An Encounter with Martin the Armenian

I’ve always been fascinated by the accomplishments made by Armenians to world civilization. Obviously, the fact we were able to overcome a genocide was monumental. The fact we were able to establish a democratic state after 70 years of servitude by the USSR was another.

Let’s not omit the fact we were the first nation in history to accept Christianity as a state religion (301 A.D.). I look to the father of plastic surgery (Kazanjian) and the entrepreneur who saved the USS Constitution (Galician) from being scrapped as other reasons to celebrate.

But one that always stirs the pot is this. You may or may not know that the first naturalized citizen of what we today call America was an Armenian.

Capt. John Smith
Capt. John Smith

Look in the history books and you’ll come across the name of Martin the Armenian. Yes, the first recorded Armenian immigrant on American soil was a Virginian. He goes back to 1607 when he settled in Jamestown with Capt. John Smith.

Martin introduced the cultivation of “silkworm” into the New World. Virginia records show that he gave testimony in a trial in Jamestown in 1619 and also worked as a tobacconist.

I enjoy throwing out these historical nuggets whenever I’m invited to a speaking engagement, not necessarily among Armenian circles but more notably inside the American mainstream.

Outsiders are amazed by our unique history, beginning with the landing of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, giving some credence to Armenia as the birthplace of the human race. Don’t call it trivia unless you intend to minimize fact.

But Martin the Armenian four centuries ago? A listener not long ago questioned the veracity of that tidbit during a library presentation concerning my new book, Armenians of the Merrimack Valley. I don’t recall how we approached the subject, unless I went off on a tangent and started rambling, which is often the occasion.

“America wasn’t born at that time,” he reminded me.

“I realize that,” I answered back. “Territories had not been ratified into statehood back in the 1600’s. The land we know now as Virginia was still a state in waiting. The Puritans came here and many Armenians joined the movement with Capt. John Smith.”

I don’t know if my answer appeased the gentleman, but who was he to argue with history? A week later, I was at a Boston hospital undergoing some tests when a woman approached me for some blood work. She looked Armenian to me—and I to her.

Like when two Armenians meet in the most unsuspected places, they create a new Armenia, as Saroyan tells us.

She recognized the name after being a long-time subscriber to the Armenian press. Turns out, she had read many of my articles.

“What’s your name?” I inquired.

“You would never know I’m Armenian by my name. It’s a long story.”

“You can tell me all about it while you’re drawing my blood sample.”

“My name is Martin,” she interjected. “I’m Martin the Armenian.”

“You shortened your name from Martinian, then? I knew an Armenian like that. Had he dropped the ‘ian’ he would have been Martin Martin and that would have posed some question on the part of skeptics.”

Strange as it may seem, she knew nothing about Martin the Virginian but was surprised to hear this whole subject had been discussed only days before at the library. You will not believe how many Armenians never knew this about Martin.

I’ve only known one other Armenian named Martin. That would be Ken Martin, a very accomplished photographer in the Greater Boston community. We last worked together shooting the 100th anniversary of the genocide in Boston last April.

Martin the photographer has been on top of his game for decades. We exchanged pleasantries and agreed to share our photographs.

I know of many Armenians who share identical first and last names, except for the “ian.” A couple of close friends are Garabed Garabedian and Sarkis Sarkisian. My cousin was named Krikor Yedejanian. He Americanized it to Greg Janian.

What he didn’t realize was how commonplace that name became. People often confused him with the musician. They never did meet far as I know.

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Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
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19 Comments

  1. Dear Tom,
    I have been, and remain, a great admirer of your wonderful articles, and I join your family and friends in wishing you the best of health and continued success in your journalism! Thank you for sharing so much valuable and appreciated information with all of us.

    In 1605, when Shah Abbas the First invaded the area north of Tabriz, known as Julfa, he forcibly moved thousands of Armenians to the swamplands on the other side of the proposed site of his new capital, Isfahan. The Armenians named their dank settlement New Julfa. From New Julfa, scores of Armenians embarked to the east, settling across the Indian sub-continent, and teaming up with the English and the Dutch, established communities in the new colonies across Asia.

    One of the interesting traits of the Julfa Armenians is the absence of “-ian” appended to their surnames. The other interesting trait about the New Julfa colonists is how they anglicized their surnames, as early as the 17th century.

    The surname Martin (derived from the eastern Armenian Martiros, borrowed from the Greek “martyros” meaning “martyr”) is quite a prevalent name throughout the Armenian communities in India, Burma, Singapore, and Java. In addition to the extensive Martin family’s descendants, we find the surnames of Apcar, Edgar, Stephens, John, Isaac, Owen (anglicized from Ohan), Gregory, Jordan, Jacob, etc. These Armenian families could trace their lineage back to the 1605 invasion of “old” Julfa, and just last year, Basil Martin, the doyen of our Saint John the Baptist parish in Rangoon (now Yangon, Myanmar) entered into Eternal Rest, having guided that community for many decades.

