General Joseph Martin Chapter

Cumberland Gap, TN

   Biography of Joseph Martin


Forgotten Pioneer – Peacemaker – Unsung Hero – General Joseph Martin

Speech by Compatriot Robert L. Hughes




Joseph Martin first came here to the Powell Valley in 1769.  Thomas Walker had been by most accounts the first white explorer to find the Gap in 1750.

Daniel Boone left home in VA, May 1, 1769 to come into this area for hunting and trapping.  It was here, 100 miles from the last civilization that Boone ran upon Joseph Martin and a group busy erecting a fort, clearing land, and planting corn.  This Martin’s first venture soon ended as the Cherokees were able to run him out.

In Oct. 1775 Martin again returned here to attempt to build Martin’s Station and secure the Gap.  But, about June 1776 they again had to evacuate because of the Cherokee uprisings.  Martin spent the early years of the Revolutionary War in and out of the area confronting the Cherokees.

In was in 1777 when Joseph Martin was appointed Indian Agent for the Cherokee nation by Governor Patrick Henry.  It was at this time that Martin began a life-long relationship with the Cherokees.

It was after the Revolutionary War in 1783 that Martin again returned and built the new Martin’s Station further down the valley and about eighteen miles from the Gap, near the present town of Rose Hill.  Following the war, traffic through the Gap was increasing and protection was needed to secure the Gap for such.

As I said, Joseph Martin first came here in 1769 and until his death in 1808, Martin was a dominate figure in the history of the VA, NC, and TN areas.  It is his life and contributions that we are here today to honor.  We the Martins feel that no other person played a more prominent role in the history of this area than General Joseph Martin.  Please allow me to elaborate just a little on his life.

Unlike Boone, Sevier, Shelby, and John Campbell, Martin had no contemporary biographer.  His career is written in scattered records, but perhaps Dr. Lyman C. Draper in his collection does help considerably and later the Filson Report.

Joseph Martin was not always the most popular person in his time frame.  Twice an organized effort was made to murder him, once by the Indians encouraged by the British and another by hostile whites.  By some accounts, Martin is said to have had five wives – two white and three Indian wives.  We do know for sure he was married to Betsy Ward, Princess of the Cherokee Nation.  Martin was married to Betsy at the same time he was to Sarah Lucas, with both knowing of the other.  It is his marriage to the two Emory sisters that family and historians debate.  After the death of Sarah and when Betsy went to South Carolina to live and take care of her aging mother, Nancy Ward, that he married Susannah Graves in 1784 and had most of his children.

Many historians as well as myself, give Joseph Martin credit for keeping the Cherokees at bay during the Southern Invasion by the British during the Revolutionary War.  The British has hoped to enlist the Tories and the Cherokees against the Patriots.  Due to Martin’s influence through the Ward family, he was able to move about the Cherokee camps, and we feel he was able to at the very least, keep the Cherokees in check and at bay.  If they had been involved with the British or even causing major problems on the western frontier where he didn’t have the resources to handle that and fight the British at the same time, the results at Kings Mountain and Cowpens, which turned the tide of the Revolutionary War, very well may have been different.  It was quoted by one historian that since the Battle of Kings Mountain marked the turning point of the tide of the Revolutionary War, it hinged on the Agent, Martin.  

Public Service

Joseph Martin served in the North Carolina Assembly 1784-1787.  He served on the Hillsboro Convention in 1788 from Sullivan County, North Carolina, and later Tennessee, where the Federal Constitution was discussed.  He served at the Fayetteville Convention when North Carolina adopted the Constitution in 1789.  He was elected to the Virginia Legislature for nine years 1771-1799 and was James Madison’s right arm in the Virginia Resolutions (Henry County) 1798-1799.  On December 15, 1787, Governor Caswell appointed Joseph Brigadier General of Militia North Carolina western district, which made him head of military organization in what would become Tennessee.  During all this time while on military duty in Georgia, he was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1783.  Thus, he served in the Legislatures of North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia.

Martin originally was part of the Watauga Association that was trying to form the State of Franklin, but seeing its doom and that it might hurt his position as Indian Agent, pulled away thus causing some hard feelings from John Sevier and his supporters.  As I said, he was not always popular, but the man had no fear and always did what he thought was in the best interest of his country.  As this venture turned out, he was once right again.

Martin and John Donelson representing Virginia formalized the treaty with the Chicasaws in November 1783, whereas the land between the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers as the new boundary line of the territory south of the Ohio.  He was one of Virginia representatives to settle the boundary between Virginia and Kentucky and in 1802 was same to settle the Virginia and Tennessee line.

In conclusion, Martin’s standing on the Southwestern border was indicated by the commanding position which he held there for over thirty years;  by the important responsibilities which he was continually called upon to assume;  by the confidence that was given by such men as Governor Patrick Henry, Governor Benjamin Harrison, Governors Henry Lee and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, Governors Richard Caswell and Alexander Martin of North Carolina;  by his association in responsibility with all the leaders of his time with such men as Richard Henderson, William Preston, John and Robert Sevier, John Donelson, Isaac and Evan Shelby, William Christian, Arthur Campbell, and William Campbell.  But, the greatest tribute to Martin is shown in the high esteem in which he was held throughout his long career by those justly skeptical and sorely tried critics, the Cherokee Indians.


Indian fighter, and Indian friend, warrior and peacemaker, border leader and Virginia planter, statesman and man of affairs, advocate and arbitrator, he was a remarkable and admirable combination.  Martin was the most important influence in maintaining peaceful relations with the Indians from the beginning to the completion of the early settlements of the Southwestern border.  From 1775 to 1790 he, of all men, held the Indians in restraint.  It is the greatest service that could be performed for the people of that territory, and gives him valid claim to be regarded as one of the most important, if not the most important, figure in its history.  General Martin certainly deserves this honor that we are giving him today.

May I close with a quote from Rufus Craig, entitled “Would They”.  If you could see your ancestors, all standing in a row – there might be some among them whom you wouldn’t care to know.  But – there’s another matter which requires a different view.  If you could see your ancestors, would they be proud of you?

General Joseph Martin if you are watching us today, we only hope that you are as proud of us as we are of you.

Thank God for General Martin.  God Bless America and thank you for being here with us for this very special occasion.


 Sources of Information and Acknowledgements:

1.     The Overmountain Men by Pat Alderman

2.     The Wilderness Road by Robert Kincaid

3.     Family History by Lucy Henderson Horton

4.     The Filson Club History Quarterly, General Joseph Martin of Virginia, An Unsung Hero of the Virginia Frontier, by Dr. William Allen Pusey



All Contents Copyright © 2004 – Robert L. Hughes & the General Joseph Martin Chapter TNSSAR – All Rights Reserved.   No part of this material may be reprinted or utilized in any without express written consent from the author, Robert L. Hughes or the General Joseph Martin Chapter TNSSAR.