1850: Samuel Nicholls Gantt to Dr. James L. Ellingwood

What Samuel N. Gantt might have looked like in 1850.

This letter was written by Samuel Nicholls Gantt (1808-Aft1880), son of Edward Gantt and Letitia Smallwood of Prince George’s County, Maryland. Samuel married Elizabeth Wynkoop Roof (1812-1894), the daughter of Martin Roof (1783-1827) and his second wife, Elizabeth Wynkoop Lansing (17xx-1868), of Canajoharie, Montgomery County, New York. Samuel and Elizabeth had three children, all of who are mentioned in this letter. They were: James Lansing Gantt, Samuel E. Gantt, and Ava Letitia Gantt.

I have not found a convenient biographical sketch of S. N. Gantt, but have pieced together the following from newspaper articles and census records. It appears that Gantt left Maryland early in life and went to Montgomery County in upstate New York. Perhaps he attended the Law School in Albany. In any event, he seems to have been a highly opinionated young man who found the newspaper business more alluring than the legal profession as a convenient medium to express his views. He is said to have edited a newspaper called the Watch Tower in Fort Plain, Montgomery County, New York, previous to Gen. Jackson’s election in 1828 expressing Federalist politics. Sometime later, it is alleged he took charge of a different newspaper in nearby Canajoharie supporting strong democratic principles.

Probably about 1831, Gantt married Elizabeth Roof and the couple moved to Buffalo in the mid-1830’s. By about 1838, they moved again to Michigan where Gantt entered politics, aligning himself with the Loco-foco faction of the Democratic Party, and winning himself a seat, and a voice, in the young Michigan Legislature. When the Democratic Party nominated Martin Van Buren for the Presidency, however, Gantt reconsidered his position, and, much to the angst of his fellow democrats, decided to support the whig candidate, William Henry Harrison, instead. Though he bravely and eloquently defended his reasons for declaring this change of support in the newspapers, it doomed his political career and won him many enemies anxious to slander his good name.

By 1842, it seems that Gantt was serving as Justice of the Peace in Detroit, but was removed from that office under charges of misconduct by members of the Whig Party.

In January 1845, perhaps in an attempt to start anew in a more rural part of Michigan, Gantt is known to have partnered with a printer named Geiger in establishing a newspaper at Paw Paw, in Van Buren County, called the Paw Paw Free Press. The paper was Democratic in party politics. Unfortunately, Gantt and Geiger did not get along and Geiger returned to Detroit leaving Gantt to run the paper on his own, which he did until the spring of 1846. After selling the paper, Gantt resumed the practice of law in Paw Paw until sometime shortly before 1850 when he moved to Kalamazoo when this letter to Dr. Ellingwood was written.

Gantt’s newspaper days were not over, however. By 1860, he had moved his family to the small town of Dowagiac in Cass County, Michigan. Here, after the start of the Civil War in 1861, Gantt attempted to begin another newspaper called the Herald but apparently either the viewpoints expressed, or the person expressing them, were so repulsive to the Union soldiers in the field that public pressure was brought to bear upon the enterprise to close it down.

By 1870, Gantt had moved his family back to his home state of Maryland where he retired from law and lived out his days in Anne Arundel County. He appears to have run for a councilman’s position in Baltimore’s 19th Ward in 1872 but I don’t know if he was successful in his bid.

Gantt wrote the letter to his slaveholding nephew Dr. James L. Ellingwood (1818-Aft1890), a druggist and Postmaster in Shelbyville, Shelby County, Kentucky. James’ parents were Henry Ellingwood (1791-1844) and Matilda Gantt (1796-1862). Henry and Matilda had several children besides James, one of whom — John F. Ellingwood — was killed on 23 February 1847 in the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican War. James Ellingwood married Anna W. Wiatt (1831-Aft1900) and eventually moved to St. Joseph, Missouri.

Prior to writing the letter, Gantt had received a letter from his nephew informing him of the death of Gantt’s sister, Rebecca A. (Gantt) Burke (1807-1849), the wife of Hiram Burke (1799-1882) who had settled in Adams County, Illinois. Rebeccah and Hiram were married in Shelby County, Kentucky in 1827.

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TRANSCRIPTION

Addressed to Doct. James L. Ellingwood, Shelbyville, Kentucky

Kalamazoo [Michigan]
January 13, 1850

My beloved Nephew,

Your favor of the 8th December last, I received but the other day, as it was directed to “Paw Paw” — my late residence, instead of to “Kalamazoo” where I now reside, for which you have my thanks for a communication from you is always welcome; for you, and Augusta, and your Mother, are all I now distinctly remember of in your part of the country & they are entwined around my heart. No misfortune can befall them I could not feel, nor prosperity attend them in which I would not exult.

