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John A. Martin, 1839-1889

Materials relating to John A. Martin

John Alexander Martin, the tenth governor of the state of Kansas, was born on March 10, 1839, to Jane and James Martin, a justice of the peace and postmaster, at Brownsville, Fayette County, Pennsylvania. There he received a common school and printing office education—the latter as an apprentice and finally local editor with the Brownsville Clipper. In 1857, at the age of eighteen, and after a short stint with the Commercial Journal of Pittsburgh, Martin left his family and his native Pennsylvania to join the struggle for a “Free Kansas.”

Choosing the river city of Atchison as his new home, Martin purchased the Squatter Sovereign purchased in February 1858. The former virulent newspaper voice of proslavery in the territory had come into free-state hands about a year earlier when it was purchased from Kelly and Stringfellow by Robert McBratney, Franklin G. Adams, Samuel C. Pomeroy, and Thaddeus Hyatt; after Pomeroy gained complete control he sold it to Oliver F. Short who sold it to Martin. With a touch of irony, and probably a sense of triumph since his Free State Party was now in the ascendancy, the young editor immediately renamed his weekly Freedom's Champion, soon changed to simply the Atchison Champion. (At the end of the Civil War, Martin established the Atchison Daily Champion, later the Champion and Press.)

Despite the demands of his publishing business, the twenty-year-old Martin, true to form for Kansas newspapermen of his generation, became actively involved in territorial and later state politics. (According to historian William E. Connelley, Martin was first nominated for a position in the territorial legislature in 1858 but “declined because he was not of legal age.”) Martin quickly established himself as a respected and successful editor, and he was among those who met in Osawatomie on May 18, 1859, to formally organize the Kansas Republican Party, even though he had not yet reached voting age. During the month of July, Martin served as secretary of the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention, which was dominated by the political party that he had just helped to create. At Wyandotte, Martin recorded the daily activities of the delegates who, he later wrote, “set about their task with industry, intelligence and prudence.” Martin worked hard for the document’s ratification, which came October 4, 1859; this, of course, was the constitution under which Kansas was admitted to the Union on January 29, 1861.

Martin, who served as a member of the first state senate, left the legislature after its initial 1861 session (March 26-June 4) to help recruit a volunteer regiment, and on October 27, 1861, officially mustered in as lieutenant colonel of the Eighth Regiment Kansas Volunteer Infantry. In just over three months, February 8, 1862, Lieut. Colonel Martin assumed command of the Eighth Kansas upon the departure of Colonel Henry W. Wessells (a veteran of the Sixth U.S. Infantry, Wessells was ordered to Washington to take a regular army command). Thus, Martin was commanding an entire regiment--over eight hundred men--of Kansas Volunteers a month before his twenty-third birthday and within the year (November 1, 1862) was promoted to full colonel. He served honorably in that capacity until he resigned his commission on November 17, 1864, at Pulaski, Tennessee. Breveted a brigadier general in recognition of his "gallant and meritorious service," Martin was subsequently honored by his fellow Kansas veterans when he was chosen as the state's first department commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1866.

Upon leaving the military service, Martin returned to his Atchison newspaper, local and state politics, and the more mundane aspects of life in Kansas. On June 1, 1871, he married Ida Challis, also of Atchison, with whom he eventually had seven children. Martin was one of the incorporators of the Kansas Magazine and, with several other Kansas editors, founded the Kansas State Historical Society in 1875; he was elected the third president of the KSHS in 1878. After one unsuccessful bid for governor in 1878, Martin capture the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1884 and sailed to a general election victory, defeating incumbent Democrat governor, George W. Glick, 146,777 to 108,284. Martin served the state as governor for two full terms (January 12, 1885, to January 14, 1889) but died at Atchison within a year of leaving that high office.

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Caldwell, Martha B., ed. “Some Notes on the Eighth Kansas Infantry and the Battle of Chickamauga; Letters of Col. John A. Martin.” Kansas Historical Quarterly 13 (May 1944): 139.

Socolofsky, Homer E. Kansas Governors. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Wilson, Hill P., compiler. Eminent Men of Kansas. Topeka, Kans.: The Hall Lithographing Co., 1901.

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