Sunday, August 15, 1999

Family's history rises from slavery

Land carries legacy of freedom

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Peggy Warner stands at the grave of ancestor W. Cumberland, a Civil War soldier.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
        FINCASTLE, Ohio — Peggy Mills Warner knows every inch of the Gist Settlement. Every mailbox. Every cranny.

        And each day, she learns a little more about the grit and spirit that carried her ancestors from a Virginia plantation to farmland in Ohio, decades before the Civil War.

        Mrs. Warner's personal journey has brought her back to the land she roamed as a child. Three years ago, she emancipated herself from Tristate sub urbia and moved to one of the settlement communities, near Fincastle, to gather — and preserve — history and genealogy.

        She has been piecing together a picture of the remarkable lives of her ancestors, as well as a portrait of Ohio and the nation in an era of differing views of slavery and treatment of free blacks.

        The black settlers here were all slaves until Samuel Gist, their wealthy owner, died at age 92 in England in 1815.

        Suddenly, 274 of them heard the news — freedom!

        Such a declaration must have surprised the Virginia planta tion. Mr. Gist's will established a trust fund to care for his former slaves and their children, buy property for them in Ohio and appoint abolitionist Quakers to oversee the transition.

        Bequeathing freedom to one's slaves wasn't unusual, but providing funds for land and care was, said W. Sherman Jackson, a Miami University history professor and specialist in the Civil War and Reconstruction.

        “This was typical of Virginia — getting freed slaves out of the state,” he said. “Many slave owners felt that freed slaves were a source of agitation. Ohio was so concerned (about former slave migration) that it passed laws that required blacks coming into Ohio to post a $500 bond. But the law wasn't rigorously enforced.”

        When they arrived in 1819, black settlers found a wild land filled with dangerous animals and struggling pioneers.

        “The land was so bad, so rugged,” Mrs. Warner said, “that it was practically given away. ... Farming was tough.”

        In 1902, Georgetown's News-Democrat wrote of the former slaves: “They were dumped by his (Gist's) agents into the swamps, a few rickety school houses and a cheap church structure or two, and left to hoe their own rows as best they could.”

        The years before the Civil War must have been uneasy times for freed slaves living near the Kentucky border. Southern bounty hunters drifted into Ohio in search of runaways, but nobody knows the hunters' impact on settlement life.

        Mrs. Warner imagines the settlement then as a high-grass community far from the cities — a perfect station on the Underground Railroad, the network of anti-slavery activists who smuggled escaped slaves to freedom.

        Several hundred former slaves lived and died with little notice on two settlements in Brown County and one in Highland County. Their worlds operated concurrently with the mostly white, rural counties, but in parallel worlds.

        Families came and went with the howling of the wind, until few people remembered Mr. Gist's dying gesture.

        These days, the land around Mrs. Warner's gray house with white columns is quiet. All green and ordered. Corn and soybeans undulate in the wind. Tractors roam the fields like giant beetles.

        On a clear, bright day, Mrs. Warner drove down a gravel lane, through the fields and toward a narrow asphalt road.

        Ahead is the Brush Creek Baptist Church, built about 150 years ago and rebuilt in 1976. “Sometimes only five people show up for services, but the church keeps going,” she said.

Descendants remain
        “There's Earl Johnson's place; he's a descendant,” she said. “Over there's Mrs. Carr's home; she's a descendant who moved here from Cincinnati a while back. Actually, there are a number of descendants left. My problem is getting them interested in our genealogy. It's important to me that my people get some recognition. It is my life's work.”

        The 1,120-acre Bodman Road settlement has vanished, possibly the victim of a 19th-century typhoid epidemic; the other, 1,153 acres near Fincastle, consists of a few old buildings and newer homes like Mrs. Warner's. Nothing there suggests that the place was once a sanctuary of freed slaves.

        Mrs. Warner wants to change the land's anonymity. She has turned her living room into a genealogical war room, with stacks of books and papers scattered around a baby grand piano. She is determined to find the names of the people who once lived on the land, where she moved three years ago. She has obtained census records, courthouse deeds and obscure little histories that mention the settlement people.

        “I feel that their spirits are encouraging us to uncover information, that they're waiting in heaven for us to act,” she said. “I know some of their relationships were sad and that some may have cobwebs, but I believe in the end the good will outweigh the bad. I want to know more about these people. Unless we know where we've come from, we can't chart the path on which we'll travel.”

        She grew up in Georgetown, the Brown County seat, because her mother married a Georgetown man and refused to live on the settlement any longer. But Mrs. Warner's maternal grandfather, James Peter Toler, remained there proudly, and built houses and welcomed his granddaughter for visits.

