By Charles W. Brewster
Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.
We will now turn our steps to the residence of the next Governor, at Little Harbor. Benning Wentworth, in 1741, received the commission of Governor of New Hampshire, and entered upon the duties of his office with much elation. It is probable that he resided at the homestead for several years, as it was not until 1750 that he built the retired and romantic residence at Little Harbor - about two miles from the center of business - which became his residence ever after, to the termination of the twenty-five years during which he held his commission. His merits or demerits as a Governor we shall not discuss but only draw attention to some of the incidents which belong to the locality, and give interest to the old walls when visitors look upon them.
The house is generally of two stories in height, with wings forming three sides of a square. Its style of architecture is non-descript. It appears a group of buildings, such as from time to time may have been attached to one another, of no particular height or size. It contained for nearly fifty-two rooms - a part of the house was a few years since removed, leaving now forty-five apartments. The house is so hid behind an eminence that it is not visible from the road, and cannot be seen until you enter the gate. On the north and east the prospect is open to the water. The cellar is extensive, and for safety the Governor kept his horses there in time of danger. A troop of thirty horses could here be accommodated.
The mansion has yet the Council Chamber, an imposing, high studded room, where meetings important to the State and nation were held by the council for many years. By its side opens the Billiard room - where the ancient spinet of the family is still located - and in its corner the buffet which has held many a full and empty punch bowl. The little side-rooms where cards and other games were long ago played by the illustrious inhabitants of this hospitable home, still remain.
At the entrance of the Council Chamber the racks for twelve guns still remain, which were for guards when occasion required. The Council Chamber is finished in the best style of the last century - the carved work around the mantle being more than a year's labor with the knife and chisel of a carpenter.
Around the room are a variety of pictures of the family of the present residents, among them a choice painting by Copley of the beautiful Dorothy Quincy, who became the wife of John Hancock, and afterwards Madam Scott. She was connected with the family of Mr. Jacob Sheafe, and made frequent visits to Portsmouth. There were also in the room the elegant portraits of Secretary Waldron, grandson of the renowned Richard Waldron killed by the Indians at Dover, and his son Westbrook, and others of nearer kin to the present residents of this mansion. The closely jointed smooth white floor, "none the worse" for a century's wear, - these all give to this ancient hall a choice venerableness which the antiquarian can fully appreciate. The many curiosities of the room fill with interest an hour's visit.
Ascending a short sight of steps, we enter the spacious parlor - still as rich in its original finish as it was a hundred years ago. As we sat upon the sofa, it required no great stretch of imagination to bring back some scenes herewith connected, which occurred while the house was yet new.
Gov. Benning Wentworth by his first wife had three sons, all of whom died while he was in office, the last in 1759 - leaving him a widower and childless.
The Governor in his loneliness saw a young lady to whom he took a fancy. He proposed marriage - but Molly Pitman had given her heart to another, who, although of humble life, she esteemed more essential to her happiness than the honor and riches of the Governor, - and so she married Richard Shortridge, a mechanic, in preference. The Governor, however, did not forget the indignity of her refusal, and yet hoped by adopting David's unwise example, to conquer. An English frigate was in the harbor, and not long after the marriage a press gang was sent to the house of Shortridge, which forcibly took him on board, and from the endearments of home. For seven long years did his faithful wife mourn his absence. He was removed from ship to ship until one day he related to the chief officer the circumstances under which he was impressed. "Run off, and we won't pursue you," was the reply; and he soon availed himself of the privilege. His return brought happiness to his faithful partner, whose virtue was not to be invaded by the most tempting allurements of wealth. Their descendants are yet among us.
Let us turn for a moment from this to another illustrative picture. The scene is in what is now Court street. Mrs. Stavers, the wife of the first mail carrier, standing in the door of her boarding house, is looking upon a careless, laughing, bare-footed girl, lugging a pail of water in the street, with a dress scarcely sufficient to cover her decently, and exclaiming: "You Pat! you Pat why do you go looking so? You should be ashamed to be seen in the street." "No matter how I look, I shall ride in my chariot yet, marm," was her hopeful reply.
