The Strange Case of Sequoyah Redivivus: Achievement, Personage, and Perplexity

Article excerpt

IT TAKES ONLY ONE BOOK TO MAKE A LEGEND. GEORGE WASHINGTON NEVER would have chopped down that cherry tree without Mason Locke Weems's "biographies," A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington (1800) and The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen (1806). The anecdote is a reminder that one cannot underestimate the importance of simply being first, when it comes to biography; how many unavailing generations of historians have labored to banish the story from texts? Now a teacher might note that the story is a myth--but it still bears classroom repetition because, after all, it is a snappy story. The annals of American biography sometimes refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Sequoyah (c.1760-1843?) was one so vetted for greatness. Marion L. Starkey's faded landmark, The Cherokee Nation, introduces "one of the most modest of Cherokees," with some immodest praise: Sequoyah "belongs in a category beyond ordinary historical fame. His place is not far below that of those primal geniuses who made civilization possible by inventing the bow and arrow and the wheel, by discovering that fire can be kindled and controlled for pleasant purposes. Sequoia is just such another as Prometheus" (48). The official website of the Cherokee Nation seconds that notion: "Between the years of 1809 and 1821, he accomplished a feat, which no other person in history has done single-handedly. Through the development of the Cherokee Syllabary, he brought our people literacy and the gift of communicating through long distances and the ages. This one person brought to his people this great gift without hired educators, no books and no cost" ("History of Sequoyah").

Testimonies to Sequoyah's brief celebrity abound to the point of faddishness in nineteenth-century literature. In the twentieth century, many of Sequoyah's biographies have been geared toward schoolchildren, of which Janet Klausner's Sequoyah's Gift: A Portrait of the Cherokee Leader collects between two covers an impressively complete stock of Sequoyah legend. "His vision and boldness," writes Duane H. King in an afterword, "continue to inspire those who dream of a better future." Straight-shooting frontier icon Sam Houston, the governor-elect of Tennessee who lived among the Cherokees at various times throughout his life and became the first president of Texas in 1836, is said to have declared, "[Sequoyah], your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hand of every Cherokee" ("History of Sequoyah"). Thomas Underwood writes in The Story of the Cherokee People (1961), "Sequoyah was probably the greatest of all Cherokees" (25). No superlative suffices for Sequoyah; his scribes are reduced to hyperbole. From the time of its invention, the mere existence of the alphabet (a bit of a misnomer, as I will explain) has been cited persistently as evidence for the general superiority of the Cherokees among the American Indian nations. In 1975 linguist Willard Walker was moved to deem Sequoyah's achievement "one of the most remarkable tours de force in American history" (Perdue, "The Sequoyah Syllabary" 118).

It is the version familiar to many of us from the date-and-fact school of history: Sequoyah, exalted hero of the most civilized tribe, was the only person to create an entire alphabet from scratch. The only problem is that the history catechism version is demonstrably inaccurate. As a matter of common sense, we know the singularity of Sequoyah's achievement to be at least improbable. The origins of most scripts are lost to antiquity and thus cannot be ascribed to a particular individual, but it beggars reason to conclude that no single person had invented a script before. So precisely what was Sequoyah's achievement? And just who was he?

My interest in Sequoyah began with what I thought would be a simple enquiry about a figure who has become emblematic of Cherokee pride. …