After French, English claims, where is the Indians’ land?
Beginning in 1750, a frontier surveyor named Christopher Gist made a series of journeys deep into Indian country to locate — and make rough surveys of — “good land” along the Ohio River.
Gist and his employers all knew that the Native Americans who occupied the region would hardly welcome him if they knew the true reason for his trip.
Gist’s travels took him through what eventually became western Pennsylvania and Ohio and brought him face to face with Andrew Montour and other frontiersmen who played prominent roles in Pennsylvania history.
Gist’s expeditions were financed by Virginia business interests operating as the Ohio Company. His instructions were crystal clear: “When you find a large quantity of good, level land, such as you think will suit the company, you are to measure the breadth of it, in three or four different places, and take the courses of the river and mountains on which it binds in order to judge the quantity.”
The surveyor, who was in his early 40s, was also ordered to keep a detailed journal as he traveled. This article is based on that journal.
In late November, Gist spent several days at Shannopin, a Delaware Indian village near present-day Pittsburgh. “There are about 20 families in this town,” Gist wrote. He added, “I was unwell and stayed in this town to recover … While I was here, I took an opportunity to set my compass privately, and took the distance across the river, for I understood it was dangerous to let a compass be seen among these Indians.”
The Indians quickly became suspicious of Gist as he worked their way downriver.
On Sunday, Nov. 25, for instance, the surveyor and the men in his party reached Logstown, inhabited chiefly by Delaware and Shawnee Indians and located along the Ohio River about 18 miles below present-day Pittsburgh. “The people in this town began to enquire my business and because I did not readily inform them, they began to suspect me and said I was come to settle the Indian’s lands and they knew I should never go home again safe,” Gist wrote.
“I … enquired for (Pennsylvania trader George) Croghan … and Andrew Montour, the interpreter for Pennsylvania, and told them I had a message to deliver (to) the Indians from the King (George II), by order of the president of Virginia, and for that reason wanted to see Montour.” The Indians relaxed when Gist said this “and obtained me quiet and respect among them.”
Not only did Gist complete this trip, but he later made two others.
In March 1752, for instance, the surveyor was traveling back to Virginia from Ohio when a Delaware Indian “who spoke good English” approached him and explained “that … The Beaver and Captain Oppamylucah (two Delaware chiefs) desired to know where the Indian’s land lay, for that the French claimed all the land on one side the River Ohio and the English on the other side.”
“My friend,” Gist said, “We are all one king’s people and the different color of our skins makes no difference in the king’s subjects. You are his people as well as we. If you will take land and pay the king’s rights, you will have the same privileges as the white people have, and to hunt you have liberty everywhere so that you don’t kill the white peoples’ cattle and hogs.”
The Indian replied “that I must stay at that place two days and then he would come and see me again.”
The man returned two days later. “He said that the great men bid him tell me I was very safe — that I might come and live upon that river where I pleased — that I had answered them very true for we were all one king’s people sure enough.”
John L. Moore is a writer and storyteller based in Northumberland. He welcomes email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the books in his Frontier Pennsylvania Series is online at: http://johnleonmoore.blogspot.com/.