Home New Hampshire Benning Wentworth Grabs the King’s Masts, Along With Vermont

Benning Wentworth Grabs the King’s Masts, Along With Vermont

How New Hampshire's colonial governor used his position to enrich himself


If it weren’t for Benning Wentworth, Vermont probably wouldn’t exist.

Gov. Benning Wentworth

Wentworth was the Colony of New Hampshire’s first governor, and on Jan. 3, 1749, he issued the first of 135 land grants west of the Connecticut River.  Unfortunately for the settlers on the land, New York also issued land grants for the same territory. Decades later, the settlers themselves resolved the land dispute. They declared Vermont an independent republic.

Benning Wentworth had at least two good reasons to expand New Hampshire westward.  He got reimbursed for the land grants, and he could sell the giant white pines – known as the King’s Masts — on the land.

After 25 years as governor, Wentworth left office in 1766 a very wealthy man.

As Good as the Money

How Benning Wentworh became New Hampshire’s governor is a story in itself. He was a Portsmouth, N.H.,  merchant, the son of the provincial lieutenant governor. He had shipped timber to the government of Spain, which refused to pay him because of hostilities toward England. So he went to London and lobbied the British government to reimburse him for his loss. Instead of the money, he was given the governorship of New Hampshire, newly separate from Massachusetts.

The governorship was as good as the money. Maybe better.

Wentworth returned from London to Portsmouth, where he took up residence as governor. In that office, he had the right to reserve pine trees for himself and to grant – that is, sell – townships in the undeveloped part of the colony.

The Pine Tree

The pine trees were a big deal. Britain no longer had forests that produced trees like the ones in New England — 120 feet high and at least 24 inches in diameter, ideal for masts and spars. Britain’s military strength depended on sea power, and so the British government tried to commandeer American timber for building its ships. In 1691, the Royal Government forbade anyone in the Province of Massachusetts Bay to cut any pine over 24 inches in diameter, except on private property. In 1760, “all white and other pine trees fit for masting the Royal Navy” were declared off limits.  The prohibition was honored more in the breach than in the observance.

One of the first things Benning Wentworth did as governor was to buy the title and office of the surveyor general. The surveyor deputy and his deputies were supposed to identify and mark the King’s Masts with three slashes representing the King’s Broad Arrow, a traditional mark of the Crown’s property.  They were also supposed to seize illegal timber and prosecute offenders.

Wentworth had a brother, Mark, who had contracts with the British Royal Navy for masts and timber. As governor, Wentworth took advantage of his rights to the giant white pines while ignoring his responsibility as surveyor general to reserve them for the king.

Dragging a Tree Through a Primeval Forest

It wasn’t easy bringing white pine from the New England wilderness to the coast, where cargo ships specially fitted out would carry them to England.

Marking trees with the King’s Broad Arrow

The tall white pines near the seacoast had already been cut down. As time went on, woodsmen had to go farther and farther inland to find trees big, tall and straight enough for masts.

First they had to find a solid, sound tree. Then they had to cut it down, usually in the winter because the snow leveled off the ground. Lumbermen had to cut a straight road to a river because a 120-foot log couldn’t go around corners.

Then the woodsmen would hoist the timber onto a sled or onto wheels 18 feet high. A team of oxen, as many as 200, would then haul the timber through the wilderness to the water.

Loading the King’s Masts onto a ship

Robert B. Pike, in Tall Trees, Tough Men, describes what it must have been like: “Imagine the sight – a tree-trunk from three to seven feet through and perhaps 120 feet long being dragged through the primeval forest by a double string of long-horned, heaving oxen strung out over a furlong’s distance, with ‘spare’ steers switching their tails against the mosquitos, or shivering with cold…”

The New Hampshire Grants

By the mid-18th century, there weren’t many King’s Masts left in what is now New Hampshire. But King’s Masts abounded farther west. In 1749, Benning Wentworth issued the first New Hampshire Land Grants for a future town named after himself —  Bennington.

Many of the 134 grants that followed became towns. Wentworth named them after well-known men of the day to win their support for his westward expansion of New Hampshire. He named Rutland, for example, for John Manners, 3rd Duke of Rutland.

The grants averaged six square miles, the size of a town. Middle-class farmers then settled the land.

Flag of Vermont

Flag of Vermont

New York also issued grants for the same land, mostly to wealthy landowners. The dispute over the territory dragged on for years. In 1770, the New York Supreme Court invalidated all the New Hampshire grants, and tried to force many of the New Hampshire grantees to buy their land a second time.

That infuriated Ethan Allen, who formed the Green Mountain Boys militia to protect the interests of the New Hampshire farmers. The American Revolution put the issue on hold until 1777, when Vermont declared itself a Republic. For 11 years, Vermont was its own little country, with courts, a constitution, an assembly and its own currency.

Benning Wentworth died on Oct. 14, 1770, in Portsmouth, at the age of 74. Vermont entered the Union on March 4, 1791. And today at the center of the Flag of Vermont stands a pine tree.

Images: Marking trees with the King’s Broad Arrow and Loading masts onto a ship By Manning, S. F. – New England masts and the King’s Broad Arrow. Greenwich, London: Trustees of the National Maritime Museum. (1979), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30267159 and 30267155 respectively. 

This story was updated in 2023.



