Friday, July 6, 2018

Before Boone -- Christopher Gist and the Ohio Company in the Scioto River Valley

George Washington’s wrote that “he knew of no person so well qualified for the undertaking
as Capt. Christopher Gist. He has extensive dealings with the Indians, is in great esteem with them, and well acquainted with their manners and customs. He is indefatigable, patient, most excellent qualities where the Indians are concerned. And for his capacity and zeal I dare
venture to engage.”

Here in the Scioto River Valley history is so rich. Beginning with the ancient mound builders, the area has hosted pioneers and settlers who have keenly shaped American society with their words and deeds. It is always rewarding to learn of those who played a prominent part in the shaping of the land. Such a person was Christopher Gist, a true American hero and frontiersman. Though not as well known as Daniel Boone or Kit Carson, Gist was one of the very first important European explorers of the Ohio Country.

Christopher Gist was born near Baltimore, Maryland in 1705, one of six children of Richard and Zepporah Gist. Not much is known about his early years. It is commonly held that Christopher spent his early years on the home plantation and in helping his father with his expanding mercantile business. Before his marriage, he received a gift of 350 acres of land from his father. In 1728 at the age of twenty-three, Gist married Sarah Howard with whom he had six children.

It is likely Christopher learned surveying from his father. By the time of his father’s death in 1741, Gist was an accomplished explorer, surveyor, and frontiersman. By 1750, Gist had moved to northern North Carolina along the Yadkin River. In an ironic twist, one of his neighbors was frontiersman Daniel Boone.

In 1748, twenty influential gentleman of England and Virginia formed the Ohio Company and petitioned the King of England for a grant of land on the branches of the Allegheny. That same year Thomas Lee, a member of His Majesty's council in Virginia, organized the Ohio Land Company. Its backers comprising a dozen wealthy land owners in Maryland and Virginia, including Lawrence and Augustine Washington, elder brothers of George, as well as a prosperous merchant of London, James Hanbury.

The company, formed with the stated objective of settling lands and engaging in large-scale trade with the Indians, was given a grant of 500,000 acres within the Dominion of Virginia but west of the mountains, all the way to the Ohio River and the Kanawha, with the stipulation that the company establish 100 families on that land within seven years.

In that same year, the Ohio Company hired Christopher Gist to survey along the Ohio River from its headwaters near the Lenape (Delaware) village of Shannopin's Town (modern-day Pittsburgh) to present-day Louisville, Kentucky. Gist was to be given 150 pounds for searching and discovering the lands on the Ohio River as low as the great falls, and if his services merited more, to be handsomely rewarded. He was to be supplied with all necessities and was to keep a journal of his travels, discoveries, and transactions with the Indians. An agreement was also made with him for settling families on the company's land.

All of this was taking place during the struggle between the French and English for control and possession of North America, of British control and imperial policy, and of the ongoing boundary disputes between Virginia and Pennsylvania.

That winter Gist mapped the Ohio countryside between Shannopin's Town and the Great Miami River. At the mouth of the Scioto River, Gist crossed into Kentucky and eventually returned to his home via the Yadkin River.

During the winter of 1751-1752, again in the employ of the Ohio Company, Gist returned west and explored much of the land that comprises modern-day West Virginia.

In November 1753, Gist met Washington when he was appointed to carry the fateful letter ordering the French to vacate British territory. The relationship became permanent when Gist was asked to help Gen. Edward Braddock lead his army through the wilds to capture Fort Duquesne in the spring of 1755. Gist was also expected to bring a large number of Indian warriors along with the regular troops. Because of several issues, only eight warriors were present at Braddock’s defeat on July 9.

“Gist led a team of roughnecks whose job it was to keep Washington safe because he had no experience in the wilderness,” said Brady J. Crytzer, an adjunct professor of history at Robert Morris University.

It was due to Gist’s and Washington's joint observations that the Ohio Company decided to erect a fort at the forks of the Ohio just southwest of Shannopin’s Town, rather than two miles farther downriver at Shurtees Creek as had originally been planned. This post ultimately became a strategic military post for operations in the Ohio Country.

