MARTIN VAN BUREN BATES - - THE KENTUCKY RIVER GIANT

Part I

 By: Patty May Brashear

 

 

                                                                Anna Hanan Swann Bates, Martin VanBuren Bates & a normal size man.

 

 

If you have you had a quite hour to reminisce over lost memories from you childhood you will understand why my reflections created such wistful feeling for me. My Grandmother was Ritter Wright Adkins. She was the daughter of Nancy Bates Wright, who was a daughter of James Bates. James Bates was a brother to the man known as "The Mountain Giant", Martin VanBuren Bates.

 

As a child, a little girl growing up in Letcher County, Kentucky, I often heard my grandmother who raised me, Ritter Wright Adkins, talk about "Uncle Brother."  She never called him anything else.  I remember there was a picture of Martin and Anna in the Bentley Drug Store in Neon, Kentucky (owned by Dr. D. V. Bentley whose mother was a Bates) and knew early on that I was related to Martin.  As I grew up Mommy would tell me stories about "Uncle Brother", keeping them fresh in my memory. She would have had first hand memoires of him since Martin lived till 1919 and Mommy was born in 1893.  After I was married I decided I wanted to find out more about "Uncle Brother" so I could tell my children about their giant relative, just as Mommy had told me.  I needed to find out if he really was a giant, if he traveled with a circus and I needed to know my family connection to him. I began buying books about him and visited Seville, Ohio three times and searching the internet for information about Martin.  My last visit to Seville was in 1993 when I took my two Granddaughters, Kaitlyn and Heather, to see where their famous relative lived and was buried. I wanted them to visit the museum to see articles of his clothing, pieces of his furniture, and pictures of the giant couple, Martin and Anna. Yes, Uncle Brother did exist and the following is a story of his life.

 

Martin Van Buren Bates was born November 9, 1837 in Letcher County, Kentucky at the mouth of Boone Fork of the North Fork of the Kentucky River where Kona is now located.  He was the youngest of the twelve children of John Wallis & Sarah (Waltrip) Bates. Martin, according to all reports, was a normal sized child until about the age of seven.  He grew so rapidly his parents would not permit him to do much work for fear he would die.  By  the age of thirteen he weighed three hundred pounds and he continued to grow until his height was proportionate to his weight. Martin was known by several nick-names, such as  "Baby Bates,"  "Brother or Uncle Brother"  and "The Kentucky Mountain Giant".  

 

                                               

                                                       Martin VanBuren Bates as a child

 

As a young man, Martin obtained a teaching certificate and taught school in a small log schoolhouse in a "holler" just above the Bates farm at Kona. The parents of Martin, John Wallis & Sarah Waltrip Bates died in Letcher County and are buried in the cemetery on the old Bates family farm.  When his father John Wallis Bates died and was buried there in 1843, he became the first to be buried in this cemetery. His mother Sarah Waltrip died in 1865; later his brother James Bates died on April 11, 1864.  Eventually the Bates farm at Kona, Kentucky was sold by Martin to W. H. Potter, a relative.

 

On November 1, 1861 Martin joined the Confederate Army at Whitesburg, Kentucky as a Private. in Company "F" of the 5th Kentucky Infantry for a 12 month term.  He then enlisted in Company "A" of French's Battalion of Virginia Infantry as 1st Lieutenant.  After being captured in Pike County, Kentucky, he was taken to Camp Chase, Ohio and then to Point Lookout, Maryland and was exchanged on May 17, 1863.  Martin then joined his brother, Robert Bates' Company "A" of the 7th Battalion Confederate Cavalry as a 1st Lieutenant.  He resigned July 19, 1864.  His resignation was approved by Colonel Clarence J. Prentice, who noted his "extraordinary size," on July 29, 1864 and by George H. Morgan on August 20,1864.  Martin did not leave the service after his resignation and is mentioned in official correspondence on March 26, 1865

 

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                                                         Martin VanBuren Bates in his Civil War attire 

 

Two battles that we know Martin served in are the Battle of Middle Creek, fought 10 Jan 1862, in Floyd County, Kentucky and the 2nd Battle of Cynthiana, fought June 11-12, 1864. We know the horse he was riding was shot out from under him at the Cynthiana battle and we know he was wounded in a battle near Cumberland Gap.