The letter you refer to acquainting me of the decease of my dearly beloved sister, “Rebecca”, I never got. Poor dear woman — I loved her more than all the rest. She never knew envy, never held malice, but was one of the most amiable and gentle in her girl-hood, when we played and worked together, of any being I ever knew. How my heart bleeds for her; mourns her loss. Year after year I have been going to Illinois to see my relatives there, and had it not been for the Cholera, I should have visited there last summer. But now the grave has closed forever upon the object of my fondest recollections, and when I shall ever see any of our friends there, God only knows. And yet I am not certain but if it is not my duty to go there and know for myself how it is with her dear children. I love dearly my kindred, and have a hand that now can be opened for their comfort.

My dear James. You invite me to Kentucky to see you all, and express a belief that a short residence there would renew my southern feelings. I presume you have allusion to my views in relation to slavery. If so, I can tell you that although I am no Abolitionist any more than Benton or Clay, I am now and hope ever to be opposed to oppression and slavery from whatever source, or under any pretense. That God whom we reverence, if just, must brighten with felicitous glory as He beholds the good work now in progress to equalize Mankind on Earth, as equality is conceded in the grave, and must be predominant around the Eternal throne.

I blush for my native State — where from my Mother’s breast I was nourished and amidst the towering Statesmen of the period I learned from the genius of Kentucky Nobility and honor, the Free Principles I now maintain. Aye, I had hoped that her Convention to Revise the Old Constitution would have provided for Emancipation. But my hopes have vanished, and with them a large share of my reverence for Kentucky. I am no fanatic, for if in Kentucky I should have no objection to holding and owning slaves (“When in Rome”). My position is, that, of one flesh God created Man: That the difference in color should not work Slavish prejudice to subjugation — and that politically, there would be just as much and no more wrong in enslaving a white man or a Negro. In Nature and in God, we are born in the same way & to the same rights.

I am highly gratified to learn that your business is prosperous. The way to keep it so is sell cheap, collect diligently and close, and keep out of every other business. By thus confining your capital to one legitimate business with application, you will certainly acquire riches.

My oldest son James Lansing is a clerk at Paw Paw — a popular, headstrong, and an industrious young man 18 years old. Samuel is with me and it is said takes my ways considerably. He is 14 and ignorant. I can’t get him to learn, though he has an excellent mind, good developments, and is an intolerable talker. Work does not agree with him. Lettitia Elizabeth is over two years & is a charming girl.

Well, my friend, I have sold out my printing office, as you will see from the paper and I have opened a law office here. While in Van Buren County I practiced law for four years with gratifying success, commanding the largest share of professional business: Not satisfied with the location, and the county being new, I removed to this place where I may hope for a greater & more extended practice. In the purchase and sale of my office, I cleared over $600.00, and in the last half year $1,000 or more. I own land enough though to keep me pinched in paying taxes, &c.

It would give me pleasure to see you or any of the family, and a visit from any of my relatives would be hailed with joy. Give my love to my good sister and the family and believe [me], dear James, your kindred & friend, — S. N. Gantt

FOOTNOTES

The 16 June 1840 issue of the Albany Argus carried a reprint of an article appearing in the Buffalo Sun newspaper which read:

Samuel N. Gantt. — This gentleman, who has renounced Van Buren, in Detroit, has thrown the whigs into extacies. Mr. Gantt, it may be remembered, was once a resident in this city [Buffalo], and belonged to every party extant. He also edited a paper in Montgomery County, previous to General Jackson’s first election, of the federal class. After he left this city, he edited another paper in the same county, of different politics. He has also taken several other sides, and since he resided in Michigan was a member of the legislature from Oakland County. What his politics may be next November remains to be learned. It is to be hoped, however, that he will not be very zealous for the administration. — Buffalo Sun.

The same edition carried a lengthy reprint of a paper written by Samuel N. Gantt from Detroit on 30 May 1840 announcing his decision to withdraw his support for loco-foco candidate Martin Van Buren, and vote instead for William Henry Harrison, the whig candidate for President.

