by Rod D. Martin
March 15, 2014
General Joseph Martin (September 18, 1740 – December 18, 1808), Rod D. Martin‘s fifth great grandfather, was an American Founding Father, explorer, diplomat, military leader and statesman at the end of the Colonial period and during and after the American Revolution. With colleague Daniel Boone, Martin opened the West to settlement. Later, his courage and diplomacy made possible America’s victories at Kings Mountain, Cowpens and Yorktown, so much so that President Theodore Roosevelt once said that “If not for Joseph Martin, we may have lost the Revolution.” And his statesmanship helped North Carolina ratify the U.S. Constitution, bringing that hold-out state into the union.
Martin’s heritage suggested potential greatness. On his mother’s side he was a direct descendant of Colonel John Page, one of the founders of the College of William and Mary, and Captain Thomas Graves, an original “Adventurer” (investor) in the Virginia Company who put his money where his mouth was by leaving England and settling at Jamestown in 1608. Later, Graves was a founding member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first elected parliament in the entire New World. Martin’s paternal grandfather, William Martin, became Lord Mayor of Bristol – the British Empire’s second greatest port city in that day – and owned factories, a shipyard, and a shipping company of global reach. He disinherited Martin’s father for the dire sin of marrying a colonist.
Martin’s father, Joseph Sr., recovered nicely, helping settle Albemarle County (the area around Charlottesville and the future home of the University of Virginia) as one of its original patentees. He established a large plantation there, presiding over it as the “perfect Englishman” he was: in his grandson’s words, “in him was depicted…the most complete form of the aristocracy of the British government.” He raised his children alongside famed explorer and entrepreneur Dr. Thomas Walker, Peter Jefferson and his son Thomas (just three years younger than Joseph Jr.), and the Lewis and Clark clans.
Longing for the next frontier, beyond the one his father had pioneered, Joseph Jr. was not satisfied with the life of a gentry planter. At 16 he abandoned an apprenticeship to join the army at Fort Pitt, from where he served alongside lifelong friend Thomas Sumter in the French and Indian War. More than six feet tall and dressed in buckskin, the brawny young trapper, fur trader and Indian fighter was soon engaged by his father’s old friend Dr. Walker, who was in urgent need of a seasoned explorer.
A generation earlier, “Ole Doc Walker” had founded the Loyal Land Company (along with Peter Jefferson, Joshua Fry and John Lewis) not long before the War, and had explored in Kentucky more than 19 years before Daniel Boone set foot there. The Virginia Council had granted the Company 800,000 acres in western Virginia and what would become southeastern Kentucky, which Walker and his friends were expected to explore, survey and turn into the first English colony beyond the Appalachians. But the War had intervened, and in the interim, Walker had lost a decade, gained some children, and, upon his partner’s death, become legal guardian of the young Thomas Jefferson.
He needed help. The young Joseph Martin did not disappoint.
While the Thirteen Colonies still consisted of just three million souls huddled along the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian foothills were still the frontier, Martin and Walker entered Kentucky to make peace with the Cherokee, after which they explored the Cumberland Gap region and named it. Later, in 1769, Walker sent two parties to further survey the area and establish an outpost, one headed by Martin and the other by the still-unknown Daniel Boone, Martin’s fellow veteran and longhunter; Boone arrived at what would soon be named Martin’s Creek to discovery his younger, rowdier friend had beaten him not only to the goal but to the 21,000 acre land grant Walker had offered to the winner.
Martin spent most of his time there or further west for the next two decades, but he also established his Belle Monte plantation in Henry County, Virginia, near the estate of his close friend Patrick Henry and the city which would later be named Martinsville. He represented the area in the Virginia legislature for years during and after the Revolution, and in 1777 then-Governor Henry named him Agent and Superintendent for Indian Affairs, a post he would hold until 1789, along with similar appointments from North Carolina and Georgia, making him the young nation’s de facto Secretary of State for all of the Indian nations south of the Ohio River.
In an age when every tribe was an army, and all of them were allied with hostile foreign powers (primarily the British), this was a position of significantly more importance than it might seem today. The new states were sparsely populated and largely defended by militia: if the British could keep the Indians attacking from the west, the Continental Army would have no hope of victory and the young nation would prove indefensible.
Martin’s diplomacy, in combination with occasional warfare, kept this threat at bay for most of the War for Independence, so much so that the British put a price on his head. But his masterpiece came late in the Revolution. As the British launched their southern campaign and began rolling up the colonists and their defenses, Martin convinced the tribes to declare themselves neutral, suddenly eliminating the need to defend the frontier. Immediately the Southern colonists were able to abandon their frontier defenses and concentrate their troops; indeed, even settlers from west of the Appalachians – “the Overmountain Men” – were able to cross into the Carolinas and join the fight. The result: the pivotal American victories at Kings Mountain and at Cowpens, which themselves led to Cornwallis’ entrapment and surrender to Washington at Yorktown.
In later years, Martin played a key role in North Carolina’s ratification of the U.S. Constitution and its proposal of what became the Bill of Rights. He was one of the primary supporters of Madison’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, and served on the Virginia commission tasked with addressing the Alien and Sedition Acts. He served in the legislatures of three states – Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia – and was commissioned a General by two of those. Of his Indian service, Roosevelt called Martin “a firm friend of the red race, [who] had earnestly striven to secure justice for them.” And both his exploratory and diplomatic efforts did more than any other person’s to secure the settlement of the Trans-Appalachian West.