by Reverend Steve Williams
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.