In the 26 June 1840 issue of the Albany Argus newspaper, a notice to the readers was published challenging Samuel N. Gantt’s character and his political convictions. It reads:

Many of the readers of the Argus are aware, without doubt, of the flourish and noise which the Eve. Journal has attempted to make out of the addition of one Samuel N. Gantt, now of Detroit, to the Whig party. I take the liberty to inform the state printer through the medium of your columns, that this same Gantt is known to some of the inhabitants of this country, and as regards making capital out of his change here, it would be better for his party if it had not been known. Some years ago, he published a paper at Fort Plain called the Watch Tower, on the side of Federalism, but even then he exhibited a disposition to sail in every breeze; consequently, Clayism, Anti-masonry, &c., felt the weight of his little barque; and many who otherwise might have forgotten Mr. Gantt, will find their recollection of him restored by recurring to some of the flowery editorial articles, and rare specimens of original poetry, which occasionally graced its columns. It is true before he left this county he pretended to have become a democrat, and took charge of a democratic paper at Canajoharie; but he occasionally exhibited such symptoms, we are informed, as to induce the democracy there to consider his change rather imperfect. He went from this county to Buffalo, and thence to Michigan [1838], where he managed himself into a seat in the legislature. Whether, after becoming well known, he considers that his superior talents will be appreciated no longer by the democracy of Michigan, or whether from the avidity with which the whigs bestow their ‘spoils’ upon new converts, however inferior they may be, he hopes to benefit himself, we will not undertake to say. We will say, however, that the democracy here will vote with their brethren in Detroit, in favor of a resolution expressing their conviction of its being a fortunate riddance. And we have heard at least one whig of this county say he was sorry that Mr. Samuel Nicholas Gantt had joined their ranks. Montgomery County [New York], June. 1840.

From a County History:

During the next two years Van Buren County was destitute of a newspaper, but in January, 1845, a lawyer named Samuel N. Gantt and a printer named Geiger brought a “two-pull” wooden Ramage press, and the other necessary material for a printing-office, by wagon, from Detroit to Paw Paw. On their arrival, they issued a fourpage five-column weekly, which they christened the Paw Paw Free Press. In the course of the season, however, Mr. Geiger became disgusted with the general course of events, and with Gantt in particular, and accordingly one night he carried off the screw of the press, threw it into the Paw Paw River, and fled to Detroit. Gantt mourned the loss of Geiger much less than that of the screw, the latter being indispensable to the working of the press. He offered a reward of ten dollars, and A. V. Pautland, who happened to know where Geiger had thrown it, fished it out of the river. Mr. Gantt continued to publish the Free Press until the spring of 1846, when be sold it to John McKinney, then county treasurer, and began the practice of law at Paw Paw.

Another County History reports:

Among the more ephemeral ventures in the Dowagiac journalistic field might be mentioned a paper called the Herald, published by Samuel N. Gantt soon after the commencement of the rebellion. The soldiers demanded its suppression, and its editor, deeming discretion the better part of valor, announced its suspension by order of Gen. Burnside. Source: History of Cass County, Michigan, 1882.

From the 1 July 1842 issue of the Kalamazoo Gazette:

Samuel N. Gantt, the great whig leader in this quarter, who was so distinguished in the campaign of 1840, has been suspended by the Executive from the office of Justice of the Peace, in this city, for official misconduct. The charges and evidence came principally, we believe, from the whigs. The testimony we understand was ample and conclusive in sustaining the misconduct alleged. — Detroit Free Press.

From the 3 September 1855 issue of the Albany Evening Journal:

Supposed Murder of Hon. Samuel Gantt. — The remains of a murdered man, supposed to be the Hon. Samuel N. Gantt, late of Kalamazoo, in this State, have been discovered in Prince George’s County, one of the greatest slaveholding counties in Maryland. — Grand River Eagle. Mr. Gantt’s Michigan friends are unnecessarily alarmed. We saw Mr. G. in this city, last Wednesday, having in his hand a much larger carpet-bag than would be required to hold the wearing apparel of a dead man.

In 1872, Gantt running for councilman of Baltimore’s 19th Ward.

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2 responses to “1850: Samuel Nicholls Gantt to Dr. James L. Ellingwood

  • Debian Marty

    Thank you for posting this letter–what a find!
    Gantt’s ambivalent views on slavery were surprising, particularly his stated belief in natural and divinely inspired equal rights!

    In 1838, while serving in the Michigan State Legislature, Gantt initiated a ‘gag rule’ to suppress anti-slavery petitions. He was unsuccessful.

    In 1847, in Detroit, he assisted the infamous Kentucky slave catcher, Francis Troutman, in his pursuit of the Crosswhite family and others who escaped from Troutman’s family.

    But in 1876, in Baltimore, Gantt wrote a letter to the Albany Evening Journal. The paper described him as “an old Baltimore Democrat” who now objects to the “shooting of negroes” to prevent their voting. Gantt declared his new affiliation with the Republican party.

    It seems that, over the course of his life, Gantt was a political opportunist with a few bedrock convictions.

    Thank you so much for posting the letter. Is that an actual image of Gantt above?

    • Griff

      Thanks for your comments and the additional biographical material on Gantt. It is NOT an image of Gantt. Only a photograph of what I imagined he might look like. — Griff

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