Site Number 5. Cheswill Cemetery. Wentworth Cheswill. Born and died in Newmarket. 1746 to 1817. Scholar. Teacher. Historian. Assessor. Archeologist. Auditor. Justice of the Peace. Patriot. His ancestry was three quarters European… one quarter African.
By 1717, his African grandfather Richard had purchased both his freedom and 20 acres of land from the Hilton family. It is the earliest-known New Hampshire deed of land ownership by a black man. Wentworth’s father Hopestill became a successful builder in the Portsmouth area. He added to the family’s holdings in Newmarket and enrolled his son in the Governor Dummer Academy—an unusual privilege for a country boy of that time.
After completing his education, Wentworth returned to Newmarket and became the village schoolmaster. By the time he was 21, Wentworth Cheswill purchased land from his father and married 17-year-old Mary Davis, with whom he had 13 children.
In 1768 Cheswill was elected constable—the first African American to be elected to public office in the country. He served in local government for the rest of his life. Supporting American independence, Cheswill joined the Committee of Safety, participating in the raid on Ft. William and Mary, riding to spread news of British plans, and later serving under Colonel John Langdon in the 1777 Saratoga campaign—the first major American victory.
In 1801, he co-founded Newmarket’s first social library. From 1805 until his death in 1817, Cheswill was the county Justice of the Peace. Three years later, New Hampshire Senator David Morril cited his many contributions as a mixed-race citizen, during a Senate debate over the Missouri Compromise allowing slavery in new states. Over the next century, he was remembered as a patriot and town father, although mention of his mixed race ancestry was often missing.
By the late 20th century, local awareness of this town father and patriot seemed to have disappeared—until 2000, when Sandy Bressler, the wife of a Cheswill descendant, contacted Richard Alperin who bought the property where Cheswill had lived. She inquiired as to the upkeep of the cemetery. It was then that he discovered Wentworth Cheswill, his service to country and community, and his status as the accomplished grandson of an African slave. By that time this cemetery needed some attention. Mr. Alperin soon contacted family members and sought to repair the cemetery through various venues. Thru his initiuated efforts a state historic marker was installed.
And in 2020, as our nation struggled to come to terms with deep-seated racism, a new generation in Newmarket began a different initiative: a statue in honor of Wentworth Cheswill. So the work goes on.
Head back toward town to 204 South Main Street—site of the Cheswill Mansion.
END OF AUDIO TEXT. See below for photos and more information.
Raised in an era known for the trade of sugar and slaves, Wentworth Cheswill became the first African American elected to public office. Like Paul Revere, he rode as a messenger for the patriotic cause. He was also an early archeologist who donated books and funds to establish his community’s first library.
Wentworth Cheswill (also spelled Cheswell) was an American assessor, auditor, Justice of the Peace, teacher and Revolutionary War veteran in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He was of mixed race, one-quarter African and three-quarters European, and listed in the census as white. Elected as town constable in 1768, he served in many other positions in local government every year but one until his death. In 1801, Wentworth was among the founders of the first private library in the town (the Newmarket Social Library) and provided in his will for public access to his personal library.
Cheswill is considered by George Mason University to be the first African American elected to public office in the history of the United States. Around the time of his marriage, Wentworth purchased a plot of land from his father Hopestill Cheswill. His grandfather Richard is believed to be the first African American in New Hampshire to own land. A deed shows that in 1717 Richard purchased 20 acres from the Hilton grant. It was located in the northern reaches of Exeter—the area that would become Newmarket in 1727.
Wentworth was the only child born in Newmarket, New Hampshire to Hopestill Cheswill—a free black man of biracial ancestry—and his wife, Katherine (Keniston) Cheswill, who was white. The senior Cheswill was a master housewright and carpenter who worked mostly in the thriving city of Portsmouth. Among other projects, he helped to build the Bell Tavern in 1743 on Congress Street and the John Paul Jones House, originally owned by Captain Gregory Purcell and now a designated National Historic Landmark. The Jones house was an example of classic mid-eighteenth century elite housing. The Jones House has served for years as the Portsmouth Historical Society Museum.
Hopestill Cheswill also built the Samuel Langdon House, which was moved to Sturbridge Village; it is a central exhibit demonstrating 18th century construction technology.