Old Glory Gets A Little More Glorious | New England Historical Society January 14, 2014 - 9:21 pm

[…] history was a little more feisty and a little more interesting. New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire had all claimed Vermont – originally called New Connecticut, to make it even more confusing […]

Maine Timbers Shore Up the British Navy in 1666 - New England Historical Society December 3, 2014 - 8:52 pm

[…] immense stands of tall white pines in northern New England offered a solution. They grew to a height of over 200 feet and were sometimes 10 feet in diameter. […]

The Scandalous Wedding of Gov. John Wentworth - New England Historical Society August 4, 2015 - 9:39 am

[…] governor, Benning Wentworth lined his pocked selling land grants in what is now Vermont. He scandalized Portsmouth’s elite in 1760 when he surprised his dinner guests by marrying his […]

In 1790, the Deal for Vermont Statehood Finally Emerged - New England Historical Society October 28, 2015 - 6:48 am

[…] tortured journey to statehood was mired in a decades-old struggle between New Hampshire on one side and New York on the other. In between were the irascible Allen boys, Ira and Ethan […]

Michael Hardy November 17, 2015 - 7:14 pm

This page says the grants averaged six square miles. Elsewhere (I don’t recall where) I read that it was six miles squared, i.e. a square six miles long by six miles wide, which would make 36 square miles. Is this statement about six square miles merely an instance of confusing “six square miles” with “six miles square”, or did my other source have it wrong?

The 21 New England Capitals - New England Historical Society February 12, 2016 - 10:05 am

[…] has had four capitals. The state started out as disputed territory between New York and New Hampshire. On Jan. 15, 1777, representatives meeting in the oldest town, Westminster, declared independent of […]

Team of Rivals Captures Fort Ticonderoga, 1775 - New England Historical Society May 10, 2016 - 1:45 pm

[…] the Green Mountain Boys. On May 6, Arnold was on the border of Massachusetts and what was then the New Hampshire Grants (Vermont). He learned Allen was 50 miles ahead of him and that a Connecticut militia was on its way. […]

The New Hampshire Pine Tree Riot of 1772 - New England Historical Society December 16, 2016 - 6:04 pm

[…] were few trees big enough for the Royal Navy’s ships in Britain, and so the tall white pines of northern New England were reserved for the Crown. The king’s surveyors traveled the woods, scoring the king’s trees […]

Josiah Bartlett, Founding Father, Gets Used to Wrongness - New England Historical Society May 3, 2017 - 7:37 am

[…] Josiah Bartlett was elected to the New Hampshire Legislature in 1765, but he quickly grew disillusioned with the greed of the royal governor, Benning Wentworth. […]

Six New England Place With a Unique Name - New England Historical Society July 15, 2017 - 9:11 am

[…] Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth broke with that tradition when he dispensed land grants and charters in Vermont and New Hampshire, […]

The Wilton Meetinghouse Collapse of 1773 - New England Historical Society September 7, 2017 - 7:19 am

[…] Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth regranted the land in 1749, and in 1762 it was incorporated as […]

Six Indian Trails That Turned Into Scenic Highways and Byways - New England Historical Society September 23, 2017 - 9:03 am

[…] settlers found the trail a convenient route to carry masts and spars for hundreds of the King’s ships built in […]

Matthew Lyon, Vermont's Spitting Irishman - New England Historical Society January 30, 2018 - 10:41 am

[…] servant. Ten years later he joined other white settlers and moved to Wallingford, Vt. (then the New Hampshire Grants). In Wallingford, he bought cheap land and organized a […]

How Ethan Allen Got Married to a Loyalist - New England Historical Society February 12, 2018 - 1:41 pm

[…] Irish Loyalist, Crean Brush, had come into her life. He had large landholdings in New York and the New York Grants. He adopted Fanny, but how that happened is another question. Brush either married her mother or […]

The Beautiful Freak Reliance Defends the America’s Cup in 1903 - New England Historical Society June 17, 2018 - 7:16 am

[…] 143’, 9” with 16,160 sq. ft. of sails, weighing four tons, from the Lawrence textile mills. Her mast was as tall as a 20-story building. Her spinnaker pole was 84 feet long.  It took a crew of 66 to […]

Loyalists and Patriots: Mary Munro Sent Packing to Canada During the Revolution - New England Historical Society April 9, 2019 - 3:54 pm

[…] Shaftsbury was the home of John and Mary Munro, a prosperous loyalist couple with at least seven children. They had moved from New York in 1767 and built an estate called Fowlis on land disputed by New York and New Hampshire. […]

Six Colonial Homes by Wallace Nutting - New England Historical Society May 4, 2019 - 7:20 am

[…] Mark Wentworth was a wealthy member of the prominent Wentworth family. His brother was colonial Gov. Benning Wentworth. He built the house as a wedding gift for his son Thomas and his daughter-in-law Anne […]

How New England Got Its Place Names - New England Historical Society July 18, 2019 - 6:29 am

[…] New Hampshire Gov. Benning Wentworth bestowed many Vermont place names. He sold 138 tracts of land for town charters and named some of them after people he wanted to flatter. He named Clarendon, for example, for the earl of the same name and Monkton for British Gen. Robert Monckton. Wentworth named tiny Ferdinand after Prince Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick-Luneburg, related to England's royal family. […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!