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- Se-quo-yah - 3/3 -


As will be observed by examining the alphabet, which is on the table in the engraving, he used many of the letters of the English alphabet, also numerals. The fact was, that he came across an old English spelling-book during his labors, and borrowed a great many of the symbols. Some he reversed, or placed upside down; others he modified, or added to. He had no idea of either their meaning or sound, in English, which is abundantly evident from the use he made of them. As was eminently fitting, the first scholar taught in the language was the daughter of Se-quo-yah. She, like all the other Cherokees who tried it, learned it immediately. Having completed it without the white man's hints or aid, he visited the agent, Colonel Lowry, a gentleman of some intelligence, who only lived three miles from him, and informed that gentleman of his invention. It is not wonderful that the agent was skeptical, and suggested that the whole was a mere act of memory, and that the symbols bore no relation to the language, or its necessities. Like all other benefactors of the race, he had to encounter a little of the ridicule of those who, being too ignorant to comprehend, maintain their credit by sneering. The rapid progress of the language among the people settled the matter, however. The astonishing rapidity with which it is acquired has always been a wonder, and was the first thing about it that struck the writer of this article. In my own observation, Indian children will take one or two, at times several, years to master the English printed and written language, but in a few days can read and write in Cherokee. They do the latter, in fact, as soon as they learn to shape letters. As soon as they master the alphabet they have got rid of all the perplexing questions in orthography that puzzle the brains of our children. Is it not too much to say that a child will learn in a month, by the same effort, as thoroughly, in the language of Se-quo-yah, that which in ours consumes the time of our children for at least two years.

There has been a great clamor for a universal language. We once had it, in our learned world, in the Latin, in which books were locked up for the scholars and dead to the world. Language is the handmaiden of thought, and to be useful must be obedient to its changes as well as its elemental characteristics. For the English of three hundred years ago we need a glossary, and to carry down his immortal thoughts in their pristine vigor, must have, every two hundred years, a Johnson to modernize a Shakspeare. To probe the causes of the change of language, to ascertain why even a WRITTEN language is mutable, to pick up this garment of thought and run its threads back through all their vagaries to their origin and points of divergence, is one of the grand tasks for the intellectual historian. He, indeed, must give us the history of ideas, of which all art, including language, is but the fructification. To say, therefore, that the alphabet of Se-quo-yah is better adapted for his language than our alphabet is for the English, would be to pay it a very wretched compliment.

George Gist received all honor from his countrymen. A short time after his invention written communication was opened up by means of it with that portion of the Cherokee Nation then in their new home west of the Arkansas. Zealous in his work, he traveled many hundred miles to teach it to them; and it is no reproach to their intellect to say that they received it readily.

It has been said the Indians are besotted against all improvements. The cordiality with which this was received is worthy of attention.

In 1823 the General Council of the Cherokee Nation voted a large silver medal to George Gist as a mark of distinction for his discovery. On one side were two pipes, the ancient symbol of Indian religion and law; on the other a man's head. The medal had the following inscription in English, also in, Cherokee in his own alphabet:

"Presented to George Gist, by the General Council of the Cherokee Nation, for his ingenuity in the invention of the Cherokee alphabet."

John Ross, acting as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, sent it West to Se-quo-yah, together with an elaborate address, the latter being at that time in the new nation.

In 1828 Gist went to Washington city as a delegate from the Western Cherokees. He was then in his fifty-ninth year. At that time the portrait was taken, an engraving from which we present to our readers. He is represented with a table containing his alphabet. The missionaries were not slow to employ it. It was arranged with the Cherokee, and English sounds and definitions. Rev. S.A. Worcester endeavored to get the outlines of its grammar, and both he and Mr. Boudinot prepared vocabularies of it, as did many others. In this way, by having more and better observers, we know more of this language than many others, and affinities have been traced between it and some others, supposed to be radically different, which would have appeared in the case of some others, had they been as fully or correctly written.

