The British Were Coming! Jono Walker Was (Almost) There

Some Westport residents have been here a few years. Some grew up here. Some trace their local history back even longer.

Jonathan Walker is a 10th-generation Westporter. He traces his local ancestry to 1662. Three centuries later, Walker grew up in a house on the very same road — South Compo — where that pioneering Bennett family lived.

But that’s not even the most remarkable part of this story.

Walker — nicknamed Jono, as a member of Staples High School’s Class of 1970 — has just written his first book. “A Certain Cast of Light” is a tale of the Bennett and Walker families’ lives here in Westport during the Revolutionary War, and beyond.

Jessie "Gigi" Bennett -- Jonathan Walker's great-grandmother -- was born in 1862.

Jessie “Gigi” Bennett — Jonathan Walker’s great-grandmother — was born in 1862.

It’s fiction. But it’s based on a story Walker heard growing up, from his great-grandmother Jessie “Gigi” Bennett.

And it was told to her by her own great-grandfather. In other words, Walker spoke to someone with a living link to a time before the United States was even born.

Bennett’s great-grandfather claimed that — as a boy in 1777 — he climbed a tree and watched the British land at Compo Beach. He then saw them march past his South Compo house, on the way to burn an arsenal in Danbury. A few minutes later, