Malachite’s Big Hole
John Gantt (also referred to in various journals as Gant, Gaunt Ghant and Grant), born in Maryland in 1790, was the youngest of fifteen children. His father, Edward Gantt was highly distinguished and well educated , holding a doctorate in medicine and divinity. Edward Gantt was also a fellow of the Royal Society and served five terms as Chaplain of the United States Senate. On retirement he moved to Kentucky in 1808.
Nothing is known of John Gantt’s early years. It is likely he was educated and also likely that he moved to Kentucky with his parents in 1808. He was appointed a position as Second Lieutenant in the Army of the United States on May 24, 1817. During the twelve years he was active in the Army he must have shown ability and effectiveness as a leader because he was steadily promoted, to First Lieutenant in April 1818, and to Captain on February 28, 1823. During his tenure as an Army officer, most of his assignments were in the west. He served under Colonel Leavenworth during Leavenworth’s abortive campaign against the Arikara in 1823 and in 1825 accompanied General Atkinson and Major O’Fallon’s expedition to the mouth of the Yellowstone River.
Gantt was discharged from the Army on May 12, 1829 after being found guilty of 2 of 4 counts involving falsification of pay records. The circumstances relating to the court martial were unusual and appear to have involved the personal animosity of some of Gantt’s fellow officers.
In 1827 Gantt had married Virgina McClanahan by whom he had one child. His discharge from the Army necessitated his quickly finding a new career in order to support the needs of his young family. Because of the exposure he received to the fur trade during his army years he chose to pursue an endeavor in this area. In 1830 he formed a partnership with Jefferson Blackwell (Gantt and Blackwell).
The partnership was issued a three-year license to trade with the Indians on April 5, 1831. Like all such licenses, it was understood that it would be used for trapping by company employees as well as for trade with the Indians. Gantt and Blackwell departed St. Louis with a brigade of 60 or 70 men on April 24th, 1831. Zenas Leonard, who was one of the trappers, kept a journal documenting his experiences with Gantt and Blackwell (see Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard: Written by Himself).
The route taken by the brigade followed the Missouri River as far as Fort Osage, then continued on along the Kansas and Republican Rivers. Running low on food the brigade crossed over to the Platte River/North Platte River which they followed up as far as the mouth of the Laramie River, which they reached on August 27, 1831. While here they encountered Thomas Fitzpatrick with a party of men bringing supplies up from Santa Fe for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. According to Zenas Leonard Fitzpatrick was most unhelpful and even hostile during this meeting. See the attached map “The West of John Gantt 1832-35” for features and locations described in the following text.
Gantt and Blackwell decided to divide their men into three companies to better exploit the fur resources of the area. One party, under A.K. Stevens was to ascend the Laramie River, the second under Wasburn was to work the Timber Fork and Gannt would lead a party up the Sweetwater River. (Zenas Leonard was a member of Stevens party). On September 3rd, Backwell and a couple of men returned to St. Louis for additional supplies.
It was intended that all three parties would return after the fall hunt to the mouth of the Laramie River where they would go into winter camp. The Stevens company camped on the Laramie River until January 1832, when they made a desperate attempt to go to Santa Fe to obtain horses (all of theirs had starved) before being turned back by deep snow. They returned to the mouth of the Laramie around the end of April. Here the Stevens party again encountered Fitzpatrick with 115 men taking supplies to the 1832 Rendezvous. Fitzpatrick falsely informed the Stevens party that the Gantt and Blackwell partnership had become insolvent, thus inducing Stevens and his men to sell their furs to Fitzpatrick and to accompany Fitzpatrick to Pierres Hole Rendezvous.
Later Gantt and Washburn returned to the agreed location but didn’t find Stevens and his company. Because their horses had previously been stolen by Indians, Gantt traveled to Santa Fe where he obtained additional animals. Returning north to the Laramie River, he located Washburn and the two companies made a hunt on the Green River, it’s tributaries and in the headwater region of the Arkansas River.
While obtaining horses in the Mexican colony of New Mexico, Gantt sent a letter to the then Governor of the province, Santiago Abrey, describing the disposition and activities of his trapping parties and describing a trading post he plans to establish at the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatoire Rivers. The purpose of the letter appears to be to smooth relations with the Mexican authorities.
When Gant returned to the Laramie River with the replacement horses, he learned that the Stevens party had gone over to the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. At this time he left a letter for Stevens and his party describing what had transpired. The letter was not found until February 1833 by Zenas Leonard.
Gantt and his men now returned again to the Arkansas River where he met Blackwell with the much needed supplies. The trapping party then departed for the mountains where they trapped until September 1832. Gantt was joined by Kit Carson and three companions during this hunt, either in New Park (North Park) or Bayou Salade (South Park).
