Linguistic and circumstantial evidence suggest that Sequoyah’s mother was not who the tourist brochures say she was.
In their continuing journey into Tennessee’s early history, Native American researchers at the People of One Fire have dropped another bombshell. Last year, they found absolute proof in the French and English colonial archives that there was a French fort on Bussell Island in the Tennessee River near Knoxville until the 1720s.
For two centuries, the fort’s existence was overlooked by Tennessee’s academicians. The surviving timber palisades of this fort were actually unearthed by an archaeologist working for the Smithsonian Institute in the 1880s, but his discovery had been forgotten by the time that the Fort Loudon dam was completed with great urgency, during the early stages of World War II. The ruins of the fort were probably destroyed by this construction project or the erection of Tellico Dam in the 1970s.
Sequoyah, known in his time as George Gist, was the creator of the original Cherokee Syllabary. It is not generally used today. In 1827 the editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, Elias Boudinot, and the Rev. Samuel Worcester, a Protestant missionary, created another set of symbols that looked more like the Roman alphabet, so that white Americans would not feel as threatened by the new Cherokee writing system. Even though this second system is today called the Sequoyah Syllabary, George Gist (or Sequoyah) probably never saw it. He was living west of the Mississippi in 1827 and soon died in Mexico. You will occasionally see the original syllabary in references, but it is described as “handwritten Cherokee Syllabary” even though the symbols are generally very different. One is not told that they predate the current system by at least 25 years.
There is very little about Sequoyah’s life that can be firmly supported by documentation. The date of his birth was some year between 1760 and 1776 – probably 1770. None of the paintings said to be of Sequoyah are actually him, but other Cherokees, filling in as “models” for painters. What fills the information vacuum for publication in tourist brochures is a mixture of academic conjecture, Cherokee folklore, plus mythology created by white Americans, who lived after his time. There are many inconsistencies in these versions of Sequoyah’s life story.
Visitors to the Sequoyah Museum in Vonore, TN are given the impression that Sequoyah created the syllabary near there. However, this great Cherokee left the Little Tennessee Valley at age 15 to fight for the Chickamauga Cherokees and never returned. The Treaty of Hopewell in 1785 gave northwest Georgia and northeast Alabama to the Cherokees. Apparently, his mother moved to northeast Alabama after then. Most of the work on the Cherokee syllabary was actually done during the 1790s and early 1800s in the village of Pine Log in Bartow County, GA. At this time, Sequoyah had much leisure time due to the income received from making silverware for elite Cherokee families living nearby.
The inconsistencies of his mother’s official bio
Tradition is that Sequoyah’s mother, Wu-teh or Wu-tah, was a full-blooded Cherokee woman, who grew up in the village of Tuskegee on the Little Tennessee River. Neither “tah” or “teh” are separate Cherokee syllables. Late 19th century ethnologist, James Mooney, elaborated on that tradition to say that she was of “royal lineage, a niece of a chief.” Late 20th century researchers elaborated on that interpretation to say that that she was a niece of Chief Doublehead, an important leader of the hostile Chickamauga Cherokees.
Descriptions of 18th century Cherokee genealogy should be viewed with extreme caution. Contemporary Ancestry.com addicts with a trace of Native heritage have created a Europeanized mirage of Cherokee family life. Because of a series of plagues and incessant warfare, the Cherokees maintained polygamy and non-European concepts of male-female relationships as a means of replenishing horrific population losses. With most Cherokees only having a single name, unless their father was European, it is very difficult to create accurate descriptions of familial relationships.
Throughout the 18th century, affluent Cherokee men typically had multiple wives and even more temporary concubines. Many of those wives and concubines were war captives from tribes scattered across Eastern North America. It was also common for Cherokee women to experience a series of relationships in their lives, each producing children, unless the relationship was with another female. Lesbian relationships were quite common and not repressed.
Sarah Hughes, a contemporary of Sequoyah’s mother with “royal Cherokee lineage,” was initially married as a teenager to a Tory officer, Lt. Col. Thomas Hughes. When he left the United States after the American Revolution, she returned to Georgia and had at least four more live-in male husbands or companions, plus an extensive number of short liaisons with men, who are today anonymous.
Tradition has it that as a teenager, Wu-tah had her son, George, with a man named Gist. Which man named Gist, is a subject of debate among historians. Whatever the case, the father was not living with her when George was born. If she was full-blooded Cherokee and the European father had moved on, it seems odd that she would have given the baby boy an English name.
Again, according to tradition, Sequoyah’s mother soon constructed a trading post near Tuskegee, and never married. No scholar has ever questioned the probability of a teenage Cherokee girl with a young son, no knowledge of English or arithmetic, and no bank account, being able to pay for the construction of a trading post and then purchasing European goods from a warehouse in Augusta, GA. Obviously, it is quite improbable.
It is also odd that Wu-tah supposedly never remarried, especially considering the serial nature of Cherokee women’s relationships at that time. If she was from a prominent Cherokee family and was wealthy enough to own a trading post, both Cherokee and white suitors should have been knocking on her door constantly. Lesbian Cherokee women almost always married a warrior for personal protection and provision of game meats, but continued their relationships with females simultaneously.
Linguistics may provide an answer
Google Search Wutah and Wuteh. You will see one Cherokee woman by that name and at least 24 pages of people in West Africa, the Caribbean Basin, Belize and Guiana in South America with that name. It is an extremely common name in the same nations in Africa, where most of the slaves brought to America were captured. Wuteh is a common name among tribes, who were frequent victims of slave raids.
According to a Ghanian dictionary, the name Wutah is a Hausa word which means fire. The Hausa were used by Arab slave traders to capture slaves, but were also enslaved themselves, if captured by Europeans on a Muslim slave boat. However, Wutah and Wuteh are also the varying names of a West African – Caribbean Voodoo deity, plus a type of Voodoo priest.
The African origin of an 18th century Cherokee woman’s name could be argued to be a coincidence, except for the meaning of Sequoyah’s name. He took that name from his mother’s alternate name, so he would not have to use a “white man’s name.” In phonetic Cherokee, it is written Si-kwo-ya.
Cherokee and wannabe Cherokee researchers almost never go outside the confines of contemporary Cherokee culture to interpret either their history or their words. Thus, for the past two centuries they have struggled to find a meaning for Si-kwo-ya. The closest they could come was that the first two syllables of his name were similar to the Cherokee word for pig . . . not a likely name for George Gist to opt for.
However, in Itsate Creek, the language spoken by most Creeks in Southeastern Tennessee and Northern Georgia, sikuya meant a slave or war captive. Cherokee speakers almost always transliterated a “ku” or “ko” sound in Itsate Creek to “kwu” or “kwo.” Thus, we have a woman with a common West African name, who no Cherokee man apparently wanted to or could marry, with the alternate name of “slave or war captive.”
It seems quite possible that Wuteh (or Wutah) was the African or mixed African-Native American slave of a white trader. He was the entrepreneur, who actually constructed the trading post and paid for the wholesale goods. Slave owners usually gave their illegitimate mixed-blood children, English names. If such was the case, it would explain many of the incongruities now appearing in Sequoyah’s life story. It would also be a very different spin on the life of a brilliant, but very mysterious man.