Too Small for the Mapmaker: Life in the Gist Settlement

Too Small for the Mapmaker: Life in the Gist Settlement

Too Small for the Mapmaker: Life in the Gist Settlement

By Kieran Robertson

In Penn Township, Highland County, Ohio, there lies a settlement so small that it does not appear on every map. This small community, known as the Gist Settlement, was established by a group of freed slaves during the 1820s.

Samuel Gist lived in Gloucester County, England, during the early 1800s. Gist was a very wealthy man, owning an expanse of land in England and in the Southern United States. Although it is likely that Gist himself never set foot in the U.S., his fortune was partly built upon the backs of the slaves that worked his plantations.

Gist was apparently an indecisive man, adding four new supplements to his will after its original drafting in 1808. By the time he died in 1815, it was officially written that his slaves in America were to be freed within one year of his passing. Gist also willed that all of his possessions in the United States be sold to form a large trust to care for these freed men and women.

Executors of Gist’s estate began to send letters north to find land on which these freed slaves could settle. Multiple plots of land were found in Ohio, and a portion of the newly freed slaves were sent to Highland County, to the future Gist Settlement.

Trustees were appointed in each new settlement to handle the funds allotted from Gist’s trust. In Highland County, local Quakers were appointed as trustees, due to their abolitionist beliefs. One of the trustees, Amos Lewis, lived next door to the new Gist Settlement.

Facing North from the southern border of the Gist Settlement.

The trustees set about building cabins, a school house, and a cemetery to get the new settlement started. Meanwhile, Gists’s freed slaves needed to get from the plantation near Richmond, Virginia, to Highland County, Ohio. Despite their apparent kindness in finding a space for these newly free men and women to live, the executors of Gist’s will did not arrange for comfortable transportation. The new settlers of the Gist Settlement traveled by foot from their former residence in Virginia to Highland County, Ohio.

When they arrived, the new settlers set about to form a community. One of their first acts was to build a church known as Carthagenia Baptist Church. The Gist settlement flourished, and at one point it was believed that there were nine hundred living descendants of Gist’s slaves.
In the front of this image is the schoolhouse built by the settlement’s trustees, behind it is the church built by early community members. 

Unfortunately, by 1850, it is likely that the trust funding the Gist Settlement was being mismanaged. White trustees were taking advantage of the very limited rights of free African Americans before Emancipation. Thus in 1850, the Ohio General Assembly passed a law declaring that the Highland County Court of Common Pleas was to have jurisdiction over the trust fund.
James Hannibal Turner, one of the first settlers of the Gist Settlement, seen here around the age of 90.

Despite their unique living situation, residents of the Gist Settlement did have average experiences common to many Ohioans. For example, multiple men from the settlement served in the Union army during the Civil War. During the 1920s, the Gist Settlement’s school shut down and the Gist Settlement children joined other nearby students in New Vienna for their lessons.
Once the largest house in the settlement, this home was destroyed by a fire in 1927.

Victoria Chinn Robinson, near the age of 90.She became the oldest resident of the settlement after James Hannibal Turner passed away in 1928.

KIC-Image-0005-(2).jpgA home in the Gist Settlement.

Thomas and Martha Mitchell Slater. Thomas formerly residing in another Gist related settlement near Macon, Ohio. (c. 1920s).

The Gist Settlement still exists today, however its population dwindled greatly during the mid to late 1900s. With over a hundred years of history, the Gist Settlement continues to prompt many questions. What exactly did the first settlers think of Samuel Gist? What was it like to grow up in the Gist Settlement? Where are all of the descendants today? While the Gist Settlement may be too small for most maps, its history is big enough to fill many books.

If you want to learn more about the Gist Settlement, much of the information and the photographs above came from two collections at the Ohio History Connection: SC 394 and VFM 6411.

Ayres, Elsie Johnson. Highland Pioneer Sketches and Family Genealogies. Springfield, Ohio: H.K. Skinner, 1971, p.731-733.
Morgan, Violet. Folklore of Highland County. Greenfield, Ohio: Greenfield Printing and Publishing Company, 1947, p.123-126.
Powell, C.A., B.T. Kavanaugh, and David Christy. “Transplanting Free Negroes to Ohio from 1815 to 1858.” The Journal of Negro History vol. 1, no. 3 (June 1916): p. 302-304.

Posted April 28, 2017
Topics: Civil WarSettlement & StatehoodAfrican American HistoryDaily Life

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