Samuel Gist: An Enigma of Manumission

I discovered the start of Samuel Gist’s story whilst researching the Abolition of the Slave trade back in 2007. A 19th century Bristol newspaper noted this son of the city had freed his slaves in his will. This got my research antennae quivering, and the story is still unravelling.

Samuel was the son of David Gest, born in the southern parish of Temple in the early 18th century, but was orphaned, educated at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital before being sent to Virginia as an ‘apprentice’. He worked for shopkeeper John Smith, and when he died he married his widow. They had 2 daughters before he returned to England. He flourished as a tobacco merchant in America and then in London, where he also did well on the early stock exchange, as a marine insurer during the American War, and was the only investor in the great Dismal Swamp Company to have made money from it.  He traded with George Washington and was an incredibly successful money maker. He owned large estates in America with many slaves and England and he lived in  a large house in London.

When he died he left money for his slaves to be freed and for their education and welfare to be looked after. But freed slaves were unable to stay in Virginia, so land had to be purchased for them in Ohio. This eventually became the Gist settlements, the largest of their kind, and an important stopping place on the Underground Railroad. Sadly only one survives, and lack of title means it is mostly being used as a dumping ground, and the slave descendants continue to have an uncertain future there.

Many stories have been told about Gist. Americans called him a warlock, a Jew, a monster but a minister visiting the freed slaves in the early 19th century told of their fondness for their former master and his daughters, who had always been kind to them and provided for their welfare.

In 2007 I  produced two books on the abolition of the slave trade in Bristol, and when I discovered this intriguing story, thought it offered an unusual and positive way to celebrate this important anniversary. I hoped that Gist’s school, the wealthy Queen Elizabeth Hospital could help to raise funds for the slave  descendants to resolve their land problems and finally receive the bounty that Samuel had allocated them. This is especially apt, as he also left money to his old school; money which they continue to receive. But Bristolians constantly harp on about their slaving past, whilst refusing to deal with the topic in its fullest sense, so this never happened.

Gist’s story is unusual as it shines a light on an unusual corner of 18th century history – the sending of children abroad, unsupervised, to uncertain futures. Gist’s pursuit of wealth, especially in the absence of any male heir, seems obsessive to the point of psychosis. His contempt for white Americans and his support  for slaves suggests he was treated badly on his arrival in the colonies, and this hatred seems to have driven him throughout his life. Bristol is a city famous for its love of money, and as such, Samuel was very much a creature of the city.

But being rich is not just about owning money. Money is power. This is as true now as it was in Gist’s lifetime. Gist tried to use his money to right some of the wrongs of slavery. It is time his wishes were honoured.

Samuel Gist’s story deserves to be more widely known, as it draws together so many threads of mid 18th century colonial history. But it is also time that the descendants of his slaves to finally be given ownership of the land he left them, for them to continue to be a living legacy to this intriguing, complicated man.

A small caveat on this story: there is a lot of information on Gist on the interweb, mostly from American sources. Some of them claim he imported the first thoroughbred racehorse to the country. This would really have made him an exceptional man, as he was a child in England at the time. Dates matter.

The book of Samuel’s life will be published in September 2018. It is The Midas of Manumission: The Orphan Samuel Gist and his Virginian Slaves. Available in the usual outlets in ebook and print.

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17 thoughts on “Samuel Gist: An Enigma of Manumission

      • Hi Barb,
        I live a few miles from the Gist Settlement in Highland County, Ohio which is about 75 miles east of Cincinnati. Where do you call Home? I consider myself a genealogist and a historian. I have tackled this complicated story and I have almost completed a book which will include the life story of a resident of Gist Settlement. There is a ton of info on the subject, but know one has the answers. I have delved into the Court records and tried to understand the complexity of this ongoing problem. A historical Marker was stolen this week in the Highland County Settlement and a company from a near by town has dumped debris. The EPA is looking into this matter. I have been overwhelmed with the urgency of making sure the land is preserved. I am sure if a credible lawyer or agency could take a longer look at this problem, it could be fixed. Enough about me. How did you get interested and have you done any in depth research? I am so glad to hear from you. It was a pleasant surprise to see that people are still concerned about the situation.
        Thanks for a rapid reply to me post.
        Paula

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      • Hi Paula,

        I was in Bristol, Gist’s birthplace and in the process of researching for the 2007 abolition of the slave trade, I stumbled upon his story. so, what I know comes from British – mostly Bristol archives, which is not a lot. As part of the celebration I tried to get his old school to raise funds to send to the people on the Gist settlement to settle their claims once and for all, but the mindset here is that slave owners were evil, and will not do anything to promote them. Even though this same school got money from Gist’s estate. I also tried to get funding to research the story, but the only offer was if I turned it into a children’s play. Yeah, right.

