Benning Wentworth

Benning Wentworth

(1696 – 1770)

It can easily be said that if it hadn’t been for Benning Wentworth, Vermont probably would not exist (at least, not as we know it).

Son of John Wentworth (Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, 1717-30) and named for his paternal grandmother, Mary Benning. Upon graduation from Harvard he joined his father and uncle in their merchant business; appointed first Royal Governor of New Hampshire (1741-1766).

Starting with Bennington in 1749, Wentworth granted (read: sold) to speculators large tracts of land (towns) in what would become Vermont, despite claims on the territory by the Province of New York and a subsequent Royal Order to discontinue the activity. Pocketing the hefty £20 fee paid by each of (usually) sixty grantees per town and reserving two “shares” (500 acres) of each town for himself, he became very wealthy in the process (not an unusual practice among Colonial Governors). To guarantee the support of the clergy, a plot of land was reserved in each town for a church. Desperately wanting a title for himself, he named most of the towns to honor rich and politically powerful people (many of whom were members of the peerage), seeking to curry their support in his quest.

Wentworth’s “New Hampshire Grants” set the stage for a bitter struggle between “Yorkers” and settlers who, having bought land from the speculators, had endured the hardships of making a life in a wilderness. While King George II had placed the eastern boundary of New York 20 miles east of and parallel to the Hudson River (roughly its present location), his grandson, George III, decreed the Connecticut River to be the boundary, handing to New York half of present-day Connecticut and Massachusetts and all of what would become Vermont, invalidating settlers’ claims to the land. The real blow came when, despite George III’s instruction not to disturb settlers already in place, New York courts ruled that the settlers would have to buy their land again, this time from holders of New York “patents” on the properties. The atmosphere was ripe for someone like Ethan Allen to enter the scene, advocating freedom from New York and to “organize” the affected settlers into “The Green Mountain Boys”.

Residents of the Province of New Hampshire loved their “Uncle Benning,” a widower who would have been quite the catch for any eligible woman. He caused quite a stir when, at the age of 64, he married a woman well beneath his station and age, in the person of Martha Hilton, his chambermaid, who was quite young enough to be his granddaughter.

He ruled well, but, like other colonial governors was constantly at odds with his Assembly. He loyally supported the Stamp Act of 1765; when the Assembly tried to send delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York to protest these oppressive new taxes, Wentworth exercised his power as Governor to dismiss the Assembly.

He now had the people to deal with, who were quite unhappy that he had prevented their being represented at the Congress. There were accusations of nepotism: appointing relatives to government jobs (true) and giving them large tracts of rich land (also true). Stories told by purchasers of worthless swampland and mountainsides in “The Grants” started to surface. Eventually, less affectionate names than “Uncle” began circulating.

Despite all, he was allowed to resign from office rather than be removed, and he retired with Martha to his splendid home on Little Harbor. He had accumulated a sizable fortune from The Grants while serving longer than any other colonial governor, and the hornet’s nest he had stirred up by creating what would become Vermont was now in the hands of his nephew John, who succeeded him as Governor.