General Joseph Martin Biography
By Jarred Marlowe
When one often thinks of key figures of the Revolutionary War time period, names like Washington, Lafayette, and Jefferson come to mind. While those men deserve the credit they receive, by no means are they the only ones who deserve credit. Today, we are here to recognize a man whose deeds are often overshadowed by his compatriots, but without him, the Revolutionary War would not have been won, according to President Theodore Roosevelt. General Joseph Martin had an extraordinary life spent as a diplomat, general, statesman, explorer, founding father of our great nation, and one of Henry County’s most influential residents.
Joseph Martin, Jr. was born in the year 1740 near Charlottesville in Albemarle County, Virginia. Martin was the third son Joseph Martin, Sr., a first-generation immigrant from England. Martin Sr. came from a wealthy family of merchants in Bristol, England, and was sent to Virginia to establish business connections in the colony. He was supposed to return to England, but instead, he met a lovely young lady, and we all know how that story goes. He became one of the first large landowners in Albemarle County and left a good piece of land to his son, Joseph Jr. when he passed in 1762.
Joseph Martin Jr. would not be content with life as a planter though, demonstrated by the fact that at the age of 16, he ran away from home and ended up at Fort Pitt (modern-day Pittsburgh, PA) where he enlisted to fight in the French & Indian War. Following a number of years in the army, Martin became skilled as a fur trapper and real estate surveyor, and speculator. As proof of his gifted abilities in surveying, Martin would receive 20,000 acres of land from Patrick Henry after winning a surveying contest. The land was situated around the Powell River, which flows from the western part of Virginia down to the eastern part of Tennessee. Martin and his brothers led an expedition to settle there in 1769, and their settlement, Martin’s Station, became a well-known stop for travelers heading west. Though this fort would have to be re-established several times due to repeated attacks from Native Americans, Martin had established himself as one of the most skilled frontiersmen in all of the colonies, earning the respect of fellow frontiersmen like Daniel Boone.
Using money he received as payment for leading expeditions throughout the frontiers of modern-day Kentucky and Tennessee, Martin bought a piece of land in Pittsylvania County that overlooked the Irvine River. If these names sound confusing, it’s because in 1777 the western part Pittsylvania County split off to form Patrick Henry County and the Irvine River has since been renamed the Smith River. Martin called his homeplace and the land around it “Scuffle Hill” because of claims he had to do much scuffling to get the money together to buy the land. Martin’s wife and family would live at Scuffle Hill overlooking the river while Martin’s life and expeditions often called him westward.
Martin’s military career also progressed after his days as a young man in the French & Indian War, though it often seemed to be intertwined with the Native Americans. Several years after the French & Indian War concluded, he was appointed to the role of captain in the Pittsylvania County militia by colonial governor Lord Dunmore. Martin and his men were to go fight in a series of skirmishes against Native Americans which later became known as Lord Dunmore’s War. It should be of no surprise that Martin’s command had him in charge of scouting and surveying for Dunmore’s forces. He would later be called on again in 1776 to come to the aid of Colonel John Donelson as he led a group to settle around the Holston River in present-day Tennessee. Donelson would later keep progressing westward and establish the city we now know as Nashville, Tennessee; a feat he could not have done without Joseph Martin.
As the fighting began to rage during the Revolutionary War, Martin convinced many Native American tribes in the Appalachian area to stay neutral. This prevented the Americans from worrying about attacks from the natives as the war progressed into the hills of North and South Carolina. Though the British army tried to win over the Native American tribes with gifts of weapons, horses, and money, Martin convinced many of the tribe leaders not to fight much to the chagrin of the British who were counting on them as allies. General Nathanael Greene even wrote to Martin on the eve of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in March 1781, praising him for his work with the tribes and encouraging him to stay the course as the war progressed. The American Revolution ended in October 1781 with the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown. However, as Martin had correctly predicted, the” second front” of the war, the Indians would not be pacified as long as their land rights were violated. Consequently, Martin remained in the West for almost another decade trying to resolve frontier problems.
Joseph Martin’s extensive dealing with Native American tribes in the Appalachian region made him a logical candidate to be named as “Agent and Supervisor for Indian Affairs for the State of Virginia”. He was first appointed to this role in 1777 by Virginia’s first governor, Patrick Henry. He would hold this position until the year 1789, during which he also became an agent in the same role for the state of North Carolina. During this time, he also took a Native American woman as a common-law wife, as was a tradition with anyone wanting to conduct business with Native American tribes. His common-law wife was named Betsy Ward and he had several children by her. He was removed from both positions due to his actions being viewed as “too lenient” towards the native population. Years later, Theodore Roosevelt would write of Martin: “He was a firm friend of the red race who earnestly strived to secure justice for them.”
As mentioned before, Joseph Martin was also a well-respected statesman, often being selected to serve in colonial or state governments in which he was leading expeditions or settlements. This is why he was elected to the governing bodies of the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. In 1787, the North Carolina General Assembly elected Martin to be brigadier general of the Washington District, which would later be absorbed into Tennessee in 1796. He later served about a decade in the Virginia General Assembly as a Henry County representative. Joseph Martin and his neighbor/friend John Redd were the two delegates elected to represent Henry County in the Alien & Sedition Acts debate. The two men sided with the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in arguing against the federal government’s invasive actions proposed in the acts. In 1793, he was made brigadier-general of the Virginia Militia, becoming the first person from the area to ever receive that high of a rank. This promotion was in response to the federal government trying to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.
Joseph Martin and his wife, Sarah Lucas Martin, lived at Scuffle Hill and raised seven children there. Sarah passed away in 1782, and shortly after she died in 1784, Martin was remarried to Susannah Graves, the sister of his neighbor Thomas Graves. There is a legend that says shortly after their wedding, Martin and his new brother-in-law would engage in a duel that ended with Martin punching Graves so hard, that those who were with Graves that day went “running for the hills.”
Martin and Susannah would go on to have 11 more children. The Virginia General Assembly passed an ordinance to rename the village of Henry County Courthouse to Martinsville in the year 1791. Scuffling Hill was sold in 1804, and Martin would move his family to the Leatherwood area to a plantation home called Belmont which was purchased from Benjamin Harrison, Virginia’s fifth governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Joseph Martin would spend his declining years at Belmont, eventually passing away in 1808 at the age of 68, having lived a life full of excitement and adventure and leaving a legacy that lasted several centuries later. He and members of his family are buried in the Martin family cemetery located on the Belmont property.