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John Alexander Martin

John Alexander MartinState Senator, governor. Republican. Born: March 10, 1839, Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Died: October 2, 1889. Served as 10th governor of Kansas: January 12, 1885, to January 14, 1889.

Martin was originally from Pennsylvania where he learned to be a printer.  He came to Kansas in 1857 and bought a newspaper that he renamed as Freedom's Champion.  He was a free state activist and helped to organize the Kansas Republican Party.  He was active in the formation of Kansas government.  Martin was chosen as secretary to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention at the age of 21.  He was elected to the state senate in 1861.

Martin served in the Civil War, including with General Sherman's army in the crucial 1864 campaign.  He was released from service as a general.

Martin continued his involvement in politics and journalism back in Kansas.  He served as president of the Kansas Historical Society in 1878. He was elected governor in 1884 and reelected in 1886.

John Alexander Martin was born July 10, 1839 at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, to James and James Montgomery Crawford Martin. The family operated a boardinghouse and his father was justice of the peace and postmaster. He had two sisters and two brothers. He was educated in Pennsylvania common schools and entered the printer’s trade at 15. In 1857, at the age of 19, he moved to Kansas Territory and settled in Atchison.

In 1858, drawing on his printer and entrepreneurial skills, he bought the Squatter Sovereign, a proslavery newspaper and changed its name to the Freedom’s Champion in support of abolition. He later changed its name again to the Daily Champion. The publication of this paper was a lifetime hobby for Martin, and it was the perfect medium to publish his political agenda and personal philosophy on how the affairs of state should be executed.

Martin’s political life largely revolved around Kansas’ affairs and his newspaper. Eager to be involved in local politics, he served as the mayor of Atchison in 1865, and again from 1878 to 1880. He chaired the Atchison County Republican Central Committee from 1859 to 1884. He regularly attended Republican National Conventions throughout the 1860s and 1870s.

In October 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, he was mustered into the Union Army and commissioned a lieutenant colonel in the Eighth Kansas Infantry. He achieved the rank of colonel (brevet brigadier general) before he was mustered out of service in October 1864. In 1862 he was appointed provost marshal of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and held that position until his regiment was ordered to Corinth, Mississippi, where the Eighth Kansas became part of General William “Bull” Nelson’s army; that unit remained in the Army of the Cumberland until the end of the war. In November 1863 Colonel Martin was present at the siege of Chattanooga and was involved in the storming of Missionary Ridge. In 1864 he marched with General William T. Sherman’s Army to Atlanta, and after the fall of Atlanta, Colonel Martin’s regiment joined in the pursuit of the fleeing Confederate General John Hood who headed northward into the backwoods of Tennessee. It was at this time and place where Colonel Martin was cited and decorated for “gallant and meritorious service.”

After the war Martin was appointed commander-in-chief of the Kansas state encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. He married Ida Challis on June 1, 1871; they had eight children; one died in infancy. He was a founder and president of the Kansas State Historical Society and founder of the Kansas Magazine. Martin was also a Kansas representative on the U. S. Centennial Commission. He was always sympathetic to the well being of the war veteran. The psychological and physical rehabilitation of soldiers from the Union Army, and their families, became his perpetual top priority.

Martin was recognized by many as an intellectual shinning star, and his political ambitions began at an early age when he narrowly missed the Republican nomination for governor in 1878. However, in 1884, the convention rules for age restriction were suspended and Martin was nominated by acclamation. He won the fall election beating the incumbent governor, George Washington Glick. In 1887 he was renominated for a second term by a large margin, and he beat the Democratic candidate, Thomas Moonlight.

Governor Martin was fortunate to have acquired upon his inauguration in 1885 a state of affairs that was persistent in prosperous economic growth, and city and town expansion. But all that boom and extravagance changed in his last year of office when conditions gave way to severe drought and an economic recession. That forced his decision not to run for a third term, as public confidence in his leadership ability waned. However, the state board of health, a special needs school, and a soldiers’ orphan home were all departments born of the Martin administration; and during his tenure women won the right to vote in local and city elections. The state militia became the Kansas National Guard, and a bureau of labor and industrial statistics was also created under his watch.

On the political front, a state of turmoil engulfed Kansas during the Martin administration when real estate speculation ran wild, ugly community rivalries arose over securing county seats (these became known as the county seat wars), and these offensive episodes often became so violent that the governor had to send in troops to restore order.

Martin’s exact position on prohibition was somewhat unclear because of his persistent waffling on the issue. Unlike John St. John, who sternly believed in temperance and adopted the prohibition measure through legislative action, and George Glick, who thought the prohibition order wasn’t at all effective and too extreme, Martin swayed back and forth on the issue. In his years prior to the governorship he championed opposition to prohibition and wrote several editorials on the issue in his Atchison Champion newspaper. In 1884 Martin had one goal in mind, and that was to become governor of the state of Kansas. Public opinion supported a constitutional amendment banning the consumption and sale of intoxicating liquors. In September 1884, just as the meeting of the nominating convention came to a close, Martin fully endorsed the prohibition law. Many political factions in favor of prohibition, however, saw this act as a mere political maneuver to secure his election and rendered Martin’s decision insincere. To complicate matters, many of its members threatened to join the Prohibition Party if he was nominated by the Republicans. In the end, Martin was nominated and his support for the prohibition movement only strengthened. In 1886 Martin played a key role in the negotiations for a settlement in the Missouri Pacific Railway strike of that year. His experience as a journalist and public administrator helped provide him with a wide-angle view of the political culture that led to decisions in his administration.

Martin became increasingly frustrated with the rapid downturn of the state of economic affairs, particularly in the real estate market, in his last year of office when it had appeared so promising just a few years prior. He tried to reverse the trend but all to no avail. Martin did not wish to seek a third term but only to return to the tranquility of his beloved newspaper; he died less than a year after leaving office. Martin passed away at the age of 50 on October 2, 1889, of pleura-pneumonia at his home in Atchison. So popular was he that more than 5,--- people attended his funeral. He is buried at Mount Vernon Cemetery in Atchison.


Entry: Martin, John Alexander

Author: G. Joseph Pierron

Author information: Judge Pierron serves on the Kansas Court of Appeals and has an interest in Kansas history.

Date Created: March 2012

Date Modified: February 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.