Wentworth Cheswell – African Americans in the Revolution


Wentworth Cheswell (also spelled Cheswill) (11 April 1746 – 8 March 1817) was an African-American teacher, American Revolutionary War veteran, assessor, auditor, selectman and Justice of the Peace in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He was of mixed race, one-quarter African and three-quarters European, and listed in the census as white. Elected as town constable in 1768, he was elected to other positions, serving in local government every year but one until his death.

Cheswell is considered the first African American to be elected to public office in the state, as well as its first archaeologist. About the time of his marriage, Wentworth purchased a plot of land from his father Hopestill. His grandfather Richard is believed to be the first African American in New Hampshire to own land. A deed shows that he purchased 20 acres from the Hilton grant in 1717. In 1801, Wentworth was among the founders of the first library in the town and provided in his will for public access to his personal library.

==Early life and education==

Wentworth was the only child born in Newmarket, New Hampshire to Hopestill Cheswell, a free black of biracial ancestry, and his wife, Katherine (Keniston) Cheswell, a white woman. The senior Cheswell was a master housewright and carpenter who worked mostly in the thriving city of Portsmouth. Among other projects, Hopestill Cheswell helped to build the Bell Tavern in 1743 on Congress Street and the John Paul Jones House, originally owned by Captain Gregory Purcell and now a designated National Historic Landmark. The Jones house was an example of classic mid-eighteenth century elite housing. The Jones House for years served (and continues to) as the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum. Cheswell also built the Samuel Langdon House, which was moved to Sturbridge Village; it is a central exhibit demonstrating 18th century construction technology.

Hopestill Cheswell was born free to a white mother and Richard Cheswell, an enslaved black laborer, in Exeter, New Hampshire, who was the first Cheswell recorded in New England. (Because his mother was free, the boy was free, according to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which children followed the mother’s status, which was incorporated into slave law in the colonies.) After gaining his own freedom, Richard Cheswell purchased {convert|20|acre|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 union.

Hopestill Cheswell earned enough as a housewright to purchase a total of more than {convert|100|acre|km2} of land between 1773 and 1749, which he farmed while working as a housewright. Later, he had part ownership of a sawmill and stream in Durham, as well as “mill privilege” at another falls, to handle his need for lumber. His prosperity helped provide for his son’s education.

He sent his son Wentworth as a student to Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. There the youth studied with the Harvard graduate William Moody, who taught the classical subjects of Latin and Greek, reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as swimming and horsemanship. As Erik Tuveson noted in his master’s thesis on the first three generations of Cheswells, the youth’s education was “an unusual privilege for a country boy of that time. Few people of the colonial era were formally educated, mostly due to cost and lack of inexpensive public schooling. Education of any formal sort in colonial New England carried a significant degree of elite social status.”

==Early career==

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, he was an established landowner with more than 30 acres and held a pew in the meetinghouse. By 1770, he owned 114 acres.

Cheswell was first elected to public office in 1768 as the town constable, and later was elected to local offices every year (except for 1788) until his death in1817, to positions such as town selectman, auditor, assessor, and others. George Mason University in Virginia has recently (2008) declared Wentworth Cheswell to be the first African American elected to public office in the history of The United States. Thus beating out previously believed Alexander Twilight of Vermont (1836),John Mercer Langston of Virginia (1888), and Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina (1870) for the title.

==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 {unknown} (1785), Martha (1788), Daughter {unknown} (1792), and Abigail (1792).

The son Thomas Cheswell, his wife and children stayed in Newmarket; they were all buried in Riverside Cemetery.

==Revolutionary War==

During the American Revolutionary War, the citizens of Newmarket, including Cheswell, were unequivocally for the patriotic cause. In April 1776, along with 162 other men, Cheswell signed the Association Test. Patriots collected signatures of people opposed to what they considered the hostile actions by 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 most of the colonists.

He was elected town messenger for the Committee of Safety, which entrusted him to carry news to and from the Provincial Committee at Exeter. On 18 April 1775, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth to warn the town that the British warships, frigate Scarborough and the Canseau sloop of war, were on their way to attack Ft. William and Mary. When Portsmouth asked for help from neighboring communities, Newmarket held a town meeting to decide on their response. Townsmen voted to send 30 armed men to Portsmouth. Cheswell rode to Exeter to receive instructions from the committee on where the men were to be sent. He also was with the party who built rafts to defend Portsmouth Harbor.

Cheswell enlisted in the Patriot 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. This military service ended 31 October 1777. Like many men, he served for a limited time as he had to support his family.

==Local leader==

After his service in the war, Cheswell returned to Newmarket and continued his work in town affairs. He also ran a store next to the school house. Cheswell supported his family as a teacher, and was elected and appointed to serve in local government for all but one year of the remainder of his life, as selectman, auditor, assessor, scrivener, and other roles.

He was interested in artifacts from the town and wrote about his studies; he has been called the first archeologist in New Hampshire for his work. The scholars W. Dennis Chesley and Mary B. Mcallister have said, “Cheswill’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 the 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.”

Cheswell was a self-appointed town historian. As scrivener, he copied many of the town records from 1727, including two regional Congregational Church meetings. He collected stories and took notes of town events as they occurred. Jeremy Belknap, who wrote a three-volume History of New Hampshire, quoted Cheswell more than once at length in his work, and credited him for his local histories. They corresponded several times. Still intact, Cheswell’s original work is kept in the Milne Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire’s Diamond Library.

In 1805, he was elected as the Justice of the Peace for Rockingham County. In that position, he executed deeds, wills, and legal documents, and was a justice in the trial of causes. He served as Justice until his death in 1817.

In 1820, shortly after Cheswell died, the New Hampshire Senator David L. Morril used him as a positive example of the contributions of mixed-race persons in a speech to the United States Congress regarding the negative effects of discriminatory racial legislation. Morril opposed a bill to forbid mulatto persons to become citizens 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.”(Note: Cheswell was listed as white on the census, but Morril’s reference suggests he was considered mulatto by some contemporaries.)

On 8 March 1817, Wentworth Cheswell died from typhus fever. In his will, he requested 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….”{citation needed|date=October 2012}

His daughter Martha, as his last surviving heir, provided the following in her will: “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.”{citation needed|date=October 2012}


* Wentworth’s grandfather, Richard Cheswell, a former slave of African ancestry, is the first known resident by that surname in New England; all descendants share his African ancestry, as well as that of his English wife. PBS Frontline discussed the Cheswell family as among mixed-race American families in Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, associated with its program Secret Daughter (1996), based on June Cross’ memoir.
* In 2006, Cheswell descendants and other New England residents raised funds to restore or replicate the Cheswell gravestones. In addition, they and members of the New Hampshire Old Graveyard Association worked to clean up the old Cheswell gravesite. Some Cheswell descendants, whose families have identified as white for many generations, discovered their connection to the Cheswells and African-American heritage due to publicity in 2002 and following years of effort about Wentworth Cheswell done by Rich Alperin (603-686-3642), a local resident. He also brought notice to an unpublished master’s thesis by Erik R. Tuveson about the first three generations of Cheswells and other people of color in New Hampshire. It is available at the University of New Hampshire.


Source(s): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wentworth_Cheswell