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Donny Wilkinson: Research on Nelson T. Gant
Nelson T. Gant

This semester, history major Donny Wilkinson is conducting research on the life of Nelson T. Gant, one of Zanesville’s most remarkable citizens. The Gant Foundation has enlisted Wilkinson to conduct research in the Muskingum County Deed records, to help them get a fuller picture of Nelson T. Gant’s property acquisitions over his lifetime. 

Nelson Gant was born into slavery in Virginia in 1821. As a young man, he fell in love with Anna Marie Hughes, an enslaved woman from a nearby plantation, and while Virginia law granted no legal recognition or protection to marriages between enslaved persons, Nelson and Anna were married by a minister in 1843. Just a few years after they married, Nelson was emancipated from bondage in his enslaver’s will, but Anna Maria remained enslaved, and Virginia law required freedmen to leave the state within one year of emancipation. Nelson was not about to separate from his beloved Anna, but his repeated efforts to buy her out of bondage were rejected by her enslaver. In 1846, Nelson and Anna Maria decided to flee Virginia together. While hiding out in Washington, D.C. the fugitives were discovered and arrested.  Anna Maria was returned to slavery, and Nelson was imprisoned and tried for the crime of “kidnapping” his wife. Under the slave laws of Virginia, if the prosecutor could prove Nelson abetted Anna Maria’s escape in any way, he would be found criminally liable. During the trial, Anna Maria refused to testify against Nelson, asserting that her marriage to him protected her from being forced to testify against her spouse. In what might have been the first time a marriage between enslaved persons was legally recognized, a jury agreed and found Nelson not guilty of kidnapping, as without Anna Maria’s testimony, the prosecutor could not prove Nelson had assisted her in escape.

The victory in court, however, did not liberate Anna from bondage, and Nelson continued his efforts to purchase her freedom. Anna’s enslaver now understood that she was likely to strike for freedom again, and so agreed to emancipate her, but demanded a high price. Nelson was already proving his ability to make and save money, and he was able to purchase Anna’s freedom with the help of a few sympathetic abolitionists. In 1847 Nelson, Anna, and their youngest child made their way to Zanesville, according to a family story with just fifty cents to their name.

The Gants began to work and save immediately, and within six years of their arrival in Zanesville, not only had they paid off the debt to those who helped finance Anna Maria’s freedom, but they had amassed enough cash to buy their first piece of property—a plot of land they called Pataskala, the Lenape name for the river that flowed along its eastern and northern boundary (known as the Licking River today). The property was bounded on the south by the busy National Road, a location they no doubt chose anticipating the number of potential customers that would cross by their front porch every day. Over the ensuing decades the Gants proved to be savvy entrepreneurs and real estate investors and amassed a small fortune, buying and selling land and developing several successful businesses, including a strawberry farm, an ice manufacturing business developed by damming Timber Run, which traversed their property, and a coal mine.

When Anna Maria died in 1879, Nelson purchased a beautiful stone for her grave in Zanesville’s Woodlawn Cemetery. Its base reads “Loved By Her Family, Respected By Her Neighbors, Cherished By Her Church. This monument is erected as a token of her Husband’s Love.” Nelson would live until 1905, find a second wife, Lavinia, and continue to amass wealth. A few years before he died, he sold the bulk of the Pataskala farm to the city, to be developed as a park. Today that land is the site of the Nelson Gant Municipal Stadium. The Gant home is preserved by the Nelson T. Gant Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the Gant story. 

Wilkinson describes himself as “ecstatic” about the opportunity to dig into Gant’s life story. “It baffles me that I haven’t seen a Nelson Gant movie or novel about this man, given his amazing story. More people should know about his remarkable life. I hope the research I am conducting will help get his story out to a wider audience.”

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Gant House TodayGant House Today

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