The American frontiersman Christopher Gist (ca. 1706-1759) was one of the first explorers of the Ohio and Kentucky wilderness. He also accompanied George Washington on missions to the French in the Ohio Valley.
Christopher Gist was born in Maryland. He probably did some surveying as a young man because he wrote and drew maps well in later life. But nothing is known of his youth in general. In 1750 he was living with his family on the Yadkin River of North Carolina not far from Daniel Boone. He married Sarah Howard (the date is not known) and raised five children.
The Ohio Company chose Gist to explore the country of the Ohio River as far as the Louisville area, and he carried out a careful examination of the territory in 1750. When he returned to North Carolina, he found that his family had fled to Roanoke, Va., because of Indian attacks. He rejoined them but went west again in the summer of 1751 to explore the Pennsylvania and western Virginia country south of the Ohio River and between the Monongahela and Great Kanawha rivers. About 1753 he settled briefly in the Pennsylvania wilderness near modern Brownsville.
Gist accompanied George Washington on his journey to French forts in the Ohio Valley in the winter of 1753; he is said to have saved Washington's life twice. He was with Washington when he defeated a small band of French soldiers in May 1754. Gist also accompanied Washington when he unsuccessfully attempted to repel a French force from Ft. Necessity the following July. Later Gist acted as guide to British general Edward Braddock in the march on the French Ft. Duquesne. Before reaching the French outpost, their force was ambushed and defeated by French and allied Indians. On July 9, 1755, Braddock was mortally wounded, and Gist and the remnants of the British troops were led to safety by Washington, who had command of a company of militia.
Later Gist served as captain of a company of scouts and as an Indian agent. His plan to recruit Indian auxiliaries from among the Cherokee of eastern Tennessee in 1756 proved to be premature and failed. Much later, of course, Indian scouts were essential to Army operations on the western frontier.
Gist died of smallpox in either Georgia or South Carolina in 1759. He was highly regarded by his contemporaries as a woodsman, explorer, and map maker, and although his fame was eclipsed by Daniel Boone's, it must be remembered that he examined the Ohio and Kentucky wilderness a full 18 years before Boone ever saw it.
Further Reading on Christopher Gist
An interesting account of Gist's life and the period is Richard Elwell Banta, The Ohio (1949). Gist's explorations in Ohio are covered extensively in Kenneth P. Bailey, The Ohio Company of Virginia and the Westward Movement, 1748-1792 (1939). See also Charles H. Ambler, George Washington and the West (1936), and Hugh Cleland, George Washington in the Ohio Valley (1955).
Additional Biography Sources
Powell, Allan, Christopher Gist, frontier scout, Shippensburg, PA: Burd Street Press, 1992.