Joseph Martin versus John Sevier

   As I began compiling research notes for my book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, I came to know some colorful characters who interacted with Sevier as he established his reputation as a leader among the nation's earliest pioneers. One character that captured my attention during this period of writing and research was Joseph Martin.

   As a longrifleman, frontiersman, soldier, Indian agent, and legislator, Joseph Martin occupied an important role in the settlement of the Trans-Appalachian West. He established the only station between the start of the Wilderness Road in Virginia and Crab Orchard on the edge of the Kentucky settlement and defended the station from attacks by the Cherokees, allowing settlers safe passage through the Cumberland Gap. In 1777, Virginia Governor Patrick Henry appointed Martin as an agent and superintendent of Cherokee Indian affairs. In this role, he took up residence with the native population and negotiated periods of peace between advancing settlers and the established Cherokee Nation. In 1780, Martin famously kept the Cherokees at peace as John Sevier and his Overmountain Men assembled a frontier army to defeat British Major Patrick Ferguson's Torries at the Battle of King's Mountain.

Portrait of General Joseph Martin (1740–1808)
of the Continental Army.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
   From childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, Martin charted an unconventional path through the wilderness. Born of an affluent family near Charlottesville, Virginia in 1740, as a young boy, Martin set out on his own. Martin and his childhood friend Thomas Sumter, ran away from home seeking a life of adventure. As a young man, he developed natural instincts as a pioneer and explorer, spending six to eight months out of the year on the extreme frontier hunting and trading for peltry among the Indians. Although he commanded a company against the Cherokees in several engagements, he remained among the tribes once peace had been settled. He even married the niece of Nancy Ward, the "Beloved Woman of the Cherokees" and a respected negotiator in her own right.

   Although Martin served in his role as peacemaker with honor and distinction, a few nineteenth century chroniclers of early American history questioned Martin's loyalties. Through their writings they revealed a suspicion felt by some of John Sevier's loyal followers toward General Joseph Martin.

   One particular episode documented by these early historians bears witness to this mistrust, as Sevier rallied his fellow citizens in 1784 to establish an independent State of Franklin. Martin's loyalties were devoted to the parent state of North Carolina, and his election as brigadier-general of the militia of Washington District placed him into direct conflict with Franklin's elected leader. Over the course of four years, Franklin remained bitterly divided and governed in chaos by dueling authorities. By July of 1788, North Carolina Governor Samuel Johnston ordered Martin to arrest Sevier for treason and encroachment on Indian lands, which further inflamed Sevier's loyal followers.

   The late-nineteenth century North Carolina historian Stephen Beauregard Weeks recorded an incident that took place during this period of unrest. Weeks described a scene that rightfully belongs in a movie script. According to the respected scholar, Sevier's followers attempted to assassinate Martin in a preemptive strike against the frontier diplomat. In his biographical essay, "General Joseph Martin and the War of the Revolution in the West," Weeks wrote:

   "The efforts of Martin to protect the rights of the Indians brought down the wrath of the Sevier party upon him, and in this generation that of Sevier’s worshipers. These men, short-sighted and incapable of seeing the question in its broader relations, said that Martin was a friend to the Indians and therefore no better than they. So a party of some fifty men gathered and traveled some 30 miles with the intention of killing him. When they reached the Holston they halted and sent eight or ten forward to reconnoiter. Col. Martin had in the meantime learned their purpose. He went out to meet them heavily armed, demanded their business, and said he would shoot down the first man who moved his gun. They protested that they had no hostile intentions. He finally invited them into the house; they went in and drank, sent for their comrades who had been left behind, and the whole affair, owing to his courage and presence of mind, ended in a frolic instead of a tragedy."

   "I have no idea that Sevier was in any way responsible for this attempt, but Martin’s firmness in the matter of Franklin, plus the fact that they represented opposite sides on the question of Indian encroachments, widened the breach that had already begun between these two patriots and which seems to have continued through the remainder of their career. This hostility was not peculiar to Martin and Sevier by any means. All of these leaders, as Roosevelt points out, show more or less of the same spirit, and it was a natural one. There seems to have been no hard feeling on Martin’s part. He writes Sevier in October, 1788, and says: ‘Our Interest are or ought to be so jointly Concerned that the strictest friendship Should Subsist, which is my Earnest Desire.’ But this was not the case and the charges of conspiracy which Sevier propagated kept them apart."

Memorial to General Joseph Martin
and settlers at Martin's Station, Virginia.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
    Weeks' anecdote revealed one of the most bitter rivalries that existed on America's first frontier. While Martin respected Sevier and sought his friendship, even against ten-to-one odds, he held no fear of "Nolichucky Jack" or his followers.

   Joseph Martin died in 1808 in relative obscurity. Despite his reputation as a diplomat and keen negotiator, coupled with his honorable service as a soldier and legislator, posterity neglected to preserve the memory of Martin's accomplishments. Martin's close ties with the Cherokees led many of his compatriots to mistrust him, and over time, Sevier's legend overshadowed Martin in the annals of history.

   Long after his death, the nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper attempted to resurrect Martin's reputation by establishing a friendship and correspondence with Martin's son, William, a pioneer in his own right. Draper's exchange of letters with Colonel William Martin documented both Joseph Martin's own life and the congenial bond formed between the son of this early frontiersman and the eager young historian.

   Draper, a prolific collector of manuscripts and gifted interviewer, never published his planned series of biographies of the border heroes he idolized, and thus Joseph Martin eluded public memory. His legacy remained buried within the pages of history as merely a footnote to the larger narrative devoted to the celebrated and revered John Sevier and his fellow Overmountain Men.


  • Stephen Beauregard Weeks. "General Joseph Martin and the War of the Revolution in the West." American Historical Association. Annual Report for the year 1893. Washington, 1894.
  • "Joseph Martin" in Biographical History of North Carolina From Colonial Times to the Present, Volume II, pp. 240-249. 
  • William Allen Pusey. "The Location of Martin's Station, Virginia." Mississippi Valley Historical Review. Vol. 15, No. 3, Dec., 1928.
  • Josephine L. Harper. Guide to the Draper Manuscripts. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1983, pp. 215-216. 


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.