Martin McHenry Kenney, Confederate soldier, surveyor, lawyer, businessman, historian, and legislator, was born on December 11, 1831, beside the Mississippi River about fifteen miles above Rock Island, Illinois, the son of Maria (McHenry) and John Wesley Kenney. After the family home was destroyed in the Black Hawk War, the Kenneys returned to the region of Kentucky where they had resided before Martin's birth. In October 1833, fleeing a cholera epidemic, they moved to Texas; they arrived on the west bank of the Brazos in what is now Washington County on December 17. There the elder Kenney built the first cabin in what later became the town of Washington-on-the-Brazos. The following year he was granted a headright that is now part of Austin County, ten miles below Brenham, by Stephen F. Austin. The family moved onto this league, the site of present-day Kenney, and there young Kenney grew to manhood. During the Texas Revolution he and his mother became part of the Runaway Scrape while his father served in the army. Kenney attended such schools as were available—the first being the first public school in Texas—but received most of his education from his mother, who is said to have been an educated woman. In 1848 he briefly attended McKenzie College until driven home by an attack of typhoid fever.
In 1850, longing "to see the world," he traveled to Mexico, where he clerked in a store in Monclova and explored as far west as Mazatlán. At Laredo, Texas, he became county clerk for a few months and in 1851 joined a party of argonauts bound for the California gold fields. After failing to find his fortune in the mines, Kenney returned in 1856 to Texas, where he became surveyor of Goliad County.
With the outbreak of the Civil War he was elected captain of Company K of Col. George Washington Carter's Twenty-first Texas Cavalry. He saw action as part of Parsons's Texas Brigade in Arkansas and in the Red River campaign in Louisiana in the spring of 1864. After the war he moved to Mexico, spent 1865 and 1866 in Tabasco and Yucatán, and then moved to Honduras, where he engaged in the mahogany export business. He moved on to South America in 1867 and traveled for seven years, principally in Argentina; he also visited the South Sea islands before returning to his mother's home in Texas in 1874. There he joined the Texas Rangers and served as quartermaster for the Frontier Battalion until 1875.
On February 6, 1877, he married Annie Matthews of Chappell Hill; they had three children. The couple lived in Bellville for the next fourteen years. There Kenney returned to surveying and took up the practice of law. He was elected to the state legislature from Austin County in 1892 and served two terms. In July 1895 he was appointed Spanish translator in the General Land Office, a post he held with only a one-year break, in 1899–1900, until his death. He was one of the earliest members of the Texas State Historical Association and maintained an active interest in the organization until his death. Kenney was the author of the chapter on Texas Indians in Dudley G. Wooten's Comprehensive History of Texas (1898) and published articles on tribal society among Texas Indians and early Texas schools in the first volumes of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly. He was also a member of the Texas Folklore Society. His papers are in the Barker Texas History Center. He died on February 8, 1907.