Wentworth Cheswell

Written by Reverend Steve Williams

Wentworth Cheswell was the grandson of black slave, Richard Cheswell, who gained his freedom in 1717, and became the first black man to be a property owner in New Hampshire; the deed, which was dated October 18th 1717, is the earliest known deed showing land ownership by a black man in and was located in what was to become the town of Newmarket. Wentworth was the only son of Hopestill and Catherine Cheswell of Newmarket New Hampshire. His father was a house-wright (homebuilder) and became quite notable building the homes of several of the patriot leaders, including the houses of John Paul Jones (it currently houses the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum) and the Rev. Samuel Langdon. Hopestill, who was active in the local affairs of Newmarket, passed on his love and knowledge of homebuilding, agriculture and community involvement to his son.

 In 1763, Wentworth attended the Dummer Academy which was some thirty miles away from Newmarket in Byfield, Massachusetts. His education was a privilege that was considered as unusual for a country boy of that era. In the colonial era, few people were formally educated, due to cost and the lack of inexpensive public schooling. Hopestill’s financial status allowed him to ensure that his son Wentworth receive the finest education available at the time. Of course education of any proper sort in colonial New England conceded to the family and student a degree of societal rank. Young Mr. Cheswell studied Latin, Greek, swimming, horsemanship, reading, writing, and arithmetic; he returned home to Newmarket in 1767.

No sooner, having returned to the town of his birth, Mr. Wentworth Cheswell accepted the position of schoolmaster, and married 17-year-old Mary Davis of Durham, New Hampshire on 13 September 1767. They were blessed with a large family (13; 4 sons and nine daughters), having their first son (Paul) just weeks short of a year later, in August of 1768.

It is difficult by today’s standards to understand the meteoric rise of this young man (just 21 years of age; very young to have achieved so much) for he had already become a landowner, (while still in school Wentworth purchased a 30 acre parcel of land from his father) and was an unfaltering member of the local church, where he held a church pew. 

In 1768, Wentworth was elected (thus becoming the first African American elected to public office) town constable, this was to be the first of many offices which he held throughout his life. Every year from 1768 until 1817, (excluding 1788) Wentworth Cheswell held some local government position. Two years later in 1770, he was elected town selectman. However, this election was no exception, but proved to be rule as to the confidence and trust put into him by his fellow townspeople.  The positions of town Selectman were recognized as a head of local government, and were annually chosen in the town. Selectmen, were referred to as town Fathers, a name which expressed the prudent and discretionary character to the citizens. The people of Newmarket entrusted Wentworth with the welfare of the town, providing him considerable powers as a town leader; that year also saw the addition of more land to Wentworth’s holdings, which included 114 acres.

As early as October of 1775, Wentworth Cheswell had aligned himself with the revolutionary cause, and in April of 1776, he signed (along with 162 of the town's men above the age of twenty-one) the Association Test; In April 1776, he signed a document in which he pledged, at the risk of life and fortune, to take up arms to resist the British. Signatures of people were obtained to oppose the antagonistic actions of the British fleets and armies. The wealth of the signatures gave the signers of the Declaration of Independence assurance that their acts would be sanctioned by the country.

As well in 1776, the town of Newmarket elected five men to oversee the schools; Cheswell was one of the five, becoming one of Newmarket’s first school board members. Wentworth Cheswell was elected to the Committee of Safety of Newmarket, as messenger (carrying news to and from the Provincial Committee at Exeter) and he too, like Paul Revere, made an all-night ride back from Boston to warn his community of the impending British invasion. With the imminent arrival of the British frigate Scarborough and the Canseau sloop of war, Portsmouth asked for help from their neighboring communities, and Newmarket held a town meeting, where it was decided that 30 men would be sent to Portsmouth to help. Cheswell made the ride to Exeter receiving instructions from the committee on where the men of Newmarket were to be sent; Cheswell was a member of the party which built rafts to defend Portsmouth Harbor.

Cheswell enlisted in the cause of the revolution, on September 29th 1777. He served under Colonel John Langdon in a select company called “Langdon's Company of” which helped to bolster the Continental Army at the Saratoga campaign. Langdon’s company of Light Horse Volunteers made the 250-mile march to Saratoga, New York, to join with the Continental Army under General Horatio Gates, defeating British General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, which was the first major American victory in the Revolution. Cheswell’s only military service ended October 31st 1777. As with many other men, he served for only a limited time, as his family was dependent on him for support.

After returning from Saratoga, Wentworth was elected in the spring of 1778, to the, convention to draft the New Hampshire’s first constitution, but some unidentified event prohibited him from attending. Mr. Cheswell served his community admirably, employing his skills and learning in the local business of the town. His role was an active one, being involved in the dealings of local government, and whether municipality or church affairs, when any important committee was chosen in Newmarket, Wentworth Cheswell was sure to be a member.

Cheswell also ran a store next to the school house, his career as a teacher was short lived, but his concern for the educational welfare of Newmarket’s children never wavered. Other town offices in which he, Wentworth served included, his seven years as Auditor, two years as Coroner, six years as Assessor, seven years as town Moderator (where he presided over the town meetings), and twelve years as the Justice of the Peace, his responsibilities included overseeing trials, settling disputes, the executing of deeds, wills, and legal documents.

Mr. Cheswell has been called the first archeologist in the state New Hampshire, for his fieldwork and his written reports, copying town records from 1727 (including the records of various church meetings) his chronicling of older stories of the Newmarket, and keeping lists of the town’s events; for investigating, note-making on the numerous artifacts and relics which he discovered in and around the town. This town history compiled by Mr. Cheswell resides at the Dimond Library Special Collections Department at University of New Hampshire. The Rev. Jeremy Belknap author and compiler of the three-volume “History of New Hampshire (1784-1792),” acknowledged that much of the information he gleaned came from Wentworth. In 1801, Cheswell, with a group of men established the Newmarket Social Library, the first library in that township. Cheswell's estate was valued the highest of that philanthropic party, at over $13,000.

On March 8, 1817, Wentworth Cheswell died from typhus fever. His passing was lamented greatly, for he had, for seventy years been a vital, important, and influential part of the community of Newmarket New Hampshire.

In his will he stated, "I also order and direct that my Library and collection of Manuscripts be kept safe and together…if any should desire the use of any of the books and give caution to return the same again in reasonable time, they may be lent out to them, provided that only one book be out of said Library in the hands of any one at the same time."

Wentworth Cheswell, Christian, beloved son, adored husband, respected father; town leader, patriot leader, church leader, schoolmaster, judge, historian, archeologist, veteran of the Revolutionary War; his legacy is truly a lasting one, a Founding Father of the United States of America.