This Day in History: Wentworth Cheswell: Grandson of a slave, Elected official—Patriot!
On this day in 1817, an American Patriot passes away. Wentworth Cheswell was the grandson of a slave, and yet he lived life as a free man. He was even elected to public office. But there is much more to Cheswell than just his lineage. Most importantly, he was a Patriot who served his country in multiple ways during the American Revolution. Indeed, he held public positions for much of his life.
Cheswell (or Cheswill) was born in New Hampshire in 1746. Although his grandfather had been a slave, his father lived life as a free man. Hopestill Cheswell was a master housewright who built homes for Patriots such as John Paul Jones. He soon earned enough money to purchase more than 100 acres of his own land. Hopestill’s prosperity gave him the means to provide his son with a formal education. Such an education would have been rare for a “country boy.” Once his education was complete, Cheswell was a school teacher for a short period of time. It wasn’t long before he was an established property owner and a respected member of his community. Indeed, from 1768 until his death in 1817, Cheswell held a variety of public positions.
Actually, he held many positions. He was a constable, a town selectman, a keeper of town records, town assessor, a coroner, and a justice of the peace. He helped develop education regulations for the local schools, and he helped start the town’s first private library.
He held at least one other important position on the eve of the American Revolution. He was a messenger for his local Committee of Safety, and he made at least one Paul Revere-type ride to warn locals of British movements. Some people have called him the “black Paul Revere” for his efforts that evening.
Later, Cheswell served in the military for a short period of time during the Revolution. He was a member of a select company known as Langdon’s Company of Light Horse Volunteers. John Langdon led his men, including Cheswell, to Saratoga in 1777. Americans, of course, won an important victory at the Battle of Saratoga. Indeed, that victory prompted France to join the war effort as an ally of the American colonies.
Some people cite Cheswell as the first black man to be elected to a public office in America. As a matter of full disclosure, his mother was Caucasian and his father was biracial. Unfortunately, even the fact that he was 1/4 black would have disqualified him from service in some states during our country’s early years. In fact, when Congress debated the Missouri Compromise in 1820, Cheswell was used as an example on the Senate floor. Cheswell and his family, it was said, “were respectable in point 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. But, this family are forbidden to enter and live in Missouri.”
Cheswell did not live to see this congressional debate. He had unfortunately contracted typhus fever, and he passed away on March 8, 1817.
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Debates of Congress (Dec. 11, 1820)
Joseph Harvey, An Unchartered Town: Newmarket on the Lamprey—Historical Notes and Personal Sketches: Wentworth Cheswell (The Granite Monthly magazine) (Volume 40)
Mark Sammons & Valerie Cunningham, Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage (2004)
Nancy Sanders, America’s Black Founders: Revolutionary Heroes & Early Leaders (2010)
William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855).