Benning Wentworth was born July 24, 1696 in Portsmouth, Province of New Hampshire.
He was the eldest child of one of the most prominent families in the colony of New Hamshire.
His father John Wentworth became a Lieutenant Governor and his great-grandfather was the “Elder” William Wentworth.
Benning went on to graduate from Harvard College in 1715.
He married Abigail Ruck in Boston in 1719. They had three children who lived to maturity, but none married or survived their father.
Benning then became a merchant at Portsmouth, and frequently represented the town in the provincial assembly.
He was appointed as a King’s Councillor, on October 12, 1734.
Then a series of twists of fate brought Benning Wentworth to the colonial governor’s chair of New Hampshire in 1741.
For many years his father John 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 in 1741.
At the time, Benning 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.
Benning had had to borrow money to pay his own creditors, and had lobbied London to secure payment from Spain.
These diplomatic moves were unsuccessful and in fact had started the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739 as a result of these disputes.
Benning 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 Benning Wentworth abandon his claim against the British government.
Governor of New Hampshire
Benning Wentworth’s commission as governor of New Hampshire was issued in June of 1741.
On December 13, 1741, Benning Wentworth assumed the office.
Governor Wentworth was authorized by the Crown to grant patents of unoccupied land.
He was also appointed the king’s surveyor general.
Benning also gave important government patronage positions to relatives.
Benning Wentworth Grants
Then on January 3, 1749, Benning began to enrich himself by a clever scheme of selling land in what is now southern Vermont to developers and making land grants in spite of jurisdictional claims for this region by the Province of New York.
This first land grant included a township west of the Connecticut River he named Bennington after himself.
Cautioned by New York to cease and desist, Governor Wentworth promised to await the judgment of the king, and refrain from making more grants in the claimed territory until it was rendered, but in November 1753, New York reported that he continued to grant land in the disputed area.
These land grants became known as the New Hampshire Grants or Benning Wentworth Grants and were made between 1749 and 1764.
Benning went on to make 135 land grants totaling about 131 towns.
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).
In each of these land grants, Benning stipulated the reservation of a lot for an Anglican church, and one for himself.
Governor Benning Wentworth also ordered the construction of Fort Wentworth in 1755 at Northumberland, New Hampshire.
His wife Abigail Wentworth died November 8, 1755.
Then in 1760, at age 64, the widower Benning 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.
Ultimately, this land scheme led to a great deal of contention between New York, Massachusetts, and the settlers of this Vermont Republic territory.
Businessmen and residents grew increasingly resentful of Benning’s corruption, taxes, and mismanagement and neglect of the crown’s timber interests, forcing his resignation as governor in 1767.
His nephew John Wentworth succeeded him as governor.
Benning then donated 500 acres of land to Dartmouth College for construction of its buildings.
Benning Wentworth died October 14, 1770.
Martha Wentworth, was the sole heir of her husband’s large property after his death.
The land disputes however outlived Benning.
In 1777, the citizens of the land grant territory established its own constitution and declared independence.
What they referred to as the Vermont Republic was not granted any formal recognition, but the territory had all of the trappings of government, including courts, an assembly, and even its own currency.
During the later stages of the Revolutionary War Vermont’s leaders engaged in controversial negotiations with British authorities in Quebec over the possibility of reintroducing British control over the area.
Following the American Revolutionary War, it became clear to the Congress and New York that the region of the New Hampshire Grants should become a state. The idea was pursued at several stages, ending in failure for one reason or another until 1790, when New York consented to the admission of Vermont into the Union, ceded control of the New Hampshire Grants to Vermont and stated the New York-Vermont boundary should be the western edge of the New Hampshire Grants and the mid-channel of Lake Champlain.
Vermont’s border with New Hampshire is still the western bank of the Connecticut River (unlike other riverine political boundaries, which usually follow the river’s main channel).
Vermont voters ratified the United States Constitution on January 6, 1791 and the U.S. Congress passed the resolution admitting Vermont into the Union on February 18.
On March 4, 1791, Vermont became the 14th state, the first state admitted to the Union after the original 13 colonies.
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