Sequoyah’s origins are as murky as the heavy veil of mist that hangs over the nearby Great Smoky Mountains. Born sometime between 1765 and 1776 near the shores of the Little Tennessee River, no written records exist that accurately chronicle his early life, but he would solve that problem for future Cherokee generations with his now-famous syllabary.
No two accounts of Sequoyah’s life seem to match, and some are wildly divergent. Historians agree that his mother was named Wut-teh, but his father’s identity remains a point of contention. Because he was known as George Gist among the Anglo population, some believe his father was a German trader named Nathaniel Gist, but others maintain that he was full-blooded Cherokee. Regardless, the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum focuses less on his problematic nascency and more on his character as a curious and multitalented leader.
The lives of the Cherokee between the American Revolution and the War of 1812 changed dramatically, and Sequoyah worked cooperatively with the infant American nation, going so far as to fight in the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend alongside Andrew Jackson. (Jackson later notoriously turned on his onetime Cherokee allies in 1838 when he removed them from the area around the Great Smoky Mountains, an event now infamously known as the Trail of Tears.)
As the story goes, Sequoyah came to understand the importance of the printed word during this tumultuous period, especially the way in which the federal government used it to organize and wield power. Realizing that the Cherokee were at a significant disadvantage, he set out to invent a written language for his own people.
In 1809, without any formal education and with only a limited understanding of written English, Sequoyah began his decades-long linguistic journey. The museum presents a dramatic recreation of this endeavor in a three-dimensional video display that captures the strain of his undertaking. A shadowy figure, mumbling and sometimes wailing, artfully projects a frenzied Sequoya who was thought by many to be crazy for his single-minded pursuit. His wife even burned his early efforts believing he was practicing witchcraft.
In the end, Sequoyah successfully devised an 86-character written language. The second half of the museum is devoted entirely to the success of his invention, with a large printing press taking pride of placement in a room surrounded by walls of letters and newspapers written in the Cherokee language.
Today, the Cherokee nation is the largest Native American group in the United States, with over 300,000 tribal members. Fewer than five percent of the population, however, speak Cherokee, making Sequoyah’s invention vitally important to preserving the language. Situated in a Tennessee idyll, this museum is a fitting recognition for an extraordinary man of letters.
Know Before You Go
The museum is approximately 45 minutes south of Knoxville and is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.