Through the Ohio Company, Gist developed a very close association with George Washington. Traveling with Washington to the Ohio Country in 1754, Gist served as scout, messenger, and Indian agent. It was Gist’s reconnaissance that alerted Washington to the French presence at Great Meadows and allowed for the subsequent massacre of Jumonville’s forces. Gist was also at the battle at Fort Necessity the following month.

Gist solidified his place in history, twice saving the young Colonel George Washington's life.

On one of these occasions in the winter of 1753, while they were returning alone through what is now Butler County (Penn.), a traitorous Indian guide fired upon them when but a few feet away. The shot missed, and Gist was upon the Indian in an instant, seizing him before he could reload. He would have killed the unsuccessful assassin, had Washington not intervened. The Indian was kept for some time and then was given “undue consideration” and released.

After this harrowing experience, they traveled all night and all the next day, traversing the present northern Allegheny County, and arrived at the mouth of Pine Creek (Etna) on December 28, where they found the Allegheny River full of floating ice.

Historian and biographer Lawrence A. Orrill wrote …

Washington was footsore and weary from making his way through the wilderness and snow but, after a night's rest, they constructed a raft of logs...

This proved a hazardous venture for they were compelled to force their way with poles through the jammed ice. When they were almost across and had floated with the current to a point near the present Washington Crossing Bridge at Fortieth Street, Pittsburgh, the young major, fatigued and inexperienced, lost his balance and plunged into ten feet of water. He was fortunate enough to be able to grasp the raft and, with the assistance of Gist, was drawn to safety. As they were now jammed in the ice it was impossible to reach the shore. They drifted to an island, where they remained all night, and the next morning they reached the shore by walking over solid ice.

Gist had all his fingers and some of his toes frozen, so severe had been the cold during the night, but they made their way over a hill, through the present East End of Pittsburgh, to Fraser's, where they intended taking horses for the remainder of the journey.”

Through his relations with Native Americans, Gist contributed significantly to English western expansion in North America. He helped strengthen the alliance between the Native American "Old Briton" and English interests against expanding French interests. He was crucial to Washington's western expeditions and was recommended by Washington as "the most proper person I am acquainted with to conduct the business of surveying western lands and negotiating with the Indians.”

Gist provided England and its colonists with the first detailed description of southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky. While Daniel Boone is generally given credit for opening Kentucky to white settlement, Gist preceded the frontiersman by more than fifteen years.

Gist spent his last years among the Cherokee tribes in the South, where he served as an Indian agent. He became known by the Indians as “Father Gist” because of his efforts in their behalf. Little is known of Gist's later years or whereabouts. He died three years later in 1759, possibly of smallpox, while in either South Carolina or Georgia. His writings, published in 1893, offer excellent firsthand descriptions of the frontier environment, Indian life, and the campaigns that marked the beginning of the French and Indian War.

From the Journal of Christopher Gist

In September 1850, Gist was given instructions by the Ohio Company to “search out and discover lands upon the River Ohio and other adjoining branches of the Mississippi down as low as the great Falls thereof.” He was told to observe in particular the soil, the wideness and deepness of rivers, and other prominent “courses and bearings” of the land as well as the to survey “the Nations of Indians who inhabit there, their strength and numbers, who they trade with, and in what commodities they deal.”

The company was especially interested in a large quantity of good, level land which they measured and affixed “the beginning and bounds in such a manner they they may be easily found again by the description.” It was Christopher who provided one of the first and most detailed survey descriptions of southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky.

Of particular interest to Scioto locals ...

At Maguck (present-day Circleville) Gist discovered “a little Delaware Town of about ten families” by a field with “a small rising in the middle” which “gave prospect over the entire plain and the Sciodoe Creek.” Gist described it as “fine rich level Land, with large meadows, fine clover bottoms and spacious plains covered with wild rye: the wood chiefly large walnuts and hickories, here and there mixed with poplars, cherry trees and sugar trees.”

