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"And, for his honesty and zeal I think I dare vouch," explained George Washington when describing his opinion of Christopher Gist.1 Born near Baltimore, Maryland in 1705, Christopher Gist was one of six children born to Richard and Zepporah Gist. Little is known of Gist's early years. In 1728 at the age of twenty-three, Gist married Sarah Howard with whom he had six children.
Gist was formally trained as a surveyor, possibly from his father who helped survey Baltimore. However, it is clear from Gist's journals that his education was not limited to surveying. Gist kept three detailed journals that attest to his thoroughness and intelligence. His writing presents impressive descriptive abilities that could be unexpected from a frontier explorer.
By the time of his father’s death in 1741, Gist was an accomplished explorer, surveyor, and frontiersman. In 1750, the Ohio Company hired Gist to survey along the Ohio River from its headwaters near the Lenape (Delaware) village of Shannopin's Town (modern-day Pittsburgh) all the way to what is now Louisville, Kentucky. That winter he 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. 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.
Through his connection to the Ohio Company, Gist developed a close association with George Washington. Travelling 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. During this time with Washington, Gist solidified his place in history, twice saving the young colonel's life.
Washington and Gist Crossing the Allegheny River
Gist was again present the following year when, on Washington's advice, he was appointed as the guide for General Braddock's ill-fated force. 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 his explorations, settlements, military activities, and effective management of relations with Native Americans, Gist contributed significantly to to English western expansion in North America. 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.2
Further, Gist provided England and its colonists with the first detailed description of southern Ohio and northeastern Kentucky, and provided the Ohio Company with a toe-hold in the Ohio Country that ultimately led to the establishment of Marietta. While Daniel Boone is generally given credit for opening Kentucky to European settlement, Gist preceded the famous frontiersman by more than fifteen years.
In 1756, Gist traveled among the Cherokee in eastern Tennessee to seek allies to align with the English during the French and Indian War. Gist was subsequently appointed, again on Washington's recommendation, as Deputy Indian Agent to the Southern Department. 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.
1."George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 30 May 1757," The Writings of George Washington, From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Vol. 2 (Washington, D.C.,: Government Printing Office, 1931), 40-41.
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Alfred A. Knopf: Random House, 2000.
Bailey, Kenneth P. Christopher Gist: Colonial Frontiersman, Explorer, and Indian Agent. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1976.
Darlington, William. Christopher Gist's Journals, with Historical, Geographical and Ethnological Notes and Biographies of his Contemporaries. Pittsburgh: J. H. Weldin & Co., 1893.