First Armenian in America

For many immigrants from Iran, the issue of “belonging” in the United States is difficult because of the changing nature of the community in recent decades. Furthermore, the anti-Iranian stance taken by people of different political views after the 1979 Islamic Revolution is often based on the assertion that the Iranians are not a historical part of American society.

However, all this political debate prevents us from seeing that since the 17th century, there has been a connection between America and distant Persia. There is an interesting example of this.

The trial archive of the Jamestown English colony (Virginia) retained the name “John Martin ‘ye (the) Armenian” who had arrived from Isfahan (Persia) in 1619 or earlier [the Jamestown settlement existed from 1607 to 1699].

Of course, then, a state called “Iran” has not yet existed. But I will allow myself inaccuracy and will use this word to show that by today’s standards, John Martin was Iranian-American.

Unfortunately, very little information has been preserved about this person in the documents in the archive of the British Admiralty. We know that he could recite from memory the Apostolic Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, which is a testament to his Christian faith and that he was born in Armenian New Julfa near Isfahan.

The city and now the quarter of Isfahan was founded by Shah Abbas I. He resettled Armenians from Nakhichevan’s “old” Julfa to New Julfa to strengthen the economic potential of his empire.

John Martin reached Jamestown on a ship whose captain was famous sailor and writer John Smith [one of the founders of Jamestown. It is he who appears in the romantic story of the Native American Princess Pocahontas].

Unfortunately, no images of Martin have been preserved. Some details of his biography have been compiled by Malcolm Vartan Malcom in “The Armenians in America”, as well as in the earliest Armenian-American newspapers.

The information in these works is based on documents of the British colonial administration and the court book of the Virginia Company of London. We learn from these sources that Martin has arrived in the colonies from London as a servant of the then Governor of Virginia. However, the governor died during the trip, and Martin settled in America and began to grow tobacco, becoming a successful farmer.

From the same sources, it is known that at about the same period, two more Persian Armenians ended up in America and established silkworm production in the colonies. A supporter of the “silk enterprise” even wrote a poem glorifying these promising Armenians. Researchers have not yet figured out what later became of them and their descendants.

What conclusion can be drawn from the fact that Iranians and Iranian Armenians have been a part of American society from the very beginning of its history?

On one hand, it can be said that the Iranian/Armenian presence in America is legitimate. But such multiculturalism has its limits. Still, even from such early stories, we see that immigrants from Persia were in some ways perceived as “strangers.”

On the other hand, over time, Iranians were able to join the new society and benefit from the “American project.” However, becoming part of the “white” colonialists, they sided with those who were killing the indigenous people and exploiting slaves from Africa.

Although anti-Armenian and anti-Iranian sentiments were prevalent in the USA at different times, immigrants from Persia were free to come to the colonies in the early period. The story of John Martin shows that the formation of colonial settlements was ethnically more diverse than is commonly thought.

Studying and preserving such stories, we will remember that the “biography” of many immigrant communities is older than it seems, which is especially important for the upcoming peak of xenophobic sentiments.

Source: Kamyar Jarahzadeh, Ajam Media Collective

Martin traveled to Jamestown on a ship captained by the well-known English explorer John Smith, pictured here. No image of Martin seems to have survived to the present day. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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