Wentworth Cheswell is considered New Hampshire’s first archaeologist and the first African-American elected to public office in the United States. He also rode with Paul Revere to warn New Hampshire colonists that the redcoats were coming in late 1774.
He was born on April 11, 1746, to a biracial father, Hopestill Wentworth, and Katherine Keniston, who was white. Hopestill was the son of a white woman and an enslaved black man, Richard Cheswell. Under the laws of the day, Hopestill’s status followed his mother, so he was free.
Eventually Hopestill’s father bought his freedom. and in 1717 purchased 20 acres of land in what is now Newmarket, N.H. Richard’s land purchase is considered the first by an African-American in New Hampshire.
Hopestill was a housewright and carpenter who built the John Paul Jones House in Portsmouth, N.H., as well as the Samuel Langdon House (now in Sturbridge Village) and the Bell Tavern.
Wentworth Cheswell, Town Leader
Hopestill earned enough money to send Wentworth to Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Mass. Wentworth took advantage of his unusual educational privilege and became a schoolmaster in Newmarket. By the time he was 21 he owned more than 30 acres and a pew in the meetinghouse.
He was 21 when he married 17-year-old Mary Davis of Durham, N.H. They had 13 children. Their descendants identified as white, and Cheswell was listed as white in the census. Records of comments by his contemporaries suggest he was viewed as biracial.
In 1768, 22-year-old Wentworth Cheswell was elected town constable, which George Mason University determined was the first time an African-American was elected to public office. Cheswell beat out Vermont’s Alexander Twilight for the honor. For all but one year of his life, Cheswell held public office including town selectman, assessor, scrivener, justice of the peace and auditor.
He was also elected town messenger for the Committee of Safety, which meant he had to carry news to and from Exeter, N.H. On Dec. 13, 1774, he rode with Paul Revere to warn Portsmouth citizens that two British warships were on their way to retake gunpowder and weapons stolen by the colonists from Fort William and Mary.
When the American Revolution broke out, Wentworth Cheswell enlisted in Col. John Langdon’s Company of Light Horse Volunteers and fought at the Battle of Saratoga. He finished his military service and returned to Newmarket, where he ran a store next to his schoolhouse. He also did fieldwork and wrote reports on the town’s artifacts. For that he is considered New Hampshire’s first archaeologist.
Cheswell and other men also founded the Newmarket Social Library, to which he bequeathed his books.
Wentworth Cheswell died at age 70 of typhus on March 8, 1817. He and his descendants were buried on his farm.