Gant was born into slavery on a tobacco plantation in Loudoun County, Va., on May 10, 1821. It seems that Gant’s owner, John Nixon, took an instant liking to him, and Gant soon became Nixon’s personal servant. Unlike most slaves, Gant enjoyed a certain amount of freedom as a result of his position as a personal servant. He would often run errands, unsupervised, into the local town. It is likely that on one of these trips to Leesburg, Va., he met Anna Maria Hughes. Anna Maria was a slave owned by the Russell family in Leesburg.
In 1843, Gant and Anna Maria were permitted by their owners to be married, although they had to live separately – each staying on their respective owners’ plantations. When Gant was 23 years old, his owner died. In his will, John Nixon granted Gant his freedom. By September 1845, Gant was officially a free man. Gant wanted to leave the area but would not do so without his wife. He set about trying to earn enough money to buy his wife’s freedom. He had to do this within a year because of a Virginia law that stated any freed slave who remained in the state could be forced back into enslavement after one year’s time. After a year of selling firewood, Gant was met with disappointment as Anna Maria’s owner, Jane Russell, refused to sell her. Gant was forced to leave and make his way north.
On his journey north, Gant was helped along the way by many people, one of those being Dr. Francis LeMoyne. Gant spent several days at LeMoyne’s home in Washington. He told LeMoyne and his wife, Madelaine, his story and how he wanted to gain his wife’s freedom. The LeMoynes knew they must help Gant with his quest to free his wife. First, they lent him money for expenses and then put him in touch with Dr. Martin Delaney in Pittsburgh. Delaney had served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and went on to apprentice with LeMoyne to become a doctor. In a letter to LeMoyne dated June 7, 1847, Gant wrote that he considered Delaney “one among the finest of men.” It was with the assistance of Delaney and other men in Pittsburgh that Gant worked to gain his wife’s freedom. It was decided if Anna Maria’s owners would not sell her, Gant would gain her freedom by helping her escape. Unfortunately, he and his wife were caught, jailed and forced to stand trial. In the letter to LeMoyne, Gant describes his ordeal:
“. . . I reached Chambersburgh and from there directly to Loudoun my old house, and from there to Washington where I met my wife. We were directed to a colored man’s house and we were betrayed by him and thrown in prison where my wife was left 8 days and I was kept 13 days and stood a short trial, then the case was removed to Leesburgh for further trial. My wife was confined in Leesburgh jail for 22 days and threatened by one of her owners to be sold to the far South if she did not testify against me. This she refused to do and then we were taken to court and they tryed to force her into measures but she would only say she knew nothing about it and would not tell anything. My lawyers pleaded on the grounds that we were lawfully married with the consent of our master and mistress and upon these grounds we were acquited by the county court.”
After the court acquitted Gant and Anna Maria, he was able to purchase his wife’s freedom. The total cost for the trial and the purchase of his wife was $775. This money came from the assistance of LeMoyne, Delaney and other friends.
The Gants made their way north and settled in Zanesville, Ohio. In Zanesville, with the help of several abolitionists, Gant was able to purchase about 140 acres of land. He built a home on that land and soon began working with his wife to help others escape slavery by opening their home up as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Later, Gant would purchase 160 more acres that contained a coal mine and salt lick. He became a wealthy businessman and farmer, and later part of his land would be made into a public park named Gant’s Grove. He and his wife had 12 children; unfortunately, only four of them lived to adulthood. Gant and his family left a lasting legacy in Zanesville. His former home is now a state landmark, owned by the Nelson T. Gant Foundation whose mission is to preserve the house and develop it into a historical, educational and cultural facility that tells the story of Gant and the Underground Railroad.
Nelson Tolbert Gant is just one among thousands who escaped the evils of slavery in the South and made their way to freedom. It reminds us that those who escaped – the men, women and children – were no less important than the famous individuals we read about in books. But it is their stories that truly make up the Underground Railroad.