He was born free to a white mother and Richard Cheswill, an enslaved black laborer, in Exeter, New Hampshire, who was the first Cheswill recorded in New England. (Because his mother was free, the boy was free, according to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which children followed the mother’s status, which was incorporated into slave law in the colonies.) Hopestill was the only known child of this union.
After gaining his own freedom, Richard Cheswill purchased 20 acres (81,000 m2) of land from the Hilton Grant. The deed, dated 18 October 1717, is the earliest-known deed showing land ownership by a black man in present-day New Hampshire. This land was located in the part of Exeter that would soon become the town of Newmarket.
Hopestill Cheswill earned enough as a housewright to purchase a total of more than 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land between 1733 and 1749, which he farmed while working as a housewright. Later, he had part ownership of a sawmill and stream in Durham, as well as “mill privilege” at another falls, to handle his need for lumber. His prosperity helped provide for his son’s education.
He sent his son Wentworth as a student to Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts. There the youth studied with the Harvard graduate William Moody, who taught the classical subjects of Latin and Greek, reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as swimming and horsemanship. As Erik Tuveson noted in his master’s thesis on the first three generations of Cheswills, the youth’s education was:
…an unusual privilege for a country boy of that time. Few people of the colonial era were formally educated, mostly due to cost and lack of inexpensive public schooling. Education of any formal sort in colonial New England carried a significant degree of elite social status.
After completing his education, Wentworth Cheswill returned to Newmarket to become a schoolmaster. In 1765, he purchased his first parcel of land from his father. By early 1767, he was an established landowner with more than 30 acres and held a pew in the meetinghouse. By 1770, he was married, had started a family and owned 114 acres.
Cheswill was first elected to public office in 1768 as the town constable, and later was elected to local offices every year (except for 1788) until his death in 1817, to positions such as town selectman, auditor, assessor, and others. George Mason University in Virginia has recently (2008) declared Wentworth Cheswill to be the first African American elected to public office in the history of the United States—a distinction previously believed to have later such citizens—Alexander Twilight of Vermont (1836), John Mercer Langston of Virginia (1888), or Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina (1870) for the title.
Cheswill married 17-year-old Mary Davis of Durham, New Hampshire on 13 September 1767. According to a 1908 “History of Newmarket” article in the Newmarket Advertiser, …she is supposed to have belonged to the Packers Falls branch who long resided on the west side of the road leading from Newmarket through Hallsville, so called, the house being about a mile and a half from the village.
Mary’s parents were David and Elizabeth (Crommett) Davis. Her paternal grandfather David Davis of the (Bay Road) Smith-Davis Garrison had been killed by Indians in 1696, after which the family moved to Packers Falls—hence the “Packers Falls” label.
Mary’s maternal grandmother (Elizabeth Crommett’s mother) was Elizabeth Kenniston.  While there is no documentation showing a relationship with Katherine Keniston (Wentworth Cheswill’s mother), such multiple connections among families were not unusual in colonial New England.
Not all colonial women were educated or literate, but Mary Davis Cheswill most likely was both. She must have shared her husband’s literary interests, as a codicil to his will bequeathed to her his private library as well as his share in the Newmarket Social Library.
Eleven months after their marriage, their first child was born. Twelve more would follow. Such large families were not unusual during this era, and the Cheswill family records of birth dates and names help to paint a picture of the challenging (and often unsung) role of women in early American families. During their first 25 years of marriage, Mary was either with child or recovering from childbirth (a span of about 12 months) for well over half of that time.
There were on average about 22 months between births; and Mary enjoyed a total of about 11 years out of that quarter century when she was not pregnant or newly-delivered of a child. Two daughters died very shortly after birth, and two others (Elizabeth and William) both died at age 21.
Daughter—died at birth (3/4/1787),
Daughter—died after 7 days (10/2/1790),
A number of Wentworth and Mary’s surviving heirs married and had children—many of whom remained in the area. Son Thomas Cheswill attended Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, NH and later became a Deacon. Thomas’ wife and children remained in Newmarket, and are buried in Riverside Cemetery. Others were buried here.
During the American Revolution, the citizens of Newmarket, including Cheswill, were unequivocally for the patriotic cause. In April 1776, along with 162 other Newmarket men, Cheswill signed the Association Test. Patriots collected signatures of people opposed to what they considered the hostile actions by 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 most of the colonists.
