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- Se-quo-yah - 1/3 -


In the year 1768 a German peddler, named George Gist, left the settlement of Ebenezer, on the lower Savannah, and entered the Cherokee Nation by the northern mountains of Georgia. He had two pack-horses laden with the petty merchandise known to the Indian trade. At that time Captain Stewart was the British Superintendent of the Indians in that region. Besides his other duties, he claimed the right to regulate and license such traffic. It was an old bone of contention. A few years before, the Governor and Council of the colony of Georgia claimed the sole power of such privilege and jurisdiction. Still earlier, the colonial authorities of South Carolina assumed it. Traders from Virginia, even, found it necessary to go round by Carolina and Georgia, and to procure licenses. Augusta was the great centre of this commerce, which in those days was more extensive than would be now believed. Flatboats, barges, and pirogues floated the bales of pelts to tide-water. Above Augusta, trains of pack-horses, sometimes numbering one hundred, gathered in the furs, and carried goods to and from remote regions. The trader immediately in connection with the Indian hunter expected to make one thousand per cent. The wholesale dealer made several hundred. The governors, councilors, and superintendents made all they could. It could scarcely be called legitimate commerce. It was a grab game.

Our Dutch friend Gist was, correctly speaking, a contrabandist. He had too little influence or money to procure a license, and too much enterprise to refrain because he lacked it. He belonged to a class more numerous than respectable, although it would be a good deal to say that there was any virtue in yielding to these petty exactions. It was a mere question of confiscation, or robbery, without redress, by the Indians. He risked it. With traders, at that time, it was customary to take an Indian wife. She was expected to furnish the eatables, as well as cook them. By the law of many Indian tribes property and the control of the family go with the mother. The husband never belongs to the same family connection, rarely to the same community or town even, and often not even to the tribe. He is a sort of barnacle, taken in on his wife's account. To the adventurer, like a trader, this adoption gave a sort of legal status or protection. Gist either understood this before he started on his enterprise, or learned it very speedily after. Of the Cherokee tongue he knew positively nothing. He had a smattering of very broken English. Somehow or other he managed to induce a Cherokee girl to become his wife.

This woman belonged to a family long respectable in the Cherokee Nation. It is customary for those ignorant of the Indian social polity to speak of all prominent Indians as "chiefs." Her family had no pretension to chieftaincy, but was prominent and influential; some of her brothers were afterward members of the Council. She could not speak English; but, in common with many Cherokees of even that early date, had a small proportion of English blood in her veins. The Cherokee woman, married or single, owns her property, consisting chiefly of cattle, in her own right. A wealthy Cherokee or Creek, when a son or daughter is born to him, marks so many young cattle in a new brand, and these become, with their increase, the child's property. Whether her cattle constituted any portion of the temptation, I can not say. At any rate, the girl, who had much of the beauty of her race, became the wife of the German peddler.

Of George Gist's married life we have little recorded. It was of very short duration. He converted his merchandise into furs, and did not make more than one or two trips. With him it had merely been cheap protection and board. We might denounce him as a low adventurer if we did not remember that he was the father of one of the most remarkable men who ever appeared on the continent. Long before that son was born he gathered together his effects, went the way of all peddlers, and never was heard of more.

He left behind him in the Cherokee Nation a woman of no common energy, who through a long life was true to him she still believed to be her husband. The deserted mother called her babe "Se-quo- yah," in the poetical language of her race. His fellow-clansmen as he grew up gave him, as an English one, the name of his father, or something sounding like it. No truer mother ever lived and cared for her child. She reared him with the most watchful tenderness. With her own hands she cleared a little field and cultivated it, and carried her babe while she drove up her cows and milked them.

His early boyhood was laid in the troublous times of the war of the Revolution, yet its havoc cast no deeper shadows in the widow's cabin.

As he grew older he showed a different temper from most Indian children. He lived alone with his mother, and had no old man to teach him the use of the bow, or indoctrinate him in the religion and morals of an ancient but perishing people. He would wander alone in the forest, and showed an early mechanical genius in carving with his knife many objects from pieces of wood. He employed his boyish leisure in building houses in the forest. As he grew older these mechanical pursuits took a more useful shape. The average native American is taught as a question of self- respect to despise female pursuits. To be made a "woman" is the greatest degradation of a warrior.

