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Author spotlights 3 local men in French and Indian War

February 10, 2001|By ANDREA ROWLAND

Author spotlights 3 local men in French and Indian War



George Washington owed his life to Christopher Gist, but the loyal frontier scout has been all but lost in the pages of history.

Hagerstown historian Allan Powell hopes his newest book will shed light on Gist, two other Maryland frontier legends and an underrated period in U.S. history.

Gateway Press of Baltimore in January published "Forgotten Heroes of the Maryland Frontier" as a companion volume to Powell's "Maryland and the French and Indian War," which was published in 1998.

The French and Indian War had a direct impact on American independence, but that war- and the people who shaped that period in U.S. history - have been largely overlooked, said Powell, a retired college professor.

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The French and Indian War, which lasted from 1754 to 1763, was the last conflict between the French and British over possessions in North America. The war was fought around the world.

"World War I is eclipsed by this war. The main cause of the American Revolution was the French and Indian War," Powell said. "If England had lost this war, we would be French and Catholic, not English and Protestant. There's no doubt about it."

In "Forgotten Heroes," Powell details the adventurous lives of Gist, Capt. Evan Shelby Jr. and Col. Thomas Cresap in a trilogy of stories. The three men braved the dangers of the wilderness trail to make their marks in history as settlers, surveyors, traders, soldiers, scouts, road builders and even judges, Powell said.

He whittles their stories into the grain of territorial battle that formed the framework for their heroic actions.

"All three were gifted, forceful personalities," said Powell, 76. "It's a tragedy that they're not in the top echelon of people we talk about it in history."

Book One of the trilogy chronicles the life of Gist, who lost his mercantile fortune in Baltimore before venturing to the wild woods of Western Maryland to forge a new life as a farmer, hunter and trader.

Gist's knowledge of Indian trails earned him a strong enough reputation as a scout to be hired by the prestigious Ohio Company to explore a large territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains. He preceded Daniel Boone in this mission by 18 years, according to the book.

Gist once pulled George Washington from a river before he drowned. The next day, he wrestled to the ground an Indian who fired on the nation's future first president.

The book chronicles in detail Gist's journeys, from his dealings with both peaceful and savage Native Americans to young Major Washington and British Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock.

Powell pieced together writings from Gist's personal journals, records from Gist family land holdings and information from sources ranging from historical magazines to papers belonging to Washington to paint a vivid portrait of Gist's powerful role on the Maryland frontier.

"This guy Gist, I've come to admire him very much," Powell said. "Here's a guy who saved our first president twice in two days and kids don't know about him. How is that?"

Book Two of "Forgotten Heroes" focuses on Shelby, a settler, soldier, trader and Clear Spring area landowner whose son, Isaac Shelby, was the first governor of Kentucky.

Like Gist, Shelby's fortunes as a trader wavered. The Welsh immigrant went broke after Indians captured his trade goods and burned his home at "Maiden's Choice," the book states.

Powell debates whether Shelby served under Braddock, but makes clear Shelby's role as a frontier defender. He was noted for killing enemy Indians, and Maryland Gov. Horatio Sharpe gave Shelby a lieutenant's commission to recruit rangers to patrol for Indians following massacres throughout the region.

The governor also asked Shelby to blaze a road from the newly completed Fort Frederick to Fort Cumberland, Powell said.

Before Shelby and his family moved south, he led famous surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to the summit of Gilliam's Knob behind his farm to view the Potomac River. Mason and Dixon saw the northernmost bend of the Potomac, which helped them draft the Mason-Dixon line.

While Shelby and Gist were known as gentlemen, the subject of Book Three in "Forgotten Heroes" was an unpleasant chap dubbed, "the rattlesnake colonel," Powell said.

Thomas Cresap "was really a nasty individual. If you messed with him, he would blow your brains out," Powell said. "He was volatile."

Debt drove Cresap, like Gist, to the frontier. He was involved in a number of violent episodes in Pennsylvania before buying a 500-acre plot of land called "The Long Meadow" about four miles north of what is now Hagerstown.

Cresap also tried his hand in the risky fur business and lost his fortune when the French captured the ship carrying his pelts. He lost his home and moved farther west, where he forged a reputation as a trader, road builder and major provider of battle supplies in the mountains of Western Maryland.

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