Royal Governor Josiah Martin (1737-1786)

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.

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.

Source:  An online Encyclopedia, North Carolina History Project. (accessed March 2, 2013).

By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project.  For the full text of the above biography, sources listed, related categories and related Encyclopedia Entries, click on the link to author Jonathan Martin.


In April of 1775, Cornelius Harnett was a member of the rebellious Second Provincial Congress that met in New Bern at the same time Governor Martin had called for a meeting of the North Carolina Assembly.  In the article, Provincial Congress/Second Provincial Congress (April 3-7, 1775),  Historian Connor described the two meetings this way:  “One set of men composed two assemblies, one legal, sitting by authority of the royal governor and in obedience to his writ; the other illegal, sitting in defiance of his authority and in disobedience of his proclamation. 1

As described in the above biography of Governor Martin, he had escaped from Tryon Palace in New Bern to Fort Johnston.  Action in destroying the Fort led by Cornelius Harnett and Ashe was pursuant to an order issued by Harnett as Chairman of the Wilmington-New Hanover Committee of Safety.  This action is detailed in an article in this web site entitled “Harnett Helps Disgrace Governor Martin.”

Plans by Governor Martin to regain North Carolina for the crown met with defeat as described in an article in this web site entitled “Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge.” This occurred during the administration of the Provincial Council, headed by Cornelius Harnett, and carried out by General Moore and the forces he led. When the Provincial Congress was not in session, Harnett was head of the rebel government and, in effect, the defacto Governor of North Carolina.


1.  Connor, R. D. W. CORNELIUS HARNETT:  AN ESSAY IN NORTH CAROLINA HISTORY, Raleigh, N. C. Edwards and Broughton Printing Company, 1909., pp 83-84)

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