At WallBuilders we strive to “present America’s forgotten history and heroes,
with an emphasis on our moral, religious, and constitutional heritage,” so
Wentworth Cheswell (sometimes Chiswell or Cheswill) is a perfect subject for our
He was the grandson of black slave Richard Cheswell (who early gained his
freedom and in 1717 and became the first black to own property in the colony of
New Hampshire); and he was the son of Hopestill Cheswell, a notable homebuilder
who built the homes of several patriot leaders, including John Paul Jones and
the Rev. Samuel Langdon. Wentworth was named after the famous Wentworth family,
from whom came several state governors, including Benning Wentworth – the
governor at the time of Wentworth’s birth.
In 1763, Wentworth began attending an academy in Byfield, Massachusetts (30
miles from his home), where for four years he received an extensive education,
studying Latin, Greek, swimming, horsemanship, reading, writing, and
In 1767, he returned home and became a schoolteacher, also marrying Mary
Davis (they eventually had 13 children – 4 sons and 9 daughters). At the age of
21, he had already become an established and educated property owner and a
stalwart in his local church, even holding a church pew.
The following year, Wentworth was elected town constable – the first of many
offices he held throughout his life. Two years later in 1770, he was elected
town selectman (the selectmen were considered the “town fathers” of a
community). Other town offices in which he served included seven years as
Auditor, six years as Assessor, two years as Coroner, seven years as town
Moderator (presiding over town meetings), and twelve years as Justice of the
Peace, overseeing trials, settling disputes, and executing deeds, wills, and
legal documents. (View an 1813 document signed by Cheswell as justice of the
peace.) For half a century – including every year from 1768 until 1817 –
Wentworth held some position in local government.
In addition to his civic service, Wentworth was also a patriot leader. In
fact, the town selected him as the messenger for the Committee of Safety – the
central nervous system of the American Revolution that carried intelligence and
messages back and forth between strategic operational centers. Serving in that
position, Wentworth undertook the same task as Paul Revere, making an all-night
ride to warn citizens of imminent British invasion.
In April 1776, he signed a document in which he pledged, “at the risk of . .
. live and fortune,” to take up arms to resist the British, and in September
1777, he enlisted in a company of Light Horse Volunteers commanded by Colonel
John Langdon (Langdon later became one of the 55 Founding Fathers who drafted
the U. S. Constitution, then a framer of the Bill of Rights, and later the New
Hampshire governor). Langdon’s company made a 250-mile march to Saratoga, New
York, to join with the Continental Army under General Horatio Gates to defeat
British General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga – the first major American
victory in the Revolution.
After returning from Saratoga, in the spring of 1778, Wentworth was elected
to the convention to draft the state’s first constitution, but some unknown
event prevented his attendance.
Wentworth also served as Newmarket’s unofficial historian, copying town
records from 1727 (including the records of various church meetings) and
chronicling old stories of the town as well as its current events. Additionally,
having investigated and made extensive notes on numerous artifacts and relics he
discovered in the region around Newmarket, he is considered the state’s first
archeologist. Therefore, when the Rev. Jeremy Belknap published his famous
three-volume History of New Hampshire (1784-1792), he relied on (and
openly acknowledged) much information he gleaned from Wentworth.
In 1801, Wentworth helped start the town library to preserve and disseminate
useful knowledge and virtue. His commitment to providing helpful information is
not surprising, for not only had he become a school teacher in 1767 but in 1776
he was elected as one of five men to regulate and oversee the schools of
In 1817, in his 71st year of age, Wentworth succumbed to typhus fever and was
buried on the family farm, where other members of his family were later buried.
In fact, when his daughter Martha died (his last surviving heir), her will
provided that any members or descendants of the family could forever forward be
buried on the farm. Unfortunately, that family graveyard long lay in disrepair,
but in recent years friends and family have managed to restore it.
The legacy of Wentworth Cheswell is a lasting one: a patriot, teacher, and
church leader; an historian, archeologist, and educator; a judge and official
elected to numerous offices (he is considered the first black American elected
to office in America). He is truly one of our forgotten patriots but he is a
laudable example for all Americans – a hero worth remembering and
honoring during Black History Month.
William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American
Revolution, With Sketches of Several Distinguished Colored Persons: To Which is
Added a Brief Survey of the Conditions and Prospects of Colored Americans
(Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), pp. 120-121.
Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the
American Revolution, Revised Edition (Amherst: The University of
Massachusetts Press, 1989), pp. 200-202.
Thomas Truxtun Moebs, Black Soldiers-Black Sailors-Black Ink: Research
Guide on African-Americans in U.S. Military History, 1526-1900 (Chesapeake
Bay: Moebs Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 226, 259, 280.