Royal Governor Josiah Martin (1737 – 1786)

Written By Jonathan Martin

The last British governor of North Carolina, Josiah Martin was born in April 1737 in Dublin, Ireland. Martin studied during his adolescent years throughout Ireland and England, and in 1752 he moved to the West Indies with a private tutor. Samuel Martin, a Parliamentarian and Josiah’s half-brother, influenced Lord Hillsborough to consider Josiah as a replacement for royal governor William Tryon in North Carolina.

After Governor Tryon relocated to New York, Josiah Martin assumed the position on August 12, 1771. According to historian William S. Powell, Governor Martin was honest, but he was also “stubborn, tactless, and intolerant” making him a difficult fit for an already tense situation in North Carolina (N.C. through Four Centuries, p. 167). The royal governor’s personality, the failures of the Regulation movement, and the poor colonial sentiment regarding British taxes led to immediate complications between the colonists and Governor Martin.

As colonists in Virginia created a democratic assembly in 1773, North Carolinian colonists learned from their northern neighbors and they also hoped to develop a self-governing system. Governor Martin, however, believed that the British Crown held the power to govern and tax the colonists. Despite the royal governor’s monarchical-style of government, North Carolina’s First Provincial Congress assembled in Wilmington on July 21, 1774, and North Carolina delegates attended the First Continental Congress in the fall of 1774.

Governor Martin, angered by North Carolina’s representation at the Continental Congress, called the colonial assembly to New Bern in April 1775. Speaker John Harvey, Samuel Johnston, and other members of the Second Provincial Congress clashed with Governor Martin in New Bern, and after the North Carolina assembly pledged their support to the Continental Congress, Martin ordered the cancelation of the Second Provincial Congress. In just a few short days the first battles of the American Revolution occurred at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.

Patriots in North Carolina became aware of the impending revolution in the spring of 1775, and the last royal governor understood that his time as governor was coming to a conclusion. Governor Martin and his family remained at the Tryon Palace in New Bern to avoid Patriot spite and heckling. However, as the situation grew alarming for the governor, he sent his family to New York.

Governor Martin soon followed his family, leaving Tryon Palace at night on May 31, 1775. With high hopes to regain the colony for the crown, Governor Martin moved to Fort Johnston on the Cape Fear River. Patriot forces soon discovered Martin’s location and planned an attack.  On July 18, 1775, Cornelius Harnett and John Ashe led several hundred militiamen to burn down Fort Johnston. To their dismay, Governor Martin escaped a few days earlier to the British man-of-war, Cruzier, on the Cape Fear.

Even so, Josiah Martin carried out the crown’s commands.  Martin devised a plan to retake the colony.  The crown approved it, so Martin ordered General Donald MacDonald and some 1,600 Loyalists to march toward Wilmington in February 1776. General MacDonald eventually encountered Colonel James Moore and his Patriot forces, and the colonists won what was later dubbed the Lexington and Concord of the South, or the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge.

Even though the colonists owned the early victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge, Josiah Martin continued to hold to the belief that North Carolina would eventually become a British colony. Later in the American Revolution, Martin joined Lord Cornwallis and his company in Charles Town in 1780. Martin continued contact with his Loyalist friends, and he believed this small group was enough to bring the colony back under crown rule.  Powell writes, “Supported by Martin’s exaggerated claims, he [Cornwallis] became overconfident” in his quest to retake the North Carolina colony (N.C. through Four Centuries, p. 167).

Martin continued with General Cornwallis in his journey into North Carolina in 1780 to 1781. An overzealous Martin continued to feed Cornwallis about the “loyalty” of the North Carolina. After Cornwallis’s arrival in Charlotte in September 1780, Josiah Martin proclaimed that the royal government had been reestablished. Yet, only a few days later, Cornwallis referred to Charlotte as the “Hornet’s Nest” of the Revolution. Martin was also present during Cornwallis’s defeat at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. The last royal governor of North Carolina refused to understand that his colony had started her journey to independence.

After the American Revolution, Martin moved back to his homeland of Ireland. On April 13, 1786, Martin passed away at his Irish home..