        There is a local historian here who has done stuff on him, I stupidly gave his name and a few details, but again, I think they did a hatchet job on him. All the reports I read from his former slaves are that he and his daughters were kind to slaves, which, together with the legacy, makes them very very important in the abolition story and very interesting as Gist is generally seen as a monster – at least by his white contemporaries.

        I have a few documents from the states – I was in contact with a local school teacher who you may know, and got a few documents from the Virginia archives including a research paper, but it is a long time since I have looked at them. It is great that someone is finally doing a book on it, and hope you have been able to make some sense of the story – just gong through the stuff online, it seems there is a lot of misreadings and Chinese whispers.

        If I can help in any way, am happy to do so. just google my name to contact me direct.

        The story reminds me of Carlo Ginzburg’s book, ‘The Cheese and the Worms’, about a heretic in 13th century Italy. His story is important, but it also sheds light on what was happening at the time, in particular, if he did this, then who else might have acted similarly.

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      • I did say by his Godson! When Samuel died he left a house and grounds in Wormington, Gloucestershire, England and left it to his godson who was related to him via his sister, he was a Sellick and came to live in the house. In the will he had to change his name to Gist. He was already Samuel Gist Sellick and became Samuel Gist Gist. The house in England .UK is called Wormington Grange. No its not a direct blood link, its via marriage. Because my Nanny was brought up in the house I have grown up with the stories on this side. Knowing very little about the USA side.

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      • Just checked the files, no Mary Gist born 1798 married John Sellick, their son Josiah Sellick m Ann Placeway and they had Samuel Gist Sellicl/ Gist so Mary Gist was his grandmother. I know that Samuel Gist senior was the Godfather to Samuel Gist Selick/Gist. I have all the generations from Mary and John but nothing before 1790.

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  1. Hi Barb,
    Did you want to exchange info through this site? I sent an email to you a few weeks ago as a follow up to our last exchange.
    Paula

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    • I don’t think I got it. email contact is fine. I don’t need details, am more interested in what sort of stuff you’ve unearthed, and what the local take on his story is. From what I know, it’s almost as if he’s a different person on either side of the Atlantic. cheers

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      • Hi Paula. Can you help with the land stuff? Was there anywhere they could have settled them in Ohio that wasn’t scrub or swamp? Was all the good land already taken?

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      • Hi Barb,
        Good to hear that you are still interested in the Gist Settlement. My book has generated a lot more interest in this settlement. We have started a Underground Railroad Committee at our local historical society and I became a member of a group of people who are promoting the Underground Railroads in their communities for the purpose of tourism. We are planning a large convention close to Cincinnati which should draw a large crowd. Of course I plan on selling my books there.
        As far as your question about the land. The purchase of over two thousand acres in Brown County was the result of convenience for the agents of the trust. The surveyor who was crooked in all of his dealings already had surveyed this land and exchanged it with the plantation land that the trust held. It was sight unseen for the agents so they were not aware of the condition of the land. The third purchase of land was well thought out for the slaves since the other purchases were a disaster. Two Hundred and seven acres were purchased in Highland County and is some of the most productive land in the state of Ohio. My daughter lives about 8 miles from this settlement and I live about 12 miles from the Brown County settlements. Our farm has good soil with great drainage. So yes there was good land available for purchase. If you have any more questions, let me know.
        Later,
        Paula

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      • Thanx. I thought that the sales were a problem. I’m going through a lot of stuff on Gist & his heirs. The house where Mary & William andrson lived is still standing. She seems to have done a lot better than her sister but maybe 2 marriages helped. Definitely more to find this side of the pond.

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