Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

Christopher Gist

I. To the Muskingum

Mention has already been made of the Ohio Company which had been organized by wealthy Virginians for the purpose of trading in western lands. They had obtained from the king of England a grant of two hundred thousand acres to be chosen by them in any part of the Ohio Valley which seemed to be the most desirable. It was an easy thing for the king to give away lands which he had never really possessed; and the only conditions which he required were that the Ohio Company should build a fort on their domains and should settle a hundred families of colonists near it. If they failed to do this within seven years, the lands should revert to the king.

Within less than a year after Celoron's famous voyage down the Ohio, this company resolved to send out an expedition which should explore the country north of that river, and discover, if possible, the best 1750 place to locate their proposed colony. The expedition was to be made, not by an officer with soldiers and voyageurs and Indian hangers-on, as had been the case with Celoron, but by a single man skilled in woodcraft and well acquainted with savage life and manners. It was conducted not by the government with a great show of power, but by a private trading and emigration company, quietly and without publicity. Its object was not to take formal possession of the country and drive out intruders, but to discover what were its resources and by what means English settlers might get into it.

The man chosen for this important service was Christopher Gist, a hunter and trader from North Carolina, whose life had been spent on the wilderness frontier. He was not expected to bury leaden plates, or to make proclamations; but he was instructed to go as far west as the falls of the Ohio, to find out what Indian tribes were in the country and how strong they were, to learn what were the easiest routes over the mountains and through the wilderness, and to see where the most level and most fertile lands were located.

It was late in the autumn when he started. It lacked but a month of Christmas when he reached Logstown. He found there a number of traders from Pennsylvania, rough and lawless men who were ready to do any kind of wickedness that came into their minds. They were suspicious of Gist, and told him that he "should never go home safe." But Gist was not the man to be frightened; and when he informed them that he was in the service of the king they gave him no further annoyance.

About the middle of December he reached the Muskingum River, where was a village of Wyandots. These Indians were a remnant of the once great Huron nation, and were uncertain whether to remain friendly to their old allies, the French, or join themselves to the cause of the English. In their village Gist found a Scotch-Irish trader named George Croghan, who had great influence over all the rude rovers in the wilderness. Here, too, he met Andrew Montdur, one of the most picturesque characters of that remarkable time a typical Indian scout and interpreter, accustomed from his birth to the wild life of the woods. Montour's Mother was a half-breed of much influence among the Iroquois; his father, Big Tree, an Iroquois chief, had been killed several years before while fighting wit h some western Indians.



Andrew had the features and form of a Frenchman, but many of the manners of an Indian. He was the dandy of the wilderness. His face was greased and painted like that of a true savage, and in his ears he wore huge brass ornaments, "something like the handle of a basket." His cinnamon-colored coat was of fine cloth, and underneath it wilderness he wore a scarlet waistcoat of satin. His necktie was black, ornamented with silver spangles. He wore his shirt on the outside of his trousers; on his head was a hat of English make; and his feet and legs were protected by shoes and stockings. He had at several times been of great service to the English, and his Indian kinsmen held him in great esteem.

Gist stayed but a few days among the Wyandots, and then went onward through the dense forest. Montour and Croghan were with him. They stopped for a day at a little village on White Woman's Creek, where lived Mary Harris who had been taken captive by the savages forty years before. She seemed to be content with her lot, having an Indian husband and many half-breed children. "But she still remembers," says Gist, "that they used to be very religious in New England, and wonders how white men can be so wicked as she has seen them in these woods."

II. At Pickawillany

After visiting the Delawares on the Scioto, Gist and his two companions made their way across the country to Pickawillany on the Great Miami. The region through which they passed was of surpassing loveliness. "It is well timbered with large walnut, ash, sugar trees, and cherry trees," says Gist; "well watered with a great number of little streams and rivulets; full of beautiful natural meadows, with wild rye, bluegrass, and clover; and abounding with turkeys, deer, elks, and most sorts of game, particularly buffaloes, thirty or forty of which are frequently seen in one meadow."

Here some Englishmen were setting up a trading post and storehouses. It was the most western point to which they had yet dared venture. Since Celoron's visit, a year before, the place had increased in size and importance. It now contained more than four hundred Indian families, and was the largest village in the country. The Miami Confederacy, which included nearly all the tribes in the Ohio Valley, had but recently been formed, and here was the center of its power. The leader of this confederacy was Old Britain, or La Demoiselle, the same wild savage who had received Celoron so dubiously. He welcomed the three explorers very kindly, invited them to his house, and hoisted the English flag over his door.

Traders meeting indians


A council was called, and gifts were distributed by Croghan and Montour. Gist made a speech to the assembled warriors, and the thirty traders who happened to be in the village contributed to the good cheer of the occasion. The Miami chiefs were delighted, and a treaty of peace was solemnly completed between them and the English. Some Ottawas, whom the French had sent down from the lakes, ventured to put in a word of protest. They displayed a French flag, treated the chiefs to a drink of French brandy, and delivered a message of good will from the commandant at Detroit. But Old Britain and his braves mocked them. "Brothers, the Ottawas," said the great war chief, we let you know by these four strings of wampum that we will not hear anything the French say, nor do anything they bid us."

The Ottawas withdrew, abashed, but nursing revenge for the slight that had been offered them. The very next winter they fell upon a band of Miamis and killed fifty of their number.

Gist, according to his instructions, took careful note of the strength of the Miamis. In the report which he afterward made to his employers, he said: "They are accounted the most powerful people to the westward of the English settlements—at present very well affected toward the English, and fond of their allegiance with them." Thus the short-sighted Indians, by temporarily turning against the French, who were really their friends, were paving the way for their own destruction.

On the first of March Gist bade good-by to his friends at Pickawillany. He had been instructed to go as far west as the falls of the Ohio; but the Miamis told him that it would be unsafe to do so on account of the French who were in that neighborhood. He therefore turned his steps homeward, going first to the mouth of the Scioto and making friends with the Shawnees who lived there. On the last day of the month he crossed the Ohio, and boldly entered a territory never before trodden by the feet of a white man. His course was at first southward to the head waters of the Licking River. He then crossed the mountains, and went eastward up the valley of the Clinch; he passed the sources of New River, and after an absence of seven months finally reached his North Carolina home on the Yadkin. A few weeks later he appeared in Roanoke before a committee of the Ohio Company, to whom he gave an account of his adventures. He had traveled a` distance of twelve hundred miles. His journey had been a successful one, and it marks the beginning of the English conquest of the Northwest.