        “He was a well-digger, lanky, a real Lincoln of a man,” Mrs. Warner said. “My sister, who has watched the generations, said she has not found anyone who resembles him until my son.”

        Veterinarian Andy Purdy, 41, who grew up in the area, remembers Mr. Toler as an old man who never stopped working.

        “He did everything by hand, even ... in the fields,” Mr. Purdy said. “People on the settlement couldn't afford tractors or horses. They were their own horses.

        “Looking back on it, what strikes me is their work ethic. Sweat and labor. But the settlement is known only to the people who were reared here and are connected to the land. The place is great, but faded history,” Mr. Purdy said.

        Like her mother, Mrs. Warner had little interest in living in the settlement until a few years ago. While caught up in a busy suburban life in Milford, she taught music at a Clermont County elementary school and tended to her family. She had no time to study genealogy; rent meant more to her than roots.

        Then one day, in one of life's serendipitous turns, a family member mentioned that some settlement tracts had come up for sale, and that they'd make a wise purchase. In fact, one of them was next door to her late grandfather's house.

        For reasons she can't fully explain, Mrs. Warner bought the property. Slowly, its murky past enveloped her.

        Three years ago, she built a house there and moved in.

        “My son, who was in college at the time, cried the day I came out here to live,” she said. “He said, "It's so far out there.' He doesn't care for the country; he has no interest in this place. But I was proud and determined. I've instructed him to never sell my house and 22.5 acres.

        “This is where I want to keep alive the memory of the settlement, and erect a memorial rock with the names of the people who lived here. They will not be forgotten.”

Free, not citizens
        The Gist Settlement's cultural and historic significance is not lost on the staff of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. “It's a fascinating story, one with national interest,” said Ed Rigaud, CEO and president.

        Oloye Adeyemon, a Freedom Center family traditions and oral history specialist, describes the settlements as nothing more than reservations.

        “We're talking about people who were free without being granted citizenship,” he said. “The ironic thing is, the state was authorized to send them back to Virginia as slaves if they should leave. So they were tied to what was then some of the worst farm land in Ohio.”

        The man who granted their freedom, Mr. Gist, is nearly as forgotten as his slaves. He is buried in an English churchyard. A loyalist, he returned to England.

        Some say his conscience made him free his slaves at Gould Hill Plantation. Mr. Adeyemon speculated that Mr. Gist freed his slaves as a memorial to himself.

        “He wanted to leave a legacy. He was an orphan,” Mr. Adeyemon said.

        Since then, Mr. Gist's “family” of former slaves has grown and moved around the country. Some of them have formed the Freed Gist Slave Settlement Foundation, which on July 17 held its first family reunion.

        About 90 people, descendants from all three settlements, attended. Mrs. Warner, who helped organize the event at Woodland Lake Leisure Resort in Highland County, hopes to bring relatives together every summer and possibly start a small scholarship fund for young students.

        At the reunion, she met Paul Turner, a former Navy master chief who returned to his home in the Highland County settlement in the mid-1980s to farm 100 acres. After moving into his parents' old house, he learned that the settlement was mired in title and tax problems. He borrowed $25,000 to pay off the delinquent taxes.

        The land meant that much to him. The Highland settlement, near New Vienna, provided soldiers for the Union Army. The dead lie in the Gist Cemetery, beneath bleached headstones.

        In the 1940s, the settlement's population, about 65, began to decline. Older residents died, and few people wanted to move in.

        “I stay here out of pride, I guess,” he said. “It's the only one of the three settlements that has anything much left. But this place isn't what it used to be. The old church has only two, three cars in the lot some Sundays. We're getting some younger people out here now, and it's a little like a ghetto. Trailers falling apart.

        “I'm not too proud of the way it looks. But I'm here, and I guess I'll stay,” Mr. Turner concluded.

        Sitting in her tidy living room, Mrs. Warner lovingly pulled out several 3-foot white paper boards on which she had written long-lost names: Old Ben, Sally, Maria, Rosanah, Matilda, Scott, Peter and Old Lucky. And on another sheet: Parson Jim, Sylvia, Patey, Uofia, George.

        They are just names to most people, but to Mrs. Warner they represent stories waiting to be uncovered.

        “I'm trying to build a family here,” she said. “Just imagine where we'd be if everyone did the same. That's my dream. At first, I never thought that these names would be important in my life. But people in run-down shacks have to be remembered.

        “If I don't do it, who will? People die, and who's left to take up the torch? But I do know that this place and its storymust survive.”

Family ledger a precious record
'And the slaves were set free'

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