When Edward Martin left his birthplace in Enniscorthy, Ireland, and traveled to the New World, he was just one of the thousands of impoverished Irish youths who left home looking for a better future. The next few years of his life are puzzling and downright mysterious. Having joined the California gold rush of 1849, Martin emerged from the mines inexplicably a stupendously wealthy man, becoming one of the largest landowners in the West. Amid these riches, in an unusual move, he founded a controversial San Francisco liquor house.
Martin was baptized on March 5, 1818, in Enniscorthy, the second largest town in County Wexford, a coastal county in southeastern Ireland. He was the eldest of twelve children of Thomas Martin, apparently a butcher, and Anne Johnson, from a well-known family of Irish weapons makers. Although Catholic children were denied public education, Edward likely received some schooling as a youth before entering employment locally.
Evidence is scant on what happened next. One account has Martin leaving for Santiago, Chile, before he was 21. Another source indicates he may have been 26. It is known that he spent five years in Chile engaged in commercial activities. After getting word of the 1848 gold strike Martin is said to have boarded a sailing vessel and headed to California. After a voyage of six months he arrived in San Francisco in September 1849 and headed straight for the gold fields.
The news of gold brought some 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. Most sought the precious metal in vain and went away poorer than they came. Martin was a startling exception. He apparently struck it rich — very rich — and soon exited the mines. That is the heart of the enigma. None of Martin’s biographers document what he found or where he found it. It remains a blank page and a mystery.
Biographers also differ wildly about what happened next. One claims Martin took a long ocean trip back to Ireland. If so, it was possibly to share his wealth with family. Then he is said to have returned to San Francisco to establish a real estate company. A second biographer has Martin going directly from mining to a career in real estate, prospering, and retiring before long to take an extended ocean voyage to Europe and the Far East. A third source has Martin visiting the cities of the Eastern U.S. before deciding to make San Francisco his permanent home.
Biographers agree that Martin invested heavily in huge tracts of land in California and Oregon. One says he he owned about 200,000 acres in California and over 600,000 acres in Oregon. An historian of the West disputes the latter figure, figuring Martin owned no more than 450,000 acres in Oregon. An 1870 account called Edward “our greatest Irish landowner” of the far West.
When many San Francisco banks failed, Martin joined a group of successful San Francisco Irishmen in establishing the The Hibernia Savings and Loan Society (later the Hibernia Bank), serving as the secretary-treasurer from 1859 until his death. The bank building is shown here. By this time Edward had adopted his mother’s maiden name, Johnson, as his middle name.
More important, for the purposes of this blog, Martin ventured into the whiskey trade. In 1859, he partnered with three San Francisco locals in establishing a liquor house they called E. Martin & Company. Initially the partners located it at 604-606 Front Street but soon outgrew those premises and moved by 1868 to 408 Front. Although Martin was prominently identified the concern, another partner, Daniel V. B. Henarie, appears to have handled day to day management.
Sometime in the 1860s, Edward married. Irishmen were noted for marrying late and he would have been well into his forties at the time of his nuptials. His bride was a widow, Eleanor Downey Harvey. Said to be “beautiful and lively,” Eleanor was an immigrant from County Roscommon and the sister of John Downey, the seventh governor of California and the first Irishman to hold the office, serving from 1860 to 1862.
With one living child from her first marriage, Eleanor would bear Edward three sons: Peter, Walter and Andrew. A biographer said of her life as Martin’s wife: “She now lived in a palatial mansion on Broadway in San Francisco’s exclusive Pacific Heights, where she entertained and soon became a trend setter among the burgeoning ranks of San Francisco society.”
Meanwhile her husband was roiling the waters of the San Francisco liquor business. In 1870, E. Martin & Co. enlisted John F. Cutter in an effort to steal the popular Cutter brand, founded by his father, J. H. Cutter, away from a Kentucky distiller named Charles P. Moorman and Moorman’s West Coast distributor, Anson Hotaling, a powerful and litigious whiskey man. Martin even issued a bottle claiming to be “sole agent” for J. H. Cutter whiskey, shown below left. A court fights ensued, described in detail in my post on Moorman of November 2, 2017. When Martin lost, he issued a bottle for J. F. Cutter, shown below right.
Other Martin brands were notably less controversial. They included “Argonaut,” “E. Martin & Co.,” "Miller's Extra Old Bourbon,” "Miller's Extra Whisky,” "Miller's Old Bourbon,” and "Old Dorsey.” The company trademarked Miller’s Extra Old Bourbon in 1875 and again in 1894; Miller’s Extra Whiskey in 1901, and Argonaut in 1906.
Miller’s Extra brand likely was the firm’s top shelf bourbon available to a wealthy clientele. This bourbon was bottled in three sizes: a quart and two different sizes of flasks, as shown below. Blown in a mold with applied lip, these are considered early bottles, dated from 1872 to the late 1870s. Because the embossing pattern on both the quart and the flasks is the same, not usual on Western whiskeys, it appears to some that E. Martin & Company were attempting brand recognition. These bottles are very rare with only a few known and now avidly sought by collectors.
Although the E. Martin Company survived until 1919 and the advent of National Prohibition, Martin himself died in May 1880 at the age of 63. The San Francisco Morning Call, in an editorial the day following his death said: “As a businessman he enjoyed the confidence of the entire community.” A millionaire, Edward left Eleanor, a wealthy woman in her own right, with one of the largest estates in California. She lived another 48 years, dying in July 1928 within six weeks of being 102 years old.
To my mind, a California history might have had the appropriate last word on this whiskey man: “Mr. Martin's appearance indicates the true Irish gentleman, for he has in his physiognomy that mixture of dignity and wit which characterizes the genuine Irishman.” Enigmas and all, the boy from Enniscorthy had done well.
Note: A major source of information on Edward Martin was a 2011 article by Mark Codd that appeared in the organ of the Ui Cinsealaigh Historical Society. Codd cites a number of the earlier histories that often give conflicting information about the wealthy Martin and contribute to the mystery surrounding him.