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Born in Rożyszki (modern Rozsishky) near Uman' in Bracław Voivodship, Gonta served as a sotnik (captain) of Cossack household militia of Franciszek Salezy Potocki, the Voivode of Kiev and commanded a small garrison of Uman since 1757. During the Koliivshchyna he was ordered to fight the approaching haidamaka forces of Maksym Zalizniak. Instead, he and his militia joined the rebels, and the joint forces captured and ravaged the town of Uman on June 21, 1768. In what became known as the Massacre of Uman, thousands of local Polish szlachta, Jews and Uniates were slaughtered. After that, Gonta was proclaimed colonel and commanded the garrison of Uman.
Fearing that the rebellion would spread into her domain, Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, dispatched a regiment of Don Cossacks to help Poland suppress the rebellion. The commander of the Russian unit, a certain Guriev, made the Cossacks believe he was siding with them and managed to capture approximately 900 of them without a single shot. After that, Ivan Gonta was handed over to the Poles and was tried for high treason. Sentenced to death by grand Crown Hetman Jan Klemens Branicki, he was then executed in the village of Serby (modern Gontivka) in the Podolian Voivodship. As an added measure, his body was partitioned and nailed to gallows in 14 towns of Podolia.
Although largely non-notable during his life, after his death he became a hero of countless folk songs and legends that portrayed him as a hero and a martyr. He was immortalized in Taras Shevchenko's controversial epic poem Haidamaky.