Benning Wentworth

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Benning Wentworth
Governor Benning Wentworth.jpg
Portrait of Governor Benning Wentworth (1760) by Joseph Blackburn
Governor of the Province of New Hampshire
In office
1741–1766
Preceded by John Wentworth (elder) (acting)
Succeeded by John Wentworth (younger)
Personal details
Born 24 July 1696
Portsmouth, Province of New Hampshire
Died 14 October 1770
Portsmouth, Province of New Hampshire
Spouse(s) Abigail Ruck
Martha Hilton
Signature

Benning Wentworth (24 July 1696 – 14 October 1770) was the colonial governor of New Hampshire from 1741 to 1766.

Early years[edit]

The eldest child of Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth, he was a great-grandson of "Elder" William Wentworth. Benning was born and died in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Under his father's leadership, the Wentworths had become one of the most prominent political and merchant families in the small colony.

Benning Wentworth graduated from Harvard College in 1715. He became a merchant at Portsmouth, and frequently represented the town in the provincial assembly. He was appointed as a King's Councillor, 12 October 1734.

Governor of New Hampshire[edit]

A series of twists of fate brought Wentworth to the governor's chair in 1741. For many years his father had been lobbying colonial officials to establish a separate governorship for New Hampshire. Until then it had been under the oversight of the governor of the neighboring (and much larger) Province of Massachusetts Bay. Jonathan Belcher, governor of both provinces during the 1730s and a Massachusetts native, had during his tenure issued many land grants to Massachusetts interests in disputed areas west of the Merrimack River. There were claims that he was biased in his awards. The dispute finally reached the highest levels of King George II's government by the late 1730s, and the Board of Trade decided to separate the two governorships.

At the time, Wentworth was in London dealing with a personal financial crisis. He had delivered a shipment of timber to Spain in 1733, but was not paid by the Spanish because of an episode of difficult diplomatic relations at the time. Wentworth had had to borrow money to pay his own creditors, and had lobbied London to secure payment from Spain. The diplomatic moves were unsuccessful (the War of Jenkins' Ear started in 1739 as a result of these disputes), and Wentworth was forced into bankruptcy. As part of the bankruptcy, he claimed £11,000 were owed him by the British government due to the Spanish failure to pay. His London creditors agreed to forgo immediate repayment of the debt if the government gave him the governorship of New Hampshire. This was agreed, on the condition that Wentworth abandon his claim against the British government.[1]

Wentworth's commission as governor of New Hampshire was issued in June 1741; he was also later be appointed the king's surveyor general.[1] On 13 December 1741 Wentworth assumed the office.

Wentworth was authorised by the Crown to grant patents of unoccupied land, and in 1749 began making grants in what is now southern Vermont. He enriched himself by a clever scheme of selling land to developers in spite of jurisdictional claims for this region by the Province of New York. He often named the new townships after famous contemporaries in order to gain support for his enterprises (for example, Rutland is named after John Manners, 3rd Duke of Rutland; he named Bennington after himself). In each of the grants, he stipulated the reservation of a lot for an Anglican church, and one for himself. Ultimately, this scheme led to a great deal of contention between New York, Massachusetts, and the settlers in Vermont. The dispute outlived Wentworth's administration, lasting until Vermont was admitted as a state in 1791.

A fact often overlooked among those who accuse Wentworth of overweening self-interest is that the charters he issued (known as the New Hampshire Grants) were intended to establish self-supporting towns based on democratic government and fee simple ownership of land. The Wentworth grants created modern towns in this sense, unlike New Netherland and New York, for example. The grants were all similar: the towns were 6 miles square, containing about 24,000 acres. The charters required set-asides to support the school, the settled minister, the Glebe, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. He issued the charters to groups of investors in southern New England, most of whom never set foot there. They hired surveyors who measured off 100-acre lots, and then hired middlemen who sold the lots to individuals and families eager to move north out of the already-crowded lower colonies. To prevent runaway speculation, failure to personally occupy and put the land under cultivation resulted in forfeiture. Wentworth's charters called for settlers to cultivate 5 acres in 5 years for every 50 acres they owned. Proof of cultivation was payment of an ear of Indian corn in Portsmouth once a year at Christmas (Lady Day), for the first 10 years. Thereafter, once the economy was up and running and hard currency was available, the "tax" was 1 shilling per year for every 100 acres owned, in perpetuity. When 50 families had settled the town could have a market and 2 fairs per year. An equally important and universally missed fact is that the Wentworth charters stipulated the formation of a town government and an annual Town Meeting, to be held the first Tuesday in March. This town meeting practice still holds today.[2]

It is true that Wentworth reserved 500 acres in the contiguous corners of each town, marked on maps with "B. W.",[2] but it still is not clear whether he did so as a private individual or as a representative of the Crown. More study in original documents is needed.

He ordered the construction of Fort Wentworth, built in 1755 at Northumberland, New Hampshire and named for him. Wentworth gave important government patronage positions to relatives together with extensive grants of land. Businessmen and residents grew increasingly resentful of his administration's corruption, taxes, and mismanagement and neglect of the crown's timber interests, forcing his resignation in 1767. Afterward, Wentworth donated 500 acres of land to Dartmouth College for construction of its buildings. His nephew John Wentworth succeeded him as governor.

To understand the controversy with New York Province, who contended for the same land area, it is necessary to remember that Wentworth's charters provided for ownership in fee simple. New York still operated on a quasi-feudal system (perhaps borrowing from the Dutch patroon system), awarding enormous tracts of land to political favorites, who saw no need to provide for schools or allow self-government by settlers. As a result, your yeoman farmer, who assumed his New Hampshire deed was valid, became a tenant farmer overnight. Waiting until 128towns in the New Hampshire Grants had come under cultivation, New York moved in and claimed them all on the strength of an ill-defined 100-year-old grant to the Duke of York (the future James II) by his brother Charles II, imposing entire new grants on top of the Wentworth grants, and requiring landowners to repurchase their deeds at exorbitant fees from New York Province. A furor resulted, and even when the Crown imposed a moratorium in 1764 of all chartering and Wentworth stopped, New York continued with the practice, to the disgust and outrage of Ethan Allen, among others.

Family[edit]

Council Chambers in the Wentworth mansion where Wentworth presided over provincial council meetings. He married his second wife in front of the fireplace.[3]

He married Abigail Ruck in Boston in 1719. They had three children who lived to maturity, but none married or survived their father. Abigail Wentworth died 8 November 1755.

On 1760, at age 64, the widower Wentworth married his much younger housekeeper, Martha Hilton. She had been brought up in the family and was housekeeper at the time of his first wife's death. The marriage was the subject of considerable scandal at the time. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “Lady Wentworth” about Martha Wentworth. She was the sole heir of her husband's large property after his death.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Clark, Charles. The Eastern Frontier. New York: Knopf, 1970. p. 301
  2. ^ a b Charters as reprinted in Vermont town histories
  3. ^ C.S. Gurney, Portsmouth, Historic and Picturesque, (1902), p. 98 (at http://www.archive.org/stream/portsmouthhistor00gurn#page/98/mode/2up )

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Jonathan Belcher
Governor of the Province of New Hampshire
4 June 1741 – 30 July 1767
Succeeded by
John Wentworth