 

Resignation Letter to S. G. Cooper, Gladeville, VA. July 19, 1864

 

M. V. Bates 1st Lt. Co. "A" 7 Con. Cavalry Battalion- -July 29, 1864 Letter from Lt. Co. Prentice - Headquarters- -7th Con. Cav. Battalion - Gladeville, VA

Approved and respectfully forwarded with recommendation that this resignation be received.  Lt. Bates is physically incapable of performing the duties of his office owing to his extraordinary size.  He is nearly seven feet high and weighs three hundred and fifty___ pounds. He is not able to perform military on foot, and there is not a horse in the Confederate States strong enough to carry him any length of time.

                                           Clarence J. Prentice

Aug. 11, 1864

Headquarters Dept W. Va. & E. Tenn.

                                           Aug. 20, 1864

Approved and respectfully forwarded.

                                           Geo. H. Morgan

 

                                   

 

 After the war Martin returned to his home in Kentucky for a short time. He told friends and relatives that he could not stay because he wanted no part of the feuding and fighting in the mountains.  He said "Now that the war is over I am not going back to the mountains to live.  Enemies have been made in this war and won't die for a hundred years. There will be blood on the rocks and grief in the cabins and I want no part of it."

 

I've had enough killing to last me a lifetime."  "Besides", Bates added, "I want to see the world."

  

                                                                           

                                                                 Anna Hanan Swann Bates with a normal size couple.

 

 

He and his nephew "Bad John" Wright traveled to Cincinnati where they joined the Robinson Circus.  Martin exhibited himself and read poetry while "Bad John" was billed as a sharpshooter and trick rider.  While Martin was traveling with the circus he met a young woman who was also associated with the show.  She was the young giantess from Nova Scotia, Anna Swan.  Anna & Martin were married in Europe 17 June 1871 at St. Martin'-in-the Fields. 

 

 

Anna Hanan Swann Bates with her parents

 

 

 

 

 

Marriage license of Martin VanBuren Bates & Anna Hanan Swann

  

They continued to tour, exhibiting themselves in Europe and even before Queen Victoria and other heads of Europe. They had a baby girl who was born May 19, 1872, but she died soon after her birth. Not long afterward, Martin and Anna decided to return to the Unites States where they bought a farm in Seville, Medina County, Ohio.  Here they built a oversized home to accommodate their substantial stature and became members of the First Baptist Church in Seville, Ohio. Since Martin was reported to be 7'11 1/2" tall and weighed up to 525 pounds and  Anna was reported to 7"11 1/2" tall,  their giant house had furniture custom-made to suit them. The house was built in 1876 and stood until 1948.

 

                    

 

                   

                                                                     Martin's shoes.

 

 "The House that is Occupied by a Couple of Ohio Giants" is the title of an article that appeared in the Cincinnati Inquirer January 13, 1882.  It describes in some detail the home of Captain and Mrs. Bates.  The house was built by Captain. Bates in 1876 and is located on 160 acres of cultivated land.  The lower story of the house is 12 1/2  feet high and the upper one 12  feet.  The doors of the house are 8 l/2 feet high with the knobs nearly as high as the height of an average person.  The giant's rooms have 10 feet high ceilings and the furniture is walnut and built to accommodate their immense size.  The bed is 8 feet 4 inches long and 5 feet 6 inches wide.  A mirror on the bureau is as large as the wall of an ordinary room.  In the sitting room are two huge rocking chairs for Martin and Anna.

 

 

                                      

                                              This is a chair Martin VanBuren Bates had made for his visitors to sit in.

                                                      

 

Martin had chairs made for their family and guests to sit in when they visited, so they would be on the same level with them instead of looking up or having to climb into or onto chairs that were too big and too high for them. This is one of those chairs which is now at the home of one of his Bates relatives.

 

 

The material on this website is copyrighted (C) 2001 by Patty May Brashear & Nancy Wright Bays 

 

  

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