Besides the Scriptures, a very considerable number of books were printed in it, and parts of several different newspapers existing from time to time; also almanacs, songs, and psalms.

During the closing portion of his life, the home of Se-quo-yah was near Brainerd, a mission station in the new nation. Like his countrymen, he was driven an exile from his old home, from his fields, work-shops, and orchards by the clear streams flowing from the mountains of Georgia. Is it wonderful if such treatment should throw a sadder tinge on a disposition otherwise mild, hopeful, and philosophic?

One of his sons is a very fair artist, using promiscuously pencil, pen, chalk, or charcoal. He served, as a private soldier, in the Union army in the late war, and there, in his quarters, made many sketches. His power of caricaturing was very considerable. If a humorous picture of some officer who had rendered himself obnoxious was found, chalked in unmistakable but grotesque lineaments, on the commissary door, it was said, "It must have been by the son of Se-quo-yah."

In his mature years, at Brainerd, although approaching seventy, the nerve or fire of the old man was not dead. Some narrow-minded ecclesiastics, because Gist would not go through the routine of a Christian profession after the fashion they prescribed, have not scrupled to intimate that he was a pagan, and grieved that the Bible was printed in the language he gave. This arose simply from not comprehending him. They persisted in considering him an ignorant savage, while he comprehended himself and measured them.

In his old days a new and deeper ambition seized him. He was not in the habit of asking advice or assistance in his projects. In his journey to the West, as well as to Washington, he had an opportunity of examining different languages, of which, as far as lay in his power, he carefully availed himself. His health had been somewhat affected by rheumatism, one of the few inheritances he got from the old fur peddler of Ebenezer; but the strong spirit was slow to break.

He formed a theory of certain relations in the language of the Indian tribes, and conceived the idea of writing a book on the points of similarity and divergence. Books were, to a great extent, closed to him; but as of old, when he began his career as a blacksmith by making his bellows, so he now fell back on his own resources. This brave Indian philosopher of ours was not the man to be stopped by obstacles. He procured some articles for the Indian trade he had learned in his boyhood, and putting these and his provisions and camping equipage in an ox-cart, he took a Cherokee boy with him as driver and companion, and started out among the wild Indians of the plain and mountain, on a philological crusade such as the world never saw.

One of the most remarkable features of his experience was the uniform peace and kindness with which his brethren of the prairie received him. They furnished him means, too, to prosecute his inquiries in each tribe or clan. That they should be more sullen and reticent to white men is not wonderful when we reflect that they have a suspicion that all these pretended inquirers in science or religion have a lurking eye to real estate. Several journeys were made. The task was so vast it might have discouraged him. He started on his longest and his last journey. There was among the Cherokees a tradition that part of their nation was somewhere in New Mexico, separated from them before the advent of the whites. Se-quo-yah knew this, and expected in his rambles to meet them. He had camped on the spurs of the Rocky Mountains; he had threaded the valleys of New Mexico; looked at the adobe villages of the Pueblos, and among the race, neither Indian nor Spaniard, with swarthy face and unkempt hair. He had occasion to moralize over those who had voluntarily become the slaves of others even meaner than themselves, who spoke a jargon neither Indian nor Spanish. Catholics in name, who ate red pepper pies, gambled like the fashionable frequenters of Baden, and swore like troopers.

It was late in the year 1842 that the wanderer, sick of a fever, worn and weary, halted his ox-cart near San Fernandino, in Northern Mexico. Fate had willed that his work should die with him. But little of his labor was saved, and that not enough to aid any one to develop his idea. Bad nursing, exposure, and lack of proper medical attendance finished the work. He sleeps, not far from the Rio Grande, the greatest of his race.

At one time Congress contemplated having his remains removed and a monument erected over them; it was postponed, however.

The Legislature of the Little Cherokee Nation every year includes in its general appropriations a pension of three hundred dollars to his widow--the only literary pension paid in the United States.


Se-quo-yah - 3/3

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