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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Tense times force the Wentworths to flee Portsmouth

April 19. 2017 8:46PM

Portrait of Adm. Samuel Graves, the naval commander in Boston in 1775. Oil painting by James Northcote, artist of Plymouth, England. 

By 1774, conflicts between the British government and American colonists had reached a boiling point. That year a powerful opposition government was created in New Hampshire, dedicated to self-governance. The New Hampshire Provincial Congress first met in Exeter on July 21, 1774, when it elected two delegates to participate in the first Continental Congress, which was to meet in Philadelphia that fall.

The Provincial Congress threatened the authority of the royal government, which consisted of an elected Assembly led by officials appointed by the British government — Gov. John Wentworth and his Council. Royal control was severely weakened in December 1774 with the patriot raid on Fort William and Mary in New Castle. Afterward, Gov. Wentworth still hung on, bolstered by the presence of the British warship H.M.S. Scarborough, which was anchored in Portsmouth Harbor.

Even after the onset of armed conflict with the Battles of Lexington and Concord (Mass.) on April 19, 1775, Wentworth remained faithful to his duties. He opened a session of the Assembly in Portsmouth on May 5, but this was adjourned on May 6 by request of the elected representatives as they needed time to consider certain matters, including what to do about Col. John Fenton. Elected in February to represent the town of Plymouth, Fenton was a former British Army officer, who had recently published an inflammatory and condescending anti-patriot screed addressed “To the People of the Country of Grafton, from a friend who sincerely wishes their well-being.”

Fenton expected to take his seat in the Assembly, but his fervent Loyalist sentiments had attracted the attention of the Provincial Congress, which had voted that “Colonel Fenton is not a friend of this country.” When the Assembly reconvened on June 12, its members refused to seat Fenton, who loudly protested. Sensing hostility from the populace, Fenton decided to take refuge on board the Scarborough, but thought he would first pay a friendly visit to Gov. Wentworth at his mansion.

As soon as Fenton entered the governor’s house, it was surrounded by a crowd of armed men, and a cannon was pointed menacingly at the front door. To protect the Wentworth family, Fenton gave himself up to the patriot mob. He was escorted to Exeter and held prisoner there and at other locations for about three months, before being allowed to return to his native Ireland.

On the night of June 12, Gov. John Wentworth, his wife Frances, and their 4-month-old son Charles fled to Fort William and Mary, where they would live in a small drafty house for the next several weeks. There, Wentworth would learn of the Battle of Bunker Hill that took place on June 17 in Charlestown, near Boston — where patriots from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island had shown resolve in a bloody fight against British regulars. He also learned that the Provincial Congress had taken possession of the government’s records, and that his beloved country estate in Wolfeborough had been ransacked. One day in July Wentworth wrote to a friend that, despite his and his family’s discomfort, “I will not complain, because it would be a poignant censure on a people I love and forgive.”

After arriving in Portsmouth in December 1774, Capt. Andrew Barkley of the Scarborough had arranged for his crew to occasionally pick up meat and other fresh provisions in port in exchange for protecting the local fishing fleet. After a time, the situation proved unworkable as accusations of bad faith and criminal activity arose on both sides. All Wentworth could do was to persuade Barkley not to sail up the Piscataqua River as he had threatened to use the 22-gun Scarborough to “wreak vengeance on the whole town.”

On Aug. 23, 1775 Capt. Barkley sailed the Scarborough to Boston to obtain supplies. He planned to return to Portsmouth. Fearful of being left unprotected at Fort William and Mary while the ship was away, the Wentworths boarded the Scarborough for the voyage. However, once the vessel arrived in Boston Harbor, the British naval commander, Adm. Samuel Graves, reassigned it to other duty. The Wentworths were left stranded in Boston, which was in a dire situation with the British army under siege, surrounded by hostile patriot forces.

Next week: Gov. John Wentworth’s last official act, and life in exile.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at

Aurore Eaton

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