by Timothy Sandefur
September 13, 2018
The new issue of The Objective Standard includes the latest in my series of biographies of heroes of history. (The previous issue had my profile of James Madison, and before that, Frederick Douglass.) Sequoyah is a unique figure in history because he’s the only person known to have invented a writing system without already knowing how to write some other language.
His singular achievement—fashioning a way to write the Cherokee language—came in the 1820s, when he realized that the language could be reduced to a set of about 85 syllables, each of which could be represented by a written symbol. The idea took off, and within a few years, literacy rates among Cherokees were higher than among American citizens. The Cherokee published a newspaper, a constitution, and laws, well before the federal government chose to seize their land and force them to move west.
Sequoyah himself was a witness to all of that. As a highly respected Native statesman, he worked as an ambassador in Washington, D.C., and a peacemaker among warring factions within the tribe. But none of his accomplishments surpasses the remarkable insight and plain old hard work that enabled him to create the Cherokee syllabary. The task took more than a decade, and met with resistance even among his fellow tribesmen, some of whom thought he was practicing witchcraft. When one complained that he was wasting his time, Sequoyah had a ready answer: “What I have done I have done from myself,” he said. “If our people think I am making a fool of myself, you may tell them that what I am doing will not make fools of them. They did not cause me to begin, and they shall not cause me to give up.”
Sequoyah’s single-minded devotion to his task has made him the most celebrated Native American in history. Learn more about his achievement here.
Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.