Christopher Gist was born in Maryland, the son of a surveyor who had helped to lay out the streets of Baltimore. Little is known about Gist’s early years; however, it appears from his later work that he received a good education and was especially well trained in map making.
By 1745, Gist had married Sarah Howard, and he moved his family to an area on the Yadkin River in North Carolina, where he became a surveyor, trader, and scout. Five years later, Gist became associated with investors who wanted to open up the Ohio River valley to white settlements.
Between 1750 and 1752, Gist traveled through much of the Ohio River valley, working for the Ohio Company of Virginia. He went as far west as the mouth of the Scioto River, helping to lay Virginia’s claim to that area.
In 1753, Gist built Gist’s Plantation near what is now Mount Braddock, Pennsylvania. It was the first white settlement in the Monongahela River area. That same year, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent George Washington on a mission to warnthe French not to intrude upon British settlement claims in the Ohio area.
Washington left Williamsburg, Virginia, on October 30, 1753, and on November 14 he met and hired the experienced Gist as a guide. Gist and Washington reached the French Fort LeBoeuf (near modernday Waterford, Pennsylvania) in December. Washington delivered his message, and was rebuffed with a warning that the Ohio region belonged to France.
On their return journey, Washington and Gist endured eight days of grueling hardships. Washington nearly drowned once, and was almost killed by hostile natives, Both times Gist saved his life. They arrived at Gist’s Plantation on January 2, 1754. Washington then pushed on and reached Williamsburg on January 16, where he delivered the French response to Governor Dinwiddie.
War clouds were brewing. Dinwiddie sent Washington north with a force of Virginia militiamen. Washington’s goal was to reach the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, but the French arrived first and started to build Fort Duquesne on the site of what later became Pittsburgh.
On May 27, 1754, Gist arrived at Washington’s camp and informed him that 50 French soldiers were marching south toward his location. With Gist’s information, Washington planned and carried out an attack that resulted in the deaths of 10 Frenchmen, including their leader, Ensign Coulon de Jumonville.
This small, backwoods affair set a fire that kindled and grew until France and England declared war against each other in 1756.Gist went on to serve briefly as deputy superintendent of Indian affairs for the southern colonies. He died of smallpox in 1759.