Cheswill was elected town messenger for the Committee of Safety, which entrusted him to carry news to and from the Provincial Committee at Exeter. On 13 December 1774, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth to warn the town that the British warships, frigate Scarborough and the sloop of war Canseau, were on their way to re-take possession of Ft. William and Mary. When Portsmouth asked for help from neighboring communities, Newmarket held a town meeting to decide on their response. Townsmen voted to send 30 armed men to Portsmouth. Cheswill helped spread the warning from Portsmouth which resulted with the attack on the Newcastle Fort as colonists removed 100 barrels of gun powder, light cannons, and small arms. Cheswill rode to Exeter to receive further instructions from the committee on where the men were to be sent. He also was with the party that built fire rafts to defend Portsmouth Harbor.
Nearly 90 years after Cheswill’s death, in a 1908 article in The Granite Monthly there was particular mention of Wentworth Cheswill’s patriotic ride. In his article “A Toast to Wentworth Cheswill, John Herman wrote:
Paraphrasing from town records and deliciously embellishing, it has Cheswill ‘booted and spurred for a heavy ride like the immortal Revere.’ He ‘springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns, but lingers and gazes till the vote of the meeting is announced, then bending forward, with word and spur, he urges the faithful beast to highest speed.’ The poetic pageantry is undeniable. Cheswill was regarded as a hero.
As a private he served under Colonel John Langdon in a select company called “Langdon’s Company of Light Horse Volunteers” which helped to bolster the Continental Army at the Saratoga campaign. Langdon’s company of Light Horse Volunteers made the 250-mile march to Saratoga, New York, to join with the Continental Army under General Horatio Gates, defeating British General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, which was the first major American victory in the Revolution. Cheswill’s only military service ended 31 October 1777. As with many other men, he served for only a limited time, as his family was dependent on him for support.
After his service in the war, Cheswill returned to Newmarket and continued his work in town affairs. In addition to running a store next to the school house, he supported his family as a teacher, and was elected and appointed to serve in local government for all but one year of the remainder of his life, as selectman, auditor, assessor, scrivener, and other roles. In 1778 Cheswill was elected to the convention to draft New Hampshire’s first constitution, but he was unable to attend.
First NH Archeologist, Town Librarian & Town Historian
He was interested in artifacts from the town and wrote about his studies; he has been called the first archeologist in New Hampshire for his work. The scholars W. Dennis Chesley and Mary B. Mcallister have said, “Cheswill’s writings clearly contain the seeds of modern archaeological theory. His eighteenth century fieldwork and reports, limited though they were, justify calling him New Hampshire’s first archaeologist.”
In 1801, Cheswill and other men established the first library in Newmarket, the Newmarket Social Library. Of the estates of men who started the library, Cheswill’s was valued the highest at over $13,000. While he bequeathed his collection/library to his wife Mary, he also stated in his will:
“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.”
Cheswill was a self-appointed town historian. As scrivener, he copied many of the town records from 1727, including two regional Congregational Church meetings. He collected stories and took notes of town events as they occurred. Jeremy Belknap, who wrote a three-volume History of New Hampshire, quoted Cheswill at length more than once in his work, and credited him for his local histories. They corresponded several times. Still intact, Cheswill’s original work is kept in the Milne Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire’s Dimond Library.
In 1805, he was elected as the Justice of the Peace for Rockingham County. In that position, he executed deeds, wills, and legal documents, and was a justice in the trial of causes. He served as Justice for the rest of his life.
On 8 March 1817, Wentworth Cheswill died from typhus fever. In his will, he had requested 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, as his last surviving heir, provided the following in her will:
“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.”
Three years after his death, the New Hampshire Senator David L. Morril used him as a positive example of the contributions of mixed-race persons in a speech to the United States Congress regarding the negative effects of discriminatory racial legislation. Morril opposed a bill (the Missouri Compromise) that would forbid mulatto persons to become citizens of Missouri. In his speech Morril noted:
In New Hampshire there was a yellow man by the name of Cheswill, 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.”
