Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Gov. John Wentworth travels across New Hampshire
During the 26 years when Benning Wentworth was the colonial governor of New Hampshire, he put self-interest at the forefront. By the time his nephew John Wentworth took over from him in 1767, times had changed and a different approach to governing was called for. Although the province’s top elected, administrative, and judicial posts largely remained in the hands of the Wentworth family and its associates, John realized that his outlook had to extend beyond this inner circle. He understood that he had a duty to serve the growing number of common settlers, especially those living in the interior regions. No longer could the province’s wealth and power remain concentrated within the capital city of Portsmouth.
Gov. John Wentworth served as the chosen representative of King George III and of the British government. Conflicts arose between his responsibility to enforce the taxes and other mandates coming from England and the needs and desires of the people. John’s situation became increasingly difficult as thoughts of rebellion began to be entertained within the colonies. In their 1976 history of New Hampshire, Elizabeth and Elting Morison wrote, “John Wentworth never questioned the premise that the mother country had the right to command her colony, but he recognized that the colonists’ needs and feelings must be taken into account even as they were being required to serve England. Given his age, background, experience, and wealth, the young governor’s perspective was extraordinary.”
John took to the dirt roads of New Hampshire, stopping at towns and settlements where he got to know the people who depended on him. He promoted the growth of the lumber industry and of farming, the building blocks of the province’s economy. To encourage commerce, John had a network of roads constructed between population centers. In 1769 he decentralized the province’s court system, which was based in Portsmouth, by creating New Hampshire’s first five (of what are now 10) counties: Cheshire, Grafton, Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford.
The governor was greatly admired and appreciated by the people he ruled. In late 1773 or early 1774 he received a letter from the inhabitants of Londonderry, who expressed their “sentiments of gratitude and affection …(as) your ears have always been open to their voice. The easy access they have gained and the polite reception they had met with from you, has afforded them the means of communicating … all necessary information of their wishes and their wants.”
Nothing demonstrated John Wentworth’s enthusiasm for his native province more than his efforts to promote development in Wolfeborough. In 1759, when he was only 22 years old, he joined a group of friends in investing in the Wolfeborough land grant, which was located about 50 miles northwest of Portsmouth on Lake Winnipesaukee. This territory was still sparsely populated in 1768 when John acquired about 4,000 acres of land there for his own use. His property was situated along Smith’s Pond (now Lake Wentworth, which drains into Crescent Lake and then into Lake Winnipesaukee).
The governor had a portion of his land cleared in 1768 and began work on his new mansion on a plot of land about a quarter-mile from Smith’s Pond. Within several months, the completed Wentworth House was as grand as any mansion in Portsmouth. The mansion’s grounds included orchards, cultivated farmland, a stable, a coach house, a blacksmith’s shop and a grist and saw mill.
John so loved the country life that he wanted to live in Wolfeborough year-round, but he had to give up this dream after marrying his young socialite cousin, Frances Atkinson, in November 1769. Frances was not interested in spending time in what she called the “solitary wilderness.” While living in Wentworth House one summer, she wrote to a friend, complaining that she hardly saw her husband as he was always busy with the workmen, and stating that she would much prefer a ballroom to a grove.
As the governor’s splendid country estate gained notice, other wealthy people built their own summer homes nearby, and Wolfeborough began to attract farmers, shopkeepers and land speculators. The town was incorporated in 1770, and by 1775 it had 200 residents. Wolfeborough (now Wolfeboro) became a popular tourist destination, and is now known as “Oldest Summer Resort in America.”
Next week: Gov. John Wentworth, the founding of Dartmouth College, and the coming American Revolution.
Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.