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 north when Paul Revere rode west to warn colonists that the redcoats were coming.
He was born on April 11, 1746, to a biracial father, Hopestill Cheswell (sometimes spelled Cheswill), 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 Newmarket, N.H. Richard’s land purchase is considered the first by an African-American in New Hampshire.
Hopestill, a housewright and carpenter, 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 (since burned in the Portsmouth fire of 1867).
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 worked as a schoolmaster in Newmarket. By the time he reached 21 he owned more than 30 acres and a pew in the meetinghouse.
At 21 he married 17-year-old Mary Davis of Durham, N.H. They had 13 children. Their descendants identified as white, and the census listed Cheswell as white. Records of comments by his contemporaries suggest they viewed him as biracial.
In 1768, 22-year-old Wentworth Cheswell won election as town constable. George Mason University determined that made him the first African-American 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.
Riding With Revere
He also won election as 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 and Paul Revere rode in different directions to warn Portsmouth citizens of the approach of two British warships. The British intended 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. When he finished his military service he 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 earned the distinction as 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.
This story about Wentworth Cheswell was updated in 2020.