John Morril’s U.S. Senate commentary was one of the earliest tributes to Cheswell—and one of the few that acknowledged and highlighted his mixed race. Morril also described the respect and admiration that Wentworth Cheswill had earned during his lifetime.
Cheswill had established himself as a patriot, educator, historian and jurist. He was well known not only at the local level, but also among those at the county and state levels as well. Jeremy Belknap, in his History of New Hampshire acknowledged valuable contributions from Cheswill; and his early research into the artifacts of indigenous (Indian) culture earned him recognition as New Hampshire’s first archeologist. Cheswill’s efforts to develop and sustain a public library beyond his lifetime also must have contributed to his renown among his fellow Newmarketers.
Even as Newmarket became a mill town, with a whole new population of immigrants to absorb, Wentworth Cheswill was not forgotten—as can be seen in the 1908 Granite Monthly article with its description of Cheswill, the Revolutionary patriot.
In 1934, a Portsmouth Herald article mentions Cheswill:
Fred and Jean York, children of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Carl York and little Marie Sinclair, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Sinclair, all descendants of Wentworth Cheswell, one of the town’s first settlers, unveiled the huge boulder by removing an American flag, behind which rested the memorial marker…
These descendants had gathered to place the memorial boulder off of Bay Rd. where they believed the Smith-Davis Garrison was. David Davis, who had been killed at the garrison, was the great-grandfather of Mary and Wentworth’s children.
A 1945 newspaper article reported on a mysterious theft:
Cheswell Cemetery Gate Reported Missing. Citizens of Newmarket have been aroused by the mysterious disappearance of the beautifully designed wrought iron gate from the Cheswell cemetary on Main Street. The oldest cemetery in Newmarket, it was known for many years as the burying ground of the descendents of Wentworth Cheswell, businessman and town father in the late 1700s. Police and caretakers are searching for the gate which has the family name inscribed in its center.
In 1959, local historian Mary Richardson retold the story in the Newmarket Times, “A Mystery on South Main Street.” She described the old cemetery, as being
…surrounded by a stone wall, and on the front is an iron gate. This gate is a fine piece of work with fret work of ornamental designs and it has the name Martha Cheswell, 1861 on the top. The cemetery is well cared for by our town….
This cemetery was always called the Cheswell cemetery because a hero of the Revolutionary War, Wentworth Cheswell, was buried there…
…His wife and two daughters are also buried here…Some of the stones are made of slate and are so old it is impossible to read what is marked on them.
Richardson continued with a description of Cheswill’s prominence in the town (his racial lineage is never mentioned) before describing the mystery. However, Richardson’s telling gives us a happy ending. Six months after the gate’s mysterious disappearance, someone—unseen by the neighbors—returned it, cleaned and painted! At the end of the article, she noted:
Several years ago the few descendants of the Cheswells got together and drew up a paper to have the bodies removed to Riverside Cemetery. They all signed but one, and that stopped the transaction.
Over 40 years later, there was renewed interest in the cemetery and in the patriot who was buried there. In 2000 Richard Alperin and his family moved into 204 South Main Street, a home built on the foundation of the Wentworth Cheswill mansion (Site No. 6). Shortly after, he received a letter from Sacramento, CA. written by Sandy Bressler whose husband was a Cheswill descendant. She was curious about the state of the nearby Cheswill Cemetery—was it being maintained? The cemetery was not part of Mr. Alperin’s property, but he started doing some research to learn more about the original owner(s) of the property. Only then did he discover not only the scope of Cheswill’s service to community, state and country, but also his unique role as an educated and accomplished grandson of an African slave.
Realizing the historical importance of Cheswill, Alperin focused on restoring the cemetery as a step toward awakening public awareness:
~ He and members of the New Market Historical Society petitioned the Town Council to restore it. The council said that they needed to find out who owned the cemetery property first.
~ He discovered that when Elmer Smart (an early 20th century owner) sold the estate, he kept the cemetery for himself—and then forgot about it.
- At that time a deed transfer was required by town selectmen before they would commit to maintain any private graveyard. The state law was later ammended at Alprin’s urging to allow for city/town officials the ability to maintain, if they so desired, a private graveyard when no living descendants could be located.
~ Alperin researched the Smart family until he was able to find a descendent who agreed with the deed transfer to the town.
