Early Years and Fire Rescues
Hunt was born enslaved at the Piping Tree, a tavern in King William County, about twenty miles northeast of Richmond. He told a biographer his birth year was about 1780, while his death notice and census data suggest he was born anywhere from 1775 to 1782. The names of his parents are unknown. His owner, whose name is also unknown, ran the tavern and was, according to Hunt's recollection, "a gentleman of considerable wealth." At some point, Hunt accompanied the tavern keeper's daughter to Richmond, where her new husband built carriages. Hunt trained as a blacksmith and was sold at least twice over the next few decades but remained in Richmond.
By 1811, Hunt had a wife. She labored as a domestic servant for Elizabeth Carrington Mayo Preston, a Richmond native who had recently married General John Preston, the treasurer of Virginia. On the evening of December 26, 1811, Hunt walked to his wife's quarters after attending the First Baptist Church, an integrated congregation at the corner of College and H (later Broad) streets. Nearby, at the corner of H and Twelfth streets, stood the Richmond Theatre, then packed with more than 600 mostly elite white Richmonders.
Above him, Dr. James D. McCaw broke out the sash of a second-floor window and yelled for Hunt to catch women as he dropped them down. McCaw and Hunt together saved about a dozen women, including the doctor's sister. When McCaw finally jumped, he severely injured his leg, and according to Hunt and a contemporary white historian, Hunt took him to safety just before the building toppled. McCaw's 1846 obituary, however, attributed that act of bravery to an unnamed son of McCaw.
Demand for Hunt's blacksmithing skills increased during the War of 1812, as he was called upon to hammer out grappling hooks for naval boarding vessels, pick axes, guns, horseshoes, carriage parts, and cannon balls for the military. Hunt's owner evacuated Richmond for a time and left Hunt and several other men behind to man the forges. Hunt kept guard over his owner's home and shop.
On the governor's orders, Captain Samuel Freeman climbed onto Hunt's shoulders and cut an opening in the wall of the penitentiary through which prisoners could exit. None of the 244 prisoners perished during the fire. "The next day I spent in making hand-cuffs for the poor fellows," Hunt wrote. "I didn't think, the night before, I should have this to do."
Hunt later recalled that the African natives he encountered in Liberia, while "almost in a state of nakedness," were nevertheless polite and "much more intelligent than I had expected." He remembered being told, "If you come from Mr. Carey's country you will be treated with kindness," referring to Lott Cary.
The colony in Liberia faced deadly outbreaks of malaria, internal political disagreements, and diplomatic challenges with its neighbors. Although a biographer passed along a story of Hunt being swindled by natives, it is unknown why he left Africa after only about eight months. He returned to Richmond by way of Philadelphia and, according to an American Colonization Society official, refused to recommend that others immigrate.
Church and Controversy
On January 23, 1848, Hunt was one of twenty free black Richmonders who formed the Union Burial Ground Society. The group established a cemetery and provided free blacks the chance to purchase burial lots by subscription for $10, in which they could inter either free or enslaved African Americans.
By 1850, Hunt was married to Matilda Hunt, a free, fifty-year-old African American woman and likely his second wife. The census valued Gilbert Hunt's property at $1,500 and, a decade later, at $2,000. During this period, he also may have owned two slaves, possibly family members. State law mandated that all newly freed slaves leave Virginia within a year, making voluntary enslavement an imperfect means of preserving the family. A report in the Richmond Daily Dispatch on August 27, 1857, mentions "David Smith, slave of Gilbert Hunt."
The historians Marie Tyler-McGraw and Gregg Kimball have noted that an impoverished Hunt is at odds with census records, which indicate considerable assets. In addition, the brochure's depiction of the blacksmith as meek, patient, and loyal is at odds with his many church disputes and in particular his willingness to voice his opinion to black and white men alike on the issue of Liberia. His exploits in the Richmond fires notwithstanding, Tyler-McGraw and Kimball argue that what set Hunt apart from others was not "his physical courage but his existential courage in speaking his mind."
Hunt died on April 26, 1863, and a notice in the next day's Richmond Dispatch described him as "a useful and respected resident of Richmond." He was buried at Phoenix Burying Ground, later Cedarwood Cemetery and eventually part of Richmond's Barton Heights Cemeteries.
ca. 1780 - Gilbert Hunt is born enslaved in King William County.
December 26, 1811 - The enslaved blacksmith Gilbert Hunt helps to save about a dozen women during the Richmond Theatre fire.
August 8, 1823 - The enslaved blacksmith Gilbert Hunt, a member of the Richmond volunteer fire brigade, aids in the rescue of inmates during the Virginia State Penitentiary fire.
February 9, 1829 - Gilbert Hunt sails from Norfolk aboard the Harriet. He intends to immigrate to the West African colony of Liberia.
March 24, 1829 - Gilbert Hunt, a Richmond blacksmith and immigrant to Liberia, arrives in Monrovia aboard the Harriet.
November 1829 - Gilbert Hunt returns to the United States after just eight months in the West African colony of Liberia.
1842 - Gilbert Hunt, a deacon at Richmond's First African Baptist Church, resigns after fighting with another member of the church.
1844 - Gilbert Hunt is elected for a second time to serve as a deacon at Richmond's First African Baptist Church.
February 8, 1847 - Gilbert Hunt is summoned to appear in the Richmond Hustings Court on the charge of selling liquor without a license.
September 15, 1847 - A Richmond court renews its summons of Gilbert Hunt on the charge of selling liquor without a license.
January 23, 1848 - Twenty free black Richmonders found the Union Burial Ground Society.
May 1848 - The Richmond Hustings Court drops charges against Gilbert Hunt for selling liquor without a license.
June 1849 - Gilbert Hunt, a deacon at Richmond's First African Baptist Church, is cleared of charges of trying to exclude black trustees from the church deed.
1859 - Gilbert Hunt, the City Blacksmith, by Philip Barrett, is published in Richmond.
May 13, 1859 - A notice in the Richmond Whig asks readers to support the African America blacksmith Gilbert Hunt and a new pamphlet about his life.
April 26, 1863 - Gilbert Hunt dies in Richmond and is buried in the Phoenix Burying Ground.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Mann, D. L. Gilbert Hunt (ca. 1780–1863). (2017, April 5). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Hunt_Gilbert_ca_1780-1863.
- MLA Citation:
Mann, Dionna L. "Gilbert Hunt (ca. 1780–1863)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 5 Apr. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 3, 2017 | Last modified: April 5, 2017