This short article appeared on June 30, 1821 in the Niles Weekly Register. Named for founder Hezekiah Niles, the newspaper was published in Baltimore, Ohio between 1811 and 1849. The article announces the arrival of 58 free blacks who were en route from plantations in Virginia to a settlement in Brown County, Ohio. They were formerly slaves of Samuel Gist, a wealthy British banker with extensive land holdings in the United States. In his will, Gist freed his 900 slaves and directed the executors of his will to establish new homes for them in a free state. Settlements established in Brown County and Highland County were not prosperous.
The Gist Settlements were African-American communities that former slaves of Samuel Gist established in Ohio during the early nineteenth century.
In 1808, Gist drafted his final will. He eventually added four codicils to this document. In the initial will, Gist ordered that all of his slaves in Virginia were to gain their freedom upon his death. The executors of Gist's estate were to allow the former slaves to live on Gist's land in Virginia, and the executors were also to provide the free African Americans with schooling and Protestant religious instruction. The four codicils to Gist's will also primarily dealt with Gist's slaves. These documents eventually gave authority to the executors to revoke Gist's original promise of freedom to his slaves. Despite this, upon Gist's death in 1815, it appears that the executors freed many, if not all, of Gist's slaves. The exact number of people that the executors freed remains unclear. In 1808, Gist supposedly owned 274 slaves in Virginia. In one of the codicils to his will, Gist later stated that a sizable increase in the number of slaves had occurred. Some accounts claim that Gist may have owned as many as one thousand slaves, but a more reasonable estimate appears to be five hundred.
Many of Gist's former slaves, perhaps as many as 150 people, remained in Virginia, living on their former master's land. Perhaps as many as 350 other former slaves moved to Ohio, where they established several communities. These communities are commonly known as Gist Settlements. The first of these settlements was located in Erie County. The first Gist slaves may have arrived here in the late 1820s or early 1830s. After several years, they abandoned this settlement, probably due to the poor quality of land, and returned to Virginia. The executors of Gist's estate eventually purchased approximately two thousand acres of land in Adams, Brown, and Highland Counties. The Gist Settlements in these three counties survived into the twentieth century. At the start of the twenty-first century, descendents of the former Gist slaves still occupied part of the land in Highland County. From the 1840s to the 1920s, an average of 150 people resided in each of these communities. Most residents were farmers. Many residents of these communities lived in log cabins without indoor plumbing or electricity into the mid twentieth century.
Gist illustrates the growing distaste of slavery among many whites, including some Southerners, in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Despite the growing opposition to slavery by some whites, the Gist Settlements illustrate the prejudice that existed in Ohio during the years before the American Civil War. Ohio was a state that did not allow slavery. Nevertheless, that did not mean that whites were open to granting African Americans equal rights. Free blacks found that it was difficult to get fair treatment, and they often formed their own communities away from whites for protection.