Wentworth Cheswell (11 April 1746 – 8 March 1817) was an African-American teacher, American Revolutionary War veteran, assessor, auditor, selectman and Justice of the Peace. He is considered by some the first African American elected to public office, as well as the first archaeologist in New Hampshire, despite being perceived by local contemporaries as white.
Early life and education
Wentworth was and is the only child born to free black Hopestill Cheswell and his white wife Catherine (Keniston) Cheswell, in Newmarket, New Hampshire. His father was a biracial housewright and carpenter who worked mostly in the thriving city of Portsmouth. Among other projects, Hopestill Cheswell helped build the Bell Tavern in 1743 on Congress Street and the John Paul Jones House, a designated National Historic Landmark originally owned by Captain Gregory Purcell. The Jones house was an example of classic mid-eighteenth century elite housing. The Jones House now serves as the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum. Active in local affairs, the father passed on his love and knowledge of house wrightmanship, agriculture and community involvement to his son.
Hopestill Cheswell was born free to a white mother and a father, Richard Cheswell, who was an enslaved laborer in Exeter, New Hampshire. After gaining his freedom, Richard Cheswell had purchased 20 acres (81,000 m2) of land from the Hilton Grant. The deed, dated 18 October 1717, is the earliest known deed showing land ownership by a black man in present-day New Hampshire. The land was located in what was to become the town of Newmarket. Hopestill was the only known child of this marriage.
Hopestill earned enough as a housewright to purchase a total of more than 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land, which he farmed. Later he also had a mill. His prosperity helped provide for his son’s education.
Wentworth Cheswell attended Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. There he studied with Harvard graduate William Moody, who taught Latin and Greek, swimming, horsemanship, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Wentworth Cheswell’s education was, in the terms of the day, “an unusual privilege for a country boy of that time.” (Savage)
After completing his education, Wentworth Cheswell returned to Newmarket to become a schoolmaster. In 1765, he purchased his first parcel of land from his father. By early 1767,W he was an established landowner and held a pew in the meetinghouse.
Marriage and family
Cheswell married 17-year-old Mary Davis of Durham, New Hampshire on 13 September 1767. Eleven months later, the first of their 13 children was born. Their children were Paul (1768), Thomas (1770), Samuel (1772), Sarah (1774), Mary (1775), Elizabeth (1778), Nancy (1780), Mehitable (1782), William (1785), Daughter (1785), Martha (1788), Daughter (1792), and Abigail (1792).
During the American Revolutionary War, the citizens of Newmarket, including Cheswell, were unequivocally for the patriotic cause. In April of 1776, along with 162 other men, Cheswell signed the Association Test. Signatures of people were gathered to oppose the hostile proceedings of the British fleets and armies. The abundance of the returns gave the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence assurance that their acts would be sanctioned and upheld by the country.
Cheswell was with the party who built rafts to defend Portsmouth Harbor. He was elected town messenger for the Committee of Safety, which entrusted him to carry news to and from the Provincial Committee at Exeter. Paul Revere rode into Portsmouth to alert defenders of the impending arrival of the British frigate Scarborough and the Canseau sloop of war. Portsmouth asked for help from neighboring communities, thus prompting Newmarket to hold a town meeting. There, townsmen decided to send 30 armed men to Portsmouth to help. Cheswell rode to Exeter to receive instructions from the committee on where the men were to be sent. Cheswell rode North as Paul Revere rode West, where the British eventually went, causing Cheswell to be unknown for his accomplishments in the midnight ride.
It was on 15 December 1774 that Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to warn the town that British warships were on their way to attack Ft. William and Mary in Portsmouth. Paul Revere and William Dawes began their ride to Lexington on 18 April 1775. Four months apart, the two rides, to Portsmouth and to Lexington, had nothing to do with each other. The remainder of the story of the heroic actions of Wentworth Cheswell, the ride to Exeter for instructions, building the rafts, etc. is true, except for the dates.
Cheswell enlisted in the cause on 29 September 1777. He served under Colonel John Langdon in a select company of “men of rank and position”, called Langdon’s Company of Light Horse Volunteers, to bolster the Continental Army at the Saratoga campaign. His only military service ended 31 October 1777. Like many men, he served for a limited time, as he had to support his family.
After his service in the war, Cheswell returned to Newmarket and continued his work in local affairs. He also ran a store next to the school house. Cheswell’s career as a teacher was short lived, but he never stopped being concerned for the educational welfare of Newmarket’s children. In 1776, the town elected five men to regulate the schools in town. Cheswell was one of them, thus becoming one of Newmarket’s first school board members and the first African American elected to public office.
He has been called the first archeologist in the state. Researchers stated, “Cherwell’s writings clearly contain the seeds of modern archaeological theory. His eighteenth century fieldwork and reports, limited though they were, justify calling him New Hampshire’s first archaeologist.”
In 1801, Cheswell and other men established the first library in Newmarket, the Newmarket Social Library. Of the estates of men who started this Library, Cheswell’s was valued the highest at over $13,000. 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.” He was a subscriber to Jeremy Belknap’s three-volume History of New Hampshire. Belknap quoted Cheswell more than once at length, and they corresponded several times.
Cheswell was a self-appointed town historian. He copied all of the town records, including two regional Congregational Church meetings. He collected stories and took notes of town events as they occurred. Still intact, his original work is kept in the Milne Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire’s Dimond Library.
Cheswell’s writing ability and legal knowledge were likely pivotal in his townsmen’s supporting him as Justice of the Peace for Rockingham County. Cheswell was responsible for executing deeds, wills, legal documents and was a justice in the trial of causes. He served as Justice from 1805 until his death in 1817.
In 1820, shortly after Cheswell died, New Hampshire Senator David L. Morril used him as a positive example in a speech to the United States Congress regarding discriminatory racial legislation. Morril opposed a bill to forbid persons of mixed race to enter or become citizens of the territory of Missouri. In his speech Morril noted, “In New Hampshire there was a yellow man by the name of Cheswell [sic], who, with his family, were respectable in points of abilities, property and character. He held some of the first offices in the town in which he resided, was appointed Justice of the Peace for that county, and was perfectly competent to perform with ability all the duties of his various offices in the most prompt, accurate, and acceptable manner.” Angrily, Morril added, “But this family are forbidden to enter and live in Missouri.”
In his will, Cheswell stated that “the burying place in the orchard near my dwelling house be fenced with rocks, as I have laid out (if I should not live to finish it) and grave stones be provided for the graves therein….” On 8 March 1817, Wentworth Cheswell died from typhus fever.
His daughter Martha, as his last surviving heir, willed to provide:
the burying yard at my farm as now fenced in, for a burying place for all my connections and their descendants forever…on the express condition that they and their heirs and assigns shall forever maintain and support the fence around said burying yard in as good condition as it now is.
In accordance with their wishes, over the last several years friends and family have restored or replicated the gravestones. Some descendants have recently discovered their heritage and connection to the Cheswells.
1. Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage, (2004), pp. 32-33, accessed 27 July 2009
2. W.Dennis Chesley and Mary B. Mcallister, Pioneers in New Hampshire Archaeology: Wentworth Cheswell Esquire, The New Hampshire Archaeologist Vol.22 (1), 1981
3. Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage, (2004), p. 124, accessed 27 July 2009