Who Was Benning Wentworth?

Benning Wentworth, First Colonial Governor of New Hampshire

Benning Wentworth was the first colonial Governor of New Hampshire and played a pivotal roll in the establishment and settling of towns and land boundaries throughout the Upper Valley. He presided as Governor of NH from 1741 to 1766. Wentworth was born, raised and died in New Hampshire. He was a merchant who graduated from Harvard College. The Wentworth family became one of the most recognized families in the colony for both their business and political aspirations.

Benning Wentworth & The Upper Valley

Governor Benning Wentworth was given authority by the King to establish the area and issue grants for unoccupied land. Wentworth began issuing land grants in southern Vermont in 1749. Although accused of issuing grants for these areas of land to promote his own self-interest, what Benning Wentworth was actually doing was issuing charters to establish towns which were self sufficient and based on fee simple ownership of land, allowing settlers and residents to hold the highest possible ownership interest which can be held in real property.

Setting Boundaries

Unlike the establishment of New York, the New Hampshire Grants, also known as the Wentworth Grants, created land boundaries which more or less outlined the sense of the towns we have today. New York set larger, boundaries which is why ultimately the charters made by Wentworth west of the Connecticut River took a foothold and held up against New York’s objections. If Benning Wentworth did not charter land west of the Connecticut River, Vermont would not exist, at least in its current form.

Dividing The Land

Benning Wentworth, Governor of New HampshireWentworth issued charters to investors who were primarily from Massachusetts. Ultimately, 100 acre lots were measured and sold to individuals and families who were excited to move north to settle new towns. To help move the progression of the towns and increase the population of the undeveloped land in the Upper Valley, rules were established and read that if the land is not cultivated and personally occupied it would be forfeited. The new land owners must have adhered to the 5 years 5 acre rule, meaning they needed to cultivate 5 acres of land in 5 years for every 50 acres of land that they owned. To prove the land had been cultivated, owners made payments in ears of corn once per year for ten years.

New York, New Hampshire & Vermont

While New York was known for issuing large parcels of land to the rich and powerful, we must keep in mind that Wentworth issued smaller parcels of land, in fee simple, to investors which was ultimately divided and sold to families who wished to settled the area. Differing from New York, the New Hampshire Grants made clear that the land would be settled, established and towns made to flourish, while New York was satisfied with leaving the land unsettled and unoccupied and certainly was not a proponent for self-governing by the settlers themselves.

However, once Wentworth had worked to improve the land and 128 towns were established through the Wentworth/New Hampshire Grants, New York decided to post claim to all the land and rely on a very vague, 100 year old grant which was issued to the Duke of York. They imposed new grants in addition to the Wentworth Grants and tried to extort settlers by requiring them to repurchase land deeds at excessive costs from New York. As one would imagine, the public was not pleased and a movement resulting in the Vermont Republic was born. Read more about this here: New Hampshire / Wentworth Grants.

Notable Facts; Benning Wentworth

Benning Wentworth was married to his wife, Abigail Ruck. They married in Boston in 1719. They had three children together, none of which survived Wentworth himself. His wife passed away in 1755 and Wentworth remarried in 1760. He was 64 years old when he new marriage sparked cries of scandal and disapproval as he was wed to his younger housekeeper, who had tended to the family since before his wife’s death. The scandal was even noted by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was inspired to write “Lady Wentworth“, a poem about Martha Wentworth, former housekeeper and new wife to Benning Wentworth.

Still a mystery beckoning the question why, Wentworth had marked on each map a 500 acre reserved area of land in each town by designating it with the letter “B.W.”. To this day no one knows exactly what his intentions were. Itis unknown whether it was by orders of the King or done on his own personal accord.

Upper Ammonoosuc River, Connecticut River

Benning Wentworth ordered the construction of Fort Wentworth in Northumberland, New Hampshire during the French and Indian war. The fort was built high on a plateau where the Connecticut River and the Upper Ammonoosuc River intersect. The fort, being built in northern New Hampshire, also was utilized to help stave off British troops descending from Quebec, Canada during the American Revolutionary War. The fort is not a historical site or destination, but all that is left are remains.

The public became more resentful of Wentworth’s administration throughout the years as corruption, higher taxation and neglect began to run rampant. Benning Wentworth was forced to resign from the position of Governor in 1767. Soon after Governor Benning Wentworth resigned from office, he donated 500 acres of land to Dartmouth College for the construction of their campus. Benning Wentworth’s successor was his own nephew, John Wentworth.