    It is known that many of the merchant families which settled into the western port of Smyrna (later named Izmir) had family connections with the trading houses in New Julfa. Is it possible that Martin the Armenian may have originated in old Julfa, and instead of remaining in Persia, made his way to Smyrna where he joined the Levant Company (an English stock company which paralleled the better known East India Company), and eventually traveled from Smyrna to Amsterdam or London? The 17th century Armenian merchant community in Holland included many families with direct relations to New Julfa, so perhaps the Martins of North America and the Martins of India and Asia were all descended from a common ancestor, Martiros, in old Julfa.

    The oldest chapel which still functions in Agra, India (the location of the famous Taj Mahal) was built by an Armenian lady who had married into the Mughal family. She dedicated it to her father who had died in India in the 16th century. His name, anglicized, was spelled Martyrose, and to this day, the shrine is venerated as the Saint Martyrose Armenian chapel, though many also call is Saint Martin’s Chapel.

    It is also interesting that a famous saint in the Anglican/Episcopal Church is Henry Martyn. He was a linguist, and devoted his life to translating the English Book of Common Prayer into many of the languages in the English colonies. He is chiefly known for his time in Calcutta, preparing translations in Hindustani, Urdu, and Farsi. On his way back to England, he sadly passed away just outside the city of Tokat, in historic Armenia. He was buried by the Armenian clergy, and a tombstone was erected in his memory in our cathedral there, though it was destroyed in 1915.

    So, there are Martins and Martyns and Martiros’ found across four hundred years of Armenian settlements throughout India and Asia.

    Thank you for your wonderful article! Happy Easter to you and yours!

  2. Thanks for the mention Tom! Interestingly some of our family members say that Martin the Armenian was an inspiration for our name adoption being early immigrants also to Worcester, MA, from Kharpert in 1896! A step-great grandfather named Mardiros came into the family and The Martin name may have originated that way. Most importantly for my grandfather and his brother they were able to return to Ottoman territories with American passports and new names at a time prior to the 1908 constitution revolution when the Sultan was not allowing Armenians to leave! Their reason for returning was to find their finances and get them out of harms way since many family members had been killed!
    By the way was that my cousin Deb at the hospital in Boston? Best wishes for your good health always!

  3. Correction and addition! I meant to say fiances not finances! Our grandfather Harry’s fiance from Constantinople move with her family to Egypt and they were married in 1903,then settled in Worcester, and his brother HENRY Martin visited his fiance’s family in Constantinople(Istanbul) in 1906 and brought her to Worcester, MA, for their wedding!

  4. Tom: The story of Martin the Armenian was made part of a speech given by Sen. John O. Pastore of Rhode Island (formerly Governor Pastore) some years ago. He was senator during 1950-1976. In that speech, he provides the reasoning why Martin the Armenian is to be considered the first naturalized citizen of the US. It seems that he was involved in a court case and the court had difficulty determining Martin’s legal status since it was clear that he could not be properly considered a citizen of the colony of Virginia. In the end, the court took it upon itself to rule on Martin’s status with an official court ruling. This was the first case of this nature in the jurisprudence. Therefore Martin’s case was considered precedent setting in the history of naturalizations. This is the vague recollection I have. Obviously, more research is in the order. Garo

  5. Thank you all for your wonderful comments on Martin the Armenian. Sometimes the best read is about something that is controlled by fate. As people offer up their comments, it’s very true that we learn from one another and share thoughts that tend to inspire and educate us all. At a time when ethnic publications are tettering, we at the Armenian Weekly are buoyant by your constant support.

  6. My maternal DNA is an exact match with a lady in Virginia, USA who traces her ancestry to Nicholas Martiau, who was the maternal grandfather of Pres. George Washington. Nicholas Martiau is recorded to have come to Virginia in the 1620. Due to the style of handwriting, Nicholas’s signature can be read as “Martian”. The lady in Virginia is active in the relevant historical society, certain of her pedigree for the past 400 years. The primary link between my maternal ancestry and her would be through Nicholas’s maternal ancestry. Records indicate that “Martin The Armenian” had his brother(s) brought over to Jamestown between 1910-1922. Due to various related factors, it seems apparent that Martin and Nicholas shared a common Armenian maternal ancestor, with my maternal ancestry. Which by default, link’s George Washington’s maternal ancestry also. Happy to connect anyone who is interested in researching this further, to the heads of the related Historical Society in Virginia.

  7. Very interesting. I do take exception to this passage:

    “beginning with the landing of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, giving some credence to Armenia as the birthplace of the human race. Don’t call it trivia unless you intend to minimize fact.”

    Respectfully, Noah’s Ark is a fiction, and what is scientifically known about the development of homo sapiens in no way allows for the Ark myth.

  8. I couldn’t confirm the maternal grandpa of Washington I’m super excited to find out new facts. Thank you guys for the info it always brings tears to my eyes cause I’ve disconnected myself so much in my youth. We are from Tbilisi. Last name Nazarov it was sovietized from Nazarian. I also have Garibyants and Aivazyan in my family from my mom and dad. I’m sure there’s way more history and names to look up. We’re first gen in the US. moved here after the civil war in Georgia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

  9. I found the article fascinating. I had head the story of Martin the Armenian from my father. By the way, our last name is Vahan which was also my grandfather’s first name. He was from Kessab and went by Churgents (like Churukian) but changed his name to Vahan Churgents Vahan. He was a founder of the Mirror Spectator newspaper.

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