Samuel Gist was a resident of Great Britain and Virginia. In his will, Gist freed all slaves that he owned in Virginia. Many of these newly freed people moved to Ohio, hoping to live a better life.
Gist was born in England in 1717 (sometimes reported as 1723). At a young age, he was orphaned. He spent most of his youth at the Bristol Hospital in Bristol, England. In 1739, Gist sought to improve his financial status by becoming an indentured servant in America. He traveled to Virginia, where he was indentured to John Smith, a tobacco farmer in Hanover County. Upon John Smith's death in 1747, Gist married Smith's widow, Mary Massey. This marriage resulted in Gist immediately acquiring immense wealth, including hundreds of slaves and large landholdings. Gist also engaged in real estate speculation, becoming a member of the Dismal Swamp Company.
By the late 1760s and the early 1770s, many of Great Britain's colonists in America were growing unhappy with their lack of political rights. In 1776, these colonists declared their independence from Great Britain, and the American Revolution intensified. Gist opposed the American Revolution and fled to Great Britain in 1776. Before leaving for Great Britain, Gist transferred his property in Virginia to his stepdaughter. It appears that Gist never returned to America, but in the early nineteenth century, he did successfully engage in legal action against his stepdaughter to reclaim his property in Virginia.
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 made the long journey to Ohio on foot, as the estate executors were not required to provide proper transportation, 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.
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 African Americans found that it was difficult to get fair treatment, and they often formed their own communities away from whites for protection.
- Abdy, E.S. Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834. London, England: John Murray, 1835.