Further south as Salt Lick Creek the company found salty streams running into the lick. Gist wrote here “the Indians and traders make salt for their Horses of this water by boiling it; it has at first a blueish colour and somewhat bitter taste, but upon being dissolved in fair water and boiled a second time, it becomes tolerable pure salt.” (Note – This was the site of the Scioto Salt Works in Ross County, which in early days was the source of supply for this portion of Ohio.)

Then, the group found a small Delaware Town of about twenty families on the southeast of Sciodoe Creek (five miles above the mouth of the Scioto on the east branch of the river, in the present Clay Township, Scioto County.) who offered them lodging. This was the settlement of Windaughalah, whom Gist called “a great man and chief” and “much in the English interest.” The famous head chief and warrior of the Delawares, Buckongahelas, was Windaughalah's son.

Gist wrote …

He entertained us very kindly, and ordered a Negro man that belonged to him to feed our Horses well; this night it snowed, and in the morning tho the snow was six or seven inches deep, the wild rye appeared very green and flourishing thro it, and our horses had fine feeding.”

The company went into council with the natives of the town, and Windaughalah assured them they “would not hear the voice of any other Nation” for they were were “to be directed” by them, “the English.” There was also a promise made to meet as Loggs Town in support of “about 500 fighting men, part of the Six Nations.”

Later, at the mouth of the Sciodoe, opposite Shannoah Town, the group fired their guns “to alarm the traders,” who soon answered and “came to ferry them over to the town – the land about the mouth of the Sciodoe Creek,” a place rich but broken with fine bottoms.”

Shannoah Town was situated upon both sides of the River Ohio, just below the mouth of Sciodoe Creek, and it contained “about 300 men, about 40 Houses on the south side of the river, and about 100 on the north side,” with a “kind of State-House where they hold their councils of about 90 feet long featuring a light cover of bark.” Several different tribes, including the Seneca and Lenape from north of the Ohio lived in Shannoah. It was, however, primarily a Shawnee village.

French soldiers and fur traders were some of the first to mention Shannoah in their records. Fearing potential Shawnee alliances with the British, and thus incursions into their claimed lands, the French attempted to persuade the Shawnee to move their communities farther north but were not successful.

Within a few years after Gist's visit, Shannoah Town was destroyed by a great flood. Irish-born fur trader George Croghan was there at the time; the water was near fifty feet above the ordinary level. The Shawanese removed to the plains of the Scioto in 1758 and sent for those of their tribe, at Logstown, to join them. By 1760, the Shawnee had consolidated near present day Chillicothe, Ohio.

Gist provided England and its colonists with the first detailed description of southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky. Why is the story of Christopher Gist less well-known than that of more popular scouts? His skills and courage were more than a match to any other more famous pioneer. In fact, biographer Kenneth P. Bailey attests that Gist did as much as anyone of his day to foster western experience. Bailey says, “Gist might have been recognized as the outstanding frontiersman of colonial history.’’ I hope you now know a little more about the story of this important, early-American historical figure.

And, falling very close to the tree ...

Christopher's son Nathaniel was a scout for General Braddock and was present when the General was killed in 1755. Nathaniel and a Cherokee maiden, Wut-teh, gave birth to Sequoyah, whose English name was George Guess, or Gist. Sequoyah went on to develop the Cherokee alphabet in 1821, and he represented the western tribes in Washington. The Sequoia tree is named for him.


Dan B. Fleming. The Encyclopedia of West Virginia. 2012.

“Christopher Gist.” Washington Library Center for Digital Histoy. Digital Encyclopedia.

“Christopher Gist.” Ohio History Central.

Lawrence A. Orrill. Christopher Gist and His Sons. 1932.

Marylynne Pitz. “The Next Page: Sculptures of explorer Christopher Gist and Indian leader Guyasuta took circuitous route to their new home.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. July 10, 2016.

Allan Powell. “Historical Marker Barely Scratches the Surface of Christopher Gist's Story. Herald Mail Media. June 9, 2016.

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