Wentworth Cheswell (11 April, 1746 - 8 March, 1817) was an African-American teacher, coroner, scrivener, assessor, auditor, moderator, selectman and Justice Of The Peace. He was the only child born to Hopestill and Catherine (Keniston) Cheswell, in Newmarket,New Hampshire. He attended Dummer Academy in Byfield Massachusetts. He was educated by Harvard graduate, William Moody, who taught Latin, 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).
Cheswell's grandfather, Richard Cheswell, a black slave in Exeter,New Hampshire, purchased 20 acres of land from the Hilton Grant after he gained his freedom. The deed, dated 18 October 1717, is the earliest known deed in the State of New Hampshire showing land ownership by a black man. The land was located in what was to become the town of Newmarket. His only child, Hopestill (1712-?), became a housewright and built mostly in Portsmouth,New Hampshire. Research has shown he took part in building the John Paul Jones House, which currently houses the Portsmouth Historical Museum. Hopestill was active in local affairs, and he passed his love and knowledge of house wrightmanship, agriculture and community involvement to his son.
After completing his education, Wentworth Cheswell returned home to become a schoolmaster. In 1765, he purchased his first parcel of land from his father. By early 1767, he was an established landowner, educated, and held a pew in the meetinghouse. He married 17-year-old Mary Davis of Durham,New Hampshire on 13 September 1767. Eleven months later, the first of 13 children was born. His 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 being obtained as an obligation 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. He was also involved in the building of rafts with the purpose of defending 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 them of the impending arrival of the British frigate Scarborough and the Canseau sloop of war. Portsmouth cried out for help from neighboring communities, thus prompting Newmarket to hold a town meeting. There, it was decided that 30 men be sent to Portsmouth to help. Cheswell rode to Exeter to receive instructions from the committee on where the men were to be sent.
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 Independent Company of Volunteers" to bolster the Continental Army at the Saratoga Campaign. His only military service ended 31 October 1777. He served just one month and 3 days.
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 old 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 chose 5 men to regulate the schools in town. Cheswell was one of them, thus becoming one of Newmarket's first school board members.
He was a man of many firsts. It has been suggested that he was the first archaeologist in the state. Also, in 1801, along with several other men in town, the first library in Newmarket was incorporated. This was known as the Newmarket Social Library. Of the men who started this Library, Cheswell's estate was worth the most, valued at over $13,000 at that point in time. In his will he states that "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 in great length, and they shared correspondence several times.
Cheswell's interest in his town and its history prompted him to copy all of the town records, including two congregational meetings that were held in Newmarket. He collected stories and took notes of town events as they occurred. This original work is still intact and 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 fellow townsmen's recommendation to appoint Cheswell as Justice of the Peace for Rockingham County. He 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, New Hampshire Senator David Lawrence Morrill, addressed the United States Congress, being opposed to an item before the legislation concerning persons of mixed race being forbidden to enter or become citizens of Mssouri. In his speech Morril remarked that "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."
Upon writing 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...." His daughter Martha, being his last surviving heir, willed that "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, the gravestones have been restored or replicated over the last several years, as friends and family have recently discovered their heritage and connection to the Cheswell's.
On 8 March 1817, Wentworth Cheswell died from typhus fever. The Newmarket community mourned this vital, important and influential man. Cheswell's own abilities certainly inspired his successful life. However, his father's legacy to his son must not be overlooked. Hopestill's example of hard work, sound investing and determination ultimately helped Wentworth become the successful man that he came to be.
References and further reading
- Fitts, James Hill. History of Newfields, NH Volumes 1 and 2 (1912).
- George, Nellie Palmer. Old Newmarket (1932).
- Getchell, Sylvia (Fitts). The Tide Turns on the Lamprey. A History of Newmarket, NH. (1984).
- Harvey, Joseph. An Unchartered Town. Newmarket on the Lamprey-Historical Notes and Personal Sketches.
- The Granite Monthly. Volume XL Nos. 2 and 3. New Series, Volume 3, Nos. 2 and 3 (Feb. and Mar., 1908).
- Knoblock, Glenn A. "Strong and Brave Fellows". New Hampshire's Black Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution, 1775-1784 (2003).
- Sammons, Mark J. and Cunningham, Valerie. Black Portsmouth. Three Centuries of African-American Heritage. (2004).
- Tuveson, Erik R. "A People of Color: A Study of Race and Racial Identification in New Hampshire, 1750-1825". Thesis for Master of Arts in History. (May, 1995). Available through The University Of New Hampshire's library.
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