Martha Hilton afterwards left home and went to live in the Governor's mansion, at Little Harbor, doing the work of the kitchen and keeping the house in order, much to the Governor's satisfaction. The Governor has invited a dinner party, and with many other guests, in his cocked hat comes the beloved Rev. Arthur Brown, of the Episcopal church. The dinner is served up in a style becoming the Governor's table; the wine is of good quality, as all present are well qualified to say, and as tobacco clouds circle to the ceiling good humor enlivens the board. There is a whisper from the Governor to a messenger, and at his summons Martha Hilton comes in from that door on the west of the parlor, and, with blushing countenance, stands in front of the fireplace. She seems headless of the fire - she does not appear to have brought anything in, nor does she seem to be looking for anything to carry out - there she stands! a blushing damsel of twenty summers, - for what, no visitor can tell.
The Governor, bleached by the frosts of sixty winters, rises: "Mr. Brown, I wish you to marry me." "To whom?" asked his pastor, in wondering surprise." "To this lady," was the reply. The Rector stood confounded. The Governor became imperative: "As the Governor of New Hampshire, I command you to marry me!" The ceremony was then duly performed, and from that time Martha Hilton became Lady Wentworth.
She could not, perhaps, boast of as noble decent as her husband, but her change of position had a speedy effect in exalting her dignity. But a few days after her marriage, she dropped her ring upon this very floor. She called her servant to pick it up. The servant, however, took occasion to be near sighted, and would not find it until her mistress put her finger down to touch it. After the wire-edge of elevation was worn off, she made a most excellent wife; and when the Governor died, in 1770, he gave her his entire estate. Her two sons had died in infancy before their father.
The widow did not long mourn in solitude here. Friends came to this parlor to impart consolation. And most acceptable was that consolation which was soon found in the offer of the hand and heart of Michael Wentworth, a retired colonel of the British army, who came from England in 1767. They were married and had one daughter, Martha Wentworth.
In 1789, when Washington came to Portsmouth, he visited the Wentworth mansion by water, was received with characteristic hospitality by Col. Michael Wentworth and lady, and came to the town by land. The colonel was a high liver, and spent nearly all his own and his wife's property. He prided himself on his horsemanship. One afternoon at six o'clock, he called at the house of Mr. Jacob Sheafe, in Portsmouth, bearing the compliments of Madam Hancock, whom he left well at Boston at eight that morning, having performed the whole journey on horse back. It was a great feat in those days. In 1795 he died suddenly in New York, it is supposed by suicide. His last words were - "I have had my cake and ate it" - referring to the bankrupt state of his affairs.
Sir John Wentworth, an Englishman, who was a lawyer in Portsmouth in 1800, married Martha Wentworth, and they occupied the house at Little Harbor until 1816, when they went to Europe. He died in France some years since, and his wife died in London in 1851. In 1817, the Little Harbor estate was purchased by Charles Cushing, whose widow, a daughter of the late Jacob Sheafe, with her family, still resides there. By their kind courtesy visitors are permitted to view the romantic premises which are associated with matters of no little historic interest.
We will close this ramble with a short call at the mansion of Gov. John Wentworth, who went into office in 1767, and went out at the time of the Revolution. This house is on Pleasant Street, at the head of Washington street. We shall have occasion in another ramble to say more of the original occupant. As we have already said, it was in front of this mansion, in 1775, that the populace, in pursuit of Fenton, a royalist, who sought refuge there, brought a field piece and threatened to bombard the house unless he was delivered up. There was, however, no dangerous powder or ball provided. He was given up, and the Governor, not feeling secure, immediately vacated the house and took refuge in the fort. In the parlor there are yet some marks of damage by the invaders. This room still presents the same aspect in which the Governor left it, seventy-five years ago. The elegant plush on the walls looks as fresh as though it had been on the room but a few years, and the various decorations of former times are preserved with remarkable care. In the extensive ball are displayed the full length portraits of the Governors, and some others who bear the family name. The garden, extending from Pleasant street to the river, is a very pleasant locality, with handsomely arranged walks and agreeable shade. At the bottom of the garden, beneath a summer house, a refreshing bathing room is provided, which opens to the river. The present occupant and owner is Eben. Wentworth, Esq.,* born in 1780, great-grandson of the first Governor John a most excellent sample of the old school gentlemen, and a memento of those who have there been earlier residents.
It is a remarkable circumstance that the only specimens of the architectural taste of the three Governors bearing the name of Wentworth, should have continued through a century in these three old houses to the present time.
(* Eben. Wentworth died in August, 1860.)
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