EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on April 28, 2017 by the Ohio History Connection. Richland Source has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.
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 United States, 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.
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 900 living descendants of Gist’s slaves.
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.
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.
The Gist Settlement still exists today, however its population dwindled greatly during the mid to late 1900s. With over 100 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.