Se-quo-yah first exercised his genius in making an improved kind of wooden milk-pans and skimmers for his mother. Then he built her a milk-house, with all suitable conveniences, on one of those grand springs that gurgle from the mountains of the old Cherokee Nation. As a climax, he even helped her to milk her cows; and he cleared additions to her fields, and worked on them with her. She contrived to get a petty stock of goods, and traded with her countrymen. She taught Se-quo-yah to be a good judge of furs. He would go on expeditions with the hunters, and would select such skins as he wanted for his mother before they returned. In his boyish days the buffalo still lingered in the valleys of the Ohio and Tennessee. On the one side the French sought them. On the other were the English and Spaniards. These he visited with small pack-horse trains for his mother.

For the first hundred years the European colonies were of traders rather than agriculturists. Besides the fur trade, rearing horses and cattle occupied their attention. The Indians east of the Mississippi, and lying between the Appallachian Mountains and the Gulf, had been agriculturists and fishermen. Buccaneers, pirates, and even the regular navies or merchant ships of Europe, drove the natives from the haunted coast. As they fell back, fur traders and merchants followed them with professions of regard and extortionate prices. Articles of European manufacture--knives, hatchets, needles, bright cloths, paints, guns, powder--could only be bought with furs. The Indian mother sighed in her hut for the beautiful things brought by the Europeans. The warrior of the Southwest saw with terror the conquering Iroquois, armed with the dreaded fire-arms of the stranger. When the bow was laid aside, or handed to the boys of the tribe, the warriors became the abject slaves of traders. Guns meant gunpowder and lead. These could only come from the white man. His avarice guarded the steps alike to bear-meat and beaver-skins. Thus the Indian became a wandering hunter, helpless and dependent. These hunters traveled great distances, sometimes with a pack on their backs weighing from thirty to fifty pounds. Until the middle of the eighteenth century horses had not become very common among them, and the old Indian used to laugh at the white man, so lazy that he could not walk. A consuming fire was preying on the vitals of an ancient simple people. Unscrupulous traders, who boasted that they made a thousand per cent, held them in the most abject thrall. It has been carefully computed that these hunters worked, on an average, for ten cents a day. The power of their old village chiefs grow weaker. No longer the old men taught the boys their traditions, morals, or religion. They had ceased to be pagans, without becoming Christians.

The wearied hunter had fire-water given him as an excitement to drown the cares common to white and red. Slowly the polity, customs, industries, morals, religion, and character of the red race were consumed in this terrible furnace of avarice. The foundations of our early aristocracies were laid. Byrd, in his "History of the Dividing Line," tells us that a school of seventy- seven Indian children existed in 1720, and that they could all read and write English; but adds, that the jealousy of traders and land speculators, who feared it would interfere with their business, caused it to be closed. Alas! this people had encountered the iron nerve of Christianity, without reaping the fruit of its intelligence or mercy.

Silver, although occasionally found among the North American Indians, was very rare previous to the European conquest. Afterward, among the commodities offered, were the broad silver pieces of the Spaniards, and the old French and English silver coins. With the most mobile spirit the Indian at once took them. He used them as he used his shell-beads, for money and ornament. Native artificers were common in all the tribes. The silver was beaten into rings, and broad ornamented silver bands for the head. Handsome breast-plates were made of it; necklaces, bells for the ankles, and rings for the toes.

It is not wonderful that Se-quo-yah's mechanical genius led him into the highest branch of art known to his people, and that he became their greatest silversmith. His articles of silverware excelled all similar manufactures among his countrymen.

He next conceived the idea of becoming a blacksmith. He visited the shops of white men from time to time. He never asked to be taught the trade. He had eyes in his head, and hands; and when he bought the necessary material and went to work, it is characteristic that his first performance was to make his bellows and his tools; and those who afterward saw them told me they were very well made.

Se-quo-yah was now in comparatively easy circumstances. Besides his cattle, his store, and his farm, he was a blacksmith and a silversmith. In spite of all that has been alleged about Indian stupidity and barbarity, his countrymen were proud of him. He was in danger of shipwrecking on that fatal sunken reef to American character, popularity. Hospitality is the ornament, and has been the ruin, of the aborigine. His home, his store, or his shop, became the resort of his countrymen; there they smoked and talked, and learned to drink together. Among the Cherokees those who have are expected to be liberal to those who have not; and whatever weaknesses he might possess, niggardliness or meanness was not among them.

After he had grown to man's estate he learned to draw. His sketches, at first rude, at last acquired considerable merit. He had been taught no rules of perspective; but while his perspective differed from that of a European, he did not ignore it, like the Chinese. He had now a very comfortable hewed-log residence, well furnished with such articles as were common with the better class of white settlers at that time, many of them, however, made by

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