl, who had been captured as a youth, and either sold to Nathanial Gist, or married to a Taskegi (Tuskegee) scholar.
During the early 1700s, the steadily expanding Cherokee Alliance gave the Taskeke Creeks an ultimatum, join us or we will kill your men and sell your women and children as slaves to the white man. The majority of the Taskeke’s moved to Alabama and joined the Creek Confederacy. The minority became the Cherokee Taskegi Clan.
Other versions of Sequoyah’s life have his mother not being named Sequoyah, but being named Wuteh, and being descended from a long line of Tennessee Overhill Cherokee “royalty.” This may or may not be true. While he was alive, contemporary descriptions said he named himself after his mother. The story about Wuteh being his mother, first appeared in the 1890s.
In 1793 a large army of Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw Chickamaugas were camped on a high hill along the Etowah River with their families. The battlefield is now across the river from Downtown Rome, GA. They were surrounded by the Tennessee Militia, led by Col. John Sevier. Approximately 800 Chickamauga men, women and children were killed. A handful of Cherokees escaped and took refuge at the Natchez village of Pine Log, GA – where the sister of Nunnehidihi (Major Ridge) lived. Few people know that the famous Ridge family originated in another Natchez village in western North Carolina. Accompanying the famous Chickamauga leader were Sequoya, James Vann, David Uwatie and Charles Hicks. All five men would become progressive leaders the Cherokee Nation.
From 1793 to possibly 1809, Sequoya supported himself and his family as a silversmith, while living in a cabin in Pine Log, GA. The unmarked location is now near Hwy. 140, west of Reinhardt University. How could a Cherokee man, who had been a guerilla fighter since age 15, know how to make fine silverware? This is one of the many contradictions in the current versions of Sequoya’s life. He began working on the Cherokee Syllabary while living in Pine Log. One version of his life is that because he did so much work for the Vanns and Ridges, he eventually moved to homes (and extra wives) on their plantations. Another version is that he moved full time or part time to Willstown, Alabama.
While becoming quite affluent from his silver work, Sequoya had free time to study the application of the Taliwa script to a writing system that would enable Cherokees to communicate with each other on paper. There are so many varying stories about this time in his life, that it is no clear what is true and what are myths. He definitely fought in the Cherokee Regiment at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. It is certain that by about 1815 he was teaching Cherokees in Georgia how to read and write with his syllabary.
In 1816, Baptist missionaries working with a band of Cherokees, living on the eastern edge of the Cherokee Nation near Robbinsville, NC inflamed their converts about the Sequoya syllabary. By this time, the boundary was about 30 miles west of the current North Carolina Cherokee Reservation. The missionaries wanted the Cherokees to read and write in English, so that English language Bibles could be distributed.
Sequoya and is wife were kidnapped, while they were visiting his old home town at Tuskeegee, NC, and put on trial for witchcraft. They were sentenced to death for committing witchcraft. This was only a crime among Christian Cherokees, because conjuring was a central feature of traditional Cherokee religion. It is still practiced on the North Carolina reservation. The condemned couple was being slowly tortured to death, when a troop of Georgia Cherokee Lighthorse Police under the command of Sequoya’s friend, Major Ridge, rescued them. Sequoya soon moved to Arkansas and according to his descendants, never returned east.
When Elias Boudinot, son of David Uwatie, returned home from college in 1828, he was named editor of the proposed tribal newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix. Boudinot and Samuel Worcester thought that Sequoya’s syllabary was too “alien” looking and might appear diabolic to white Christians. Also, the many curves on the original syllabary would be extremely difficult to create on typeset. They, therefore, altered the original syllabary to look more like the Roman alphabet. It is unlikely that Sequoya ever saw what is today called the Sequoya Cherokee Syllabary.
There is another surprise. Sequoya’s original symbols can be found in the Syriac alphabets used by Christians and Jews in Turkey, Armenia, Mesopotamia and the Kingdom of Georgia during the Middle Ages. They are also used as mystical symbols in the Jewish Kaballah.
For two centuries, the similarity of Sequoya’s letters and Syriac scripts appeared to be merely a coincidence. Then in 2010 DNA Consultants Inc. released a report on a massive genetic study of the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina. The report described the Cherokees there as “a Middle Eastern population with substantial European and some, Native American, ancestry. Their test subjects carried high levels of DNA markers, typical of Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Mesopotamia. They apparently had many ancestors, who were Sephardic Jewish colonists in the North Carolina Mountains during the 1600s. See http://dnaconsultants.com/_blog/DNA_Consultants_Blog/post/Haplogroup_T_among_the_Cherokee
There is more. At an elevation of 5,400 feet on Hoopers Bald, which overlooks the site of the village of Taskegi, where Sequoya was born, are the inscribed Sephardic-Castilian words, PRE DARMOS CASADA. SEP 15, 1615 (Prayer we will give, married.) Could it be that the Tuskegee Creeks and Tuskegee Cherokees were descended from Sephardic Jews intermarried with local Muskogeans? That would explain how Medieval Syriac scripts ended up being carved on poplar trees during the bitter Chickamauga War.
Who really was this great man, Sequoya? The truth is out there somewhere.
Mr. Thornton spent the winter of 2010 camped out near the site of Tuskegee in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Earlier, he lived a year near the site of Sequoya’s log cabin in Pine Log, GA. He also lived for 18 months on the site of the Battle of Etowah Cliffs in Rome, GA.
Readers wishing to contact Richard Thornton with questions concerning architecture, urban planning or Native American history may reach him at NativeQuestion@aol.com .