For many Iranians, the question of “belonging” in the United States has been a fraught one because of the volatile situation the community has faced in recent decades. With the uniquely anti-Iranian stance the United States has had since the 1979 Revolution, many xenophobes across the political spectrum subscribe to the notion that Iranians do not belong in American society – a notion made violently clear last month when a man shot three people in a Kansas bar that he believed were Iranian. This antagonism towards Iranians has perhaps incidentally covered up the long connection between the United States and Iran: the fact that there have been Iranians in the United States since the 1600s.
Court records in the early colony of Jamestown, Virginia show a man named “John Martin ‘ye (the) Armenian,” who came from Isfahan, Persia (in modern Iran) and arrived in or before 1619. It is true that the modern state of “Iran” did not exist at that time. But I use the term imprecisely to mean that we might consider him an Iranian-American by today’s standards.
Unfortunately little about him has survived save for testimony in various court cases in London (now housed in the British Royal Admiralty archives). The court record notes that he is able to recite the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer–signifying his Christian religion–and is from New Julfa in Isfahan. New Julfa was and continues to be the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, established when Shah Abbas issued an edict to resettle the Armenian community from “old” Julfa in Nakhichevan to use the community for the empire’s economic benefit.
Some details of his life were compiled in Malcolm Vartan Malcolm’s book The Armenians in America and in early Armenian-American newspapers. These accounts are based on the British State Colonial Papers and the Court Book of the Virginia Company of London, which state that Martin eventually travelled from London to the colonies as a servant to the then-governor of Virginia. As the governor died during the voyage to Virginia, Martin instead went on to become a successful tobacco farmer. According to these same sources, two more Armenians were brought over to introduce and support silkworm production in the colonies. A supporter of this silk enterprise even wrote a poem praising these promising individuals. Individuals and scholars continue to research and debate over what happened to these individuals and their descendants.
What does it mean that both Iranians and Armenians were present in what became the United States from the inception of the country’s history?
On one hand, this fact might be an easy way to argue for the legitimacy of Iranian/Armenian presence in America for those hoping to make a claim for the belonging of these communities in mainstream US nationalism. But this form of multiculturalism has its limits. While Armenians and Iranians were present from the beginning of the United States, as early as the colonies, we see that they were seen as “outsiders” in some sense.
At the same time, however, they were able to assimilate into the white mainstream over time and benefit from the American project. This ability to benefit from American settler-colonialism by embracing whiteness – and, as a result, joining a settler-colonial project that dispossessed and killed millions of Native Americans and enslaved millions of people kidnapped from Africa – goes far back and continues today.
Moving beyond these simple politics of nationalism, perhaps this history more so shows the complexity of the Iranian and Armenian experience in the United States. While contemporary anti-Iranian and anti-Armenian sentiment is well documented, these early individuals were given access to the United States. They were also able to assimilate and benefit from the American project. While these groups are now often in society’s crosshairs as enemies, they were once direct beneficiaries of “America” as far back as the country was only beginning its outright settler-colonial and ultimately genocidal project against the Native Americans.
Yet as history since has shown–from xenophobia against immigrants to entry bans in the early 1900s and now again in 2017–access to “America” for certain groups has always been complicated. Iranians and Armenians have managed to make to the United States and significantly contribute to the identity of the country, all while being both implicitly and explicitly welcomed and/or banned during different periods of history.
The history of John Martin reminds us that settlement in the colonies of the early Americas was more diverse than we tend to assume. Remembering stories help keep us aware that the immigrant histories of many different communities are older than we think. They also remind us, particularly in moments of heightened xenophobic crises, that immigration and assimilation has never been easy or straightforward at any time in US history.