Nelson Gant was freed from slavery by the last will and testament of his owner, John Nixon, in September of 1845. But, the will did not free, Gant’s wife, Anna Maria Hughes, who he had married three years prior. Under the Virginia law, Gant would not be allowed to stay in the state no longer than a year after being freed. At first, he worked and tried to purchase Anna Maria’s freedom, but her mistress refused to sell her.
Not leaving willingly, Gant traveled to Zanesville, but not before promising to return to help his wife out of slavery. He became acquainted with and enlisted the help of abolitionists and agents of the Underground Railroad in Zanesville and Putam, a decidedly anti-slavery community across the Muskingum River from Zanesville.
As a result, Nelson came back into Virginia and he and Anna Maria disappeared into the night, ending up in Washington, D.C. as fugitives. Betrayed, they were arrested and transported to Leesburg for trial. Efforts were made to get Anna Maria to testify against her husband and confess that Nelson helped her to escape. Nelson’s attorney presented arguments in court to prevent Anna Maria from having to testify. This became a landmark trial because it was the first time in the nation that a slave marriage was considered to be legal, resulting in Anna Maria from having to testify.
Since there was no one to testify against Nelson, he was released but Anna Maria was returned to slavery in Leesburg. Eventually, with the help of abolitionists, Nelson was able to purchase his wife in February 1847. In June 1850, Nelson, Maria, and their one-year-old daughter returned to Zanesville. Nelson purchased land for a home and farm along the National Road and made a very successful living growing and selling specialty vegetables. Nelson and Anna Maria would eventually become the parents of 12 children but only would live to adulthood.
Nelson would also play an important role as a conductor in the Underground Railroad after meeting with Frederick Douglass.