From Mount Ararat to the James River: How "Martin the Armenian" Found His Way to Jamestown

Updated on February 15, 2020
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JOHN C. GREGORY is an independent copy writer, novelist and agricultural journalist. Learning from the land and from history is his mission.

Armenian merchant circa 1620
Armenian merchant circa 1620

Before Cher found Sonny or Ara Parseghian called his first play in South Bend; before Kevork Hovnanian built his first townhouse or Andre Agassi picked up a racket; before Jack Kevorkian contemplated his first mercy killing or the Kardashians shared their family dramas; and even before countless waves of survivors fled to American shores to escape Ottoman massacres, there was Martin the Armenian. Believed to be the first Armenian in the new world, Martin was a moderately successful business man whose sole claim to fame is, well, being the first Armenian in the new world. How did such an exotic specimen arrive in Virginia in 1619? Did he leave any legacy to speak of?

Where Did Martin Come From?

Armenians are a nation best known for accomplishments among its Diaspora as opposed to within its ever-changing political boundaries. Under the heel of one oppressive regime after another, this relatively small ethnic group has endured and maintained its distinct identity. The Parthians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines and Arabs – among others – each contended for the Armenian ancestral homeland in the first centuries BCE with relative degrees of success. Sitting in the south Caucasus region of Eurasia, this ancient kingdom was at the nexus of conflict between east and west. Despite their diminishing territory and shifting borders, however, Armenians maintained their nationhood even when their state teetered over the political abyss. Two things account for this cohesion.

First, Armenia was the first nation-state to adopt Christianity. Although several early preachers of the Christian Gospel met their doom in Armenia – including Bartholomew, one of the original apostles of record – this land was fertile ground for the young religion. From the time St. Gregory the Illuminator (think of a swarthy St. Patrick) converted King Tiridates at the dawn of the fourth century, Armenians have staunchly identified with Christianity, even as Islam took hold in their part of the world[1]. The other factor in Armenian unity was the fifth century development of a distinct alphabet, a feat completed to bring Christian liturgies into the Armenian vernacular. Wherever displaced Armenians found themselves, they clung to these two pillars.

These elements, more than any other, allowed Armenians to spread far and wide without losing their culture or historical memory. In so doing, they became indispensible cogs in the machinery of international trade. Attracted to cities where commerce was thriving, the merchant Diaspora merged their cultural stability with ease of movement, gaining footholds in profitable trade routes. Their economic value grew such that host governments accorded the Armenians many advantageous privileges. Among the most lucrative European-Oriental commercial networks was that based in New Julfa, Persia, even today a city with a large Armenian population in Iran.[2] They became important intermediaries who moved raw silk between Persia and what was then known as the Levant, i.e. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon etc.

Although Armenian merchants did forge some understandings with the British East India Company by the 16th century, their relationship with England was more competitive than collegial, at least until the late 17th century. Martin the Armenian’s 1619 arrival in Virginia was undoubtedly aboard a British vessel but it is difficult to believe he was living in England for any significant amount of time. More probable was that he found his way to Holland given the strong Dutch-Armenian commercial rapport that had drawn Armenians to Amsterdam since the mid-1500s. According to Vahan Kurkjian’s A History of Armenia, archived official correspondence with the Dutch government reflects the Persian dialect of the Armenian language, suggesting that New Julfa Armenians were establishing a presence in the Netherlands.[3]

If Martin was in fact residing in Amsterdam, what chain of events led him to American shores? Hayk Demoyan, author of Armenian Legacy in America: A 400-Year Heritage, asserts that Martin arrived in 1619 as a servant to the new Colonial governor, Sir George Yeardley. A military man, Yeardley had served in Virginia previously (1610-1616) on exploratory missions and in battles with the natives led by their king, Powhatan. Yeardley was also deputy governor before returning to England. Yet prior to those experiences, he fought the Spaniards in the Netherlands. It is impossible to know whether he came into contact with Martin – or perhaps some associates – during that time but Holland is a sensible connection given the presence of both Armenian habitations and British soldiers.

Another patron associated with Martin was Captain Samuel Argall. Professor Karen Ordahl Kupperman of New York University unearthed documents that reference Martin as a Persian and describe him as “wholly dependent on Argall…”[4] Argall is best known for kidnapping Pocahontas for use as a negotiating chit with Powhatan. Like Yeardley, he had several years of Virginia service to his credit (or shame, depending on the source). The fact that Martin was mistaken for Persian could be due to a facility with that language, giving credence to possible roots in New Julfa. Since, however, Argall did not visit Holland until after 1619, Yeardley remains the more feasible link between Martin and the New World.

Once settled, Martin released his inner entrepreneur, introducing silk worm culture and production to those early Virginians. More lucrative still was the tobacco trade, especially since the Virginia Company of London – the principal investor in the colony – gave his business favorable customs treatment despite being a “Stranger.” In fact, the company appreciated him so much that it invited him back to England to sit on its governing council. When the Virginia Company dissolved in 1624, so did any trace of Martin, the Armenian.[5]

Did Martin Leave a Legacy?

Knowing so little about this “Stranger” among Englishmen, we might wonder why Martin matters at all? Perhaps for the same reason Neil Armstrong matters: he was the first. Then came another. In 1653, “George the Armenian” was actually paid by the Virginia House of Burgesses to reside in the colony and produce silk. For his troubles he was awarded 4,000 pounds of tobacco – as with Martin, a valuable commercial crop.[6] Later, Armenian cartographers made maps of the eastern seaboard of North America. Slowly, an awareness of the New World was growing among Armenians, sometimes by accident.

Closing in on the dawn of the 19th century, a New Julfa Armenian named Yohan Algha Babigian took to the sea aboard a Dutch vessel bound for the European continent. Encountering hazardous weather, the crew was soon blown off course and unable to right itself. Babigian volunteered to pilot the ship which, after a seeming eternity, arrived safely…in the U.S. As serendipity would have it, Babigian loved his unintended destination and – to honor fellow imprecise navigator, Christopher Columbus – translated a volume of American history into Armenian.[7]

In 1773, an Armenian expatriate living in India worked feverishly on a proposed constitution for an independent Armenian nation-state. Shahamir Shahamiryan was a political philosopher and activist who, in promoting his ideas, referenced the leadership character of George Washington.[8] Whether this story is apocryphal is up for debate. Washington was two years shy of his command of the Continental Army after all. Yet he knew about the liberty movement on the North American continent. Armenians were a small and vulnerable people who had a strong taste for freedom.

And Martin led the way.


[1] Dickran H. Boyajian, Armenia: The Case for a Forgotten Genocide (Westwood, NJ: Educational Book Crafters, 1972), 63.

[2] Tamara Ganjalyan, “Armenian Trade Networks,” European History Online (EGO), http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/european-networks/economic-networks/tamara-ganjalyan-armenian-trade-networks, accessed January 27, 2020.

[3] Vahan M. Kurkjian, A History of Armenia (New York: Armenian General Benevolent Union of America, 1958), 471-472.

[4] Karen Ordahl Kupperman, The Jamestown Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 266.

[5] Hayk Demoyan, Armenian Legacy in America: A 400-Year Heritage (Yerevan: Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, 2018), 13.

[6] Demoyan, 14.

[7] Demoyan, 16.

[8] Demoyan, 21.

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