Starting in September 1832, Gantt and his men constructed several log cabins surrounded by a stockade. This post was presumably at the mouth of the Purgatoire River. During the winter Crow Indians stole the party’s horses, but subsequently Kit Carson was successful in recovering the animals. Also during this winter the party was able to obtain 300 pounds of beaver through trapping and trade with the Indians.
In the spring of 1833 the beaver skins were cached and Gantt and his men set off to trap in the Laramie River area. When the party reached the South Platte River, two of the men deserted. Although pursued by Carson, the men were able to steal the cached beaver and escape. Carson and a companion remained at Gantt’s stockade for about a month until Blackwell returned with additional supplies. About the same time that Blackwell arrived, four of Gantt’s hunters showed up with news that Gantt was trapping in the Bayou Salade (now South Park) and everyone was to join them there. Trapping was poor and Carson and several others detached themselves from the party to operate as free trappers.
As trapping had not produced the expected success due to theft, fraud, accidents, and other misfortunes, Gantt began to emphasize trade with the Indians. In May 1834 Gantt constructed a second fort on the Arkansas which he named Fort Cass. This post was located some six miles below the mouth of Fontain Qui Boulle (now Fountain Creek) and about 3 miles above a log trading post established less than a year earlier by William Bent. Fort Cass was constructed of adobe.
During the summer of 1834 William Bent and his men attacked a party of Shoshone Indians camped at Fort Cass. In the attack three Shoshone were killed and 37 horses and much equipment and supplies confiscated. Bent justified the attack because he supposedly recognized the Indians as those that had stolen horses from his brother Charles down near Taos earlier in the summer. Even if these were the same Indians, there existed other more peaceful means of obtaining compensation for the losses besides violence. However, as a means of discrediting Gantt, Bent’s actions couldn’t have been more decisive. By attacking the Shoshone at Gantt’s post Bent demonstrated both that he was “strong” and that Gantt was “weak”. After the attack all Indian trade with Gantt dwindled. This was the final misfortune for Gantt. After this he would exit all aspects of the fur trade.
In the summer of 1835 Colonel Henry Dodge lead a regiment of dragoons along the front range of the Rocky Mountains with the purpose of conferring with and establishing relations with the Indian tribes of the region. Lieutenant Lancaster Lupton was one of the officers on the expedition. John Gantt accompanied the expedition, serving both as a guide and liasson with the Indian chiefs. By August 1, 1835 the expedition had crossed over from the South Platte drainage to the Arkansas and was at the now abandoned Fort Cass.
Gantt and Lupton most likely became well aquainted during the 1600 miles that Gantt guided the expedition and undoubably the two men discussed Gantt’s experiences in the fur trade. When Lupton was forced to resign his commission in the Army (also under questionable circumstances) he would subsequently enter the fur trade, establishing an adobe fort, Fort Lancaster, on the South Platte River in 1837.
After serving with Colonel Dodge, Gantt returned to Missouri where he formed a partnership with William Stoner to mine and sell coal from a property owned by William Sublette. Little is known of the operation or success of this partnership other than that it existed.
During the years 1838 and 1839 Gantt served as Indian Agent for the Pottawatomies at Coucil Bluffs. From 1839-43 nothing is known of Gantt’s actities or location. Starting in 1843 Gantt contracted to guide 875 Oregon immigrants from Independence, Missouri as far west as Fort Hall. Emigrants journals and diaries uniformly describe Gantt in terms of approval.
After fulfilling his contract with the emigrants, Gantt joined a party under Joseph Walker and Joseph Chiles heading for California. The party divided on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Walker lead the main group with the wagons over Walker Pass, and Chiles with a few men mounted on horseback crossed over to the Feather River then on to Sutter’s Fort. Gantt accompanied Chiles party.
During 1844-45 Gantt played a significant role in the internal affairs of Mexican California. Gantt appears to have played no part in the events of the Mexican-American War in 1846 due to serious health issues. By 1847 his health had improved sufficiently that he was able to remove himself to the Napa Valley where he formed a partnership for the construction of a sawmill. Gantt may have tried his hand at gold panning at Biddle’s Bar in late 1848 or earliest 1849, but apparently health issues forced him to give it up and return to the Napa Valley. John Gantt died on February 14, 1849 at the ranch of George Yount, another former mountain man. Gantt was laid to rest in the Yountsville cemetary.
For more information about John Gantt see also:
Leonard, Zenas. Narrative of the Adventures of Zenas Leonard: Written by Himself. An electronic version of this document is available on the web site of the American Mountain Man.
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West, Volume IV; edited by LeRoy R Hafen, published by The Arthur H Clark Company, Glendale, California, 1966. This includes a chapter for John Gantt. This is the principle source for this article.
Lavender, David. Bent's Fort. Copyrighted 1954. Published by the University of Nebraska Press.
Janet Lecompte, Gantt’s Fort and Bent’s Picket Post in The Colorado Magazine (Spring 1964) XLI, pp. 113-4.