~ A Cheswill Burying Ground Restoration Fund was initiated, and Arlon Chafee got community musicians involved with benefit performances called The Front Porch Series .
~ Alperin requested a New Hampshire historic marker for the cemetery.
~ Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, Inc. awarded a grant to the Historical Society’s Cheswill Headstone Restoration Fund.
~ Alperin’s research and outreach led to discovery of more and more Cheswill descendants. He hosted a reunion of Cheswill descendants in 2005.
~ In May 2006, Cheswill descendants and the New Hampshire Old Graveyard Association worked to clean and repair gravestones.
The cemetery has been restored and cleaned up, with most gravestones repaired. Cheswill’s original gravestone had become illegible over nearly 200 years, so a replica was made. (The original remains in the Stone School Museum.) The N.H. Historic Marker tells the casual passer-by just a bit about Wentworth Cheswill’s extraordinary life of service.
More than 200 years after his death in 1817, Wentworth Cheswill has once again become a focus of research. A new generation of historians, scholars and civic leaders have renewed efforts to raise awareness and celebrate his legacy. In 2020, as our nation struggled to come to terms with deep-seated racism, Newmarket citizens began a different initiative: a statue in honor of Wentworth Cheswill. So the work goes on.
See the Historical Society website for more information at www.newmarketnhhistoricalsociety.org
Rachel Grace Toussaint, “Legacy of Newmarket founding father revealed”, seacoastonline.com, 22 December 2002, hosted at Newmarket, New Hampshire Historical Society
http://hnn.us/article/51808 (see also: African-American officeholders in the United States, 1789–1866)
Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage, (2004), pp. 32-33, accessed 27 July 2009
Mario de Valdes y Cocom, “Cheswell”, The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, PBS Frontline, 1996
Rev. Steve Williams, “Wentworth Cheswell”, America’s Founding Fathers website, 2009
Barton, David (February, 2009). “WallBuilders - Issues and Articles - A Black Patriot: Wentworth Cheswell”. www.wallbuilders.com. WallBuilders. Retrieved 27 November 2016.
W. Dennis Chesley and Mary B. Mcallister, “Pioneers in New Hampshire Archaeology: Wentworth Cheswell Esquire”, The New Hampshire Archaeologist, Vol. 22 (1), 1981
Mark J. Sammons and Valerie Cunningham, Black Portsmouth: Three Centuries of African-American Heritage, (2004), p. 124, accessed 27 July 2009
Sammons and Cunningham (2004), p. 124
Conversations with Richard Alprin, New Market Historical Society
John Herman, “A Toast to Wentworth Cheswill,” nhmagazine.com March/April 2021
Peg Warner, “Graveyard to get TLC”, seacoastonline.com, 28 April 2006, hosted at Newmarket, New Hampshire Historical Society
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 (February and March 1908).
Knoblock, Glenn A. “Strong and Brave Fellows”, New Hampshire’s Black Soldiers and Sailors of the American Revolution, 1775-1784 (2003).
Tuveson, Erik R. A People of Color: A Study of Race and Racial Identification in New Hampshire, 1750-1825. Thesis for M.A. in History (May 1995). Available at library of the University of New Hampshire.
Mario de Valdes y Cocom, “Cheswell”, The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, PBS Frontline, 1996
Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wentworth_Cheswell, Updated: 2017-02-17
 John Herman, “A Toast to Wentworth Cheswill,” nhmagazine.com March/April 2021
 During this era, spellings often varied, and names were not exception. Extant documents show that he spelled his last name “Cheswill”; however, most of his children used the “Cheswell” spelling.
 A colonial constable’s duties were many and varied, often including: calling and managing elections, collecting taxes, posting notices, serving warrants, organizing watchmen and other groups as necessary for the public good/safety, surveying/boundaries, public health/safety—which could include “road” inspection, and taking criminals into custody.
 John Herman, “A Toast to Wentworth Cheswill,” nhmagazine.com March/April 2021
 His year off from civic office coincides with the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Nothing is written that places Cheswill there. However, he had served under John Langdon (who represented New Hampshire at the Convention) during the Battle of Saratoga. Given Cheswill’s education and abilities, might he have accompanied Col. Langdon to Philadelphia?
 Cheswell was listed as white on the census, but Morril’s reference suggests he was considered mulatto by some contemporaries.