The "Five Civilized Tribes" are the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole. They were so named by white settlers because they had rapidly adapted to the white man's way of life. All five of those tribal homelands occupied what are today the Southeast states from the Carolinas to Mississippi prior to the Trail of Tears. The largest of those tribes was the Cherokee Nation, and their people were largely agricultural with large farms and herds of livestock. For the most part the Cherokee were peaceful toward the encroaching white population, yet they could wage bitter warfare when necessary.

One of the more famous Native American names to emerge from Cherokee history was Sequoyah, who created the Cherokee alphabet. He was born at Tuskegee, Cherokee Nation, near present day Knoxville, Tennessee, somewhere around 1770, as recorded birth records were non-existent among the Cherokee of that day and time.

His mother was Wut-teh, the niece of chiefs who have been identified as "Old Tassel and Doublehead." As for Sequoyah's father, sources differ somewhat, but some believe he was a German peddler (or a fur trader) named George Gist, who spent the winter in the Cherokee Nation where he married Wut-teh and fathered the child but left before Sequoyah was born. The child grew up tending cattle and working in the garden, while his mother ran a trading post. It is not believed that Sequoyah ever went to school or learned English.

Some sources say he may have taken over his mother's trading post after she died and his store became an informal meeting place for Cherokee men to socialize and, especially drink whiskey. After a few months Sequoyah was rarely seen sober, neglecting his farm and trading business.

Fortunately, he realized he was ruining his life, and turned it around, taking up new interest. He continued to maintain his store, but he not only stopped drinking, he quit selling it as well. He had a creative mind and put that ability to work in his artwork and silversmith work. His spurs and bridle bits were in great demand because he liked to decorate them with silver. Sequoyah became a blacksmith, teacher and a soldier, and was all self-taught.

As a silversmith, Sequoyah dealt regularly with whites who had settled in the area. He was impressed by their writing, referring to their correspondence as "talking leaves." The majority of the Cherokee believed that writing was sorcery, a special gift, or a pretense. Sequoyah accepted none of these explanations. He believed he could invent a way for his people to talk to each other on paper.

Around 1809, Sequoyah began creating a system of writing for the Cherokee language, which absorbed much of his time. All of his friends and neighbors thought he had lost his mind. At one point his wife burned his initial work, believing it to be witchcraft. But in 1825 the nation accepted the completed Cherokee alphabet with 86 characters, which has even been adopted by other tribes. When Sequoyah was about 60, he moved to a location on Big Skin Bayou near the present town of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, where he lived the remainder of his life. His cabin is a National Historic Landmark and is owned today by the Cherokee Nation. He died sometime between 1843 and 1845 while on a trip to Mexico.

Reference: “Five Civilized Tribes” Compton's Encyclopedia.

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