The Red Bird River Shelter (15CY52) Revisited: The Archaeology of the Cherokee Syllabary and of Sequoyah in Kentucky

Jan F. Simek, Beau Duke Carroll, Julie Reed, Alan Cressler, Tom Belt, Wayna Adams, Mary White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This article reanalyzes petroglyphs from the Red Bird River Shelter (15CY52), a small sandstone shelter in Kentucky. In 2009-2013, it was claimed that some of the carvings at the site represented the earliest known examples of Cherokee Syllabary writing, dating to the first two decades of the nineteenth century. It was also suggested that Sequoyah, the Cherokee artist and intellectual who invented the Cherokee Syllabary in the early nineteenth century, had made these petroglyph versions during a visit to see his white paternal family living in Kentucky. Our reanalysis categorically contests this interpretation. We do not see Cherokee Syllabary writing at Red Bird River Shelter. We do not believe that historical evidence supports the notion that Sequoyah had white relatives in Kentucky whom he visited there at the time required for him to have authored those petroglyphs. We also believe that this account misrepresents Sequoyah's Cherokee identity by tying him to white relatives for whom there is no historical warrant. We argue that the Red Bird River Shelter is a significant precontact petroglyph site with several panels of line-and-groove petroglyphs overlain by numerous examples of modern graffiti, but there is no Sequoyan Syllabary inscription there.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)302-316
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Antiquity
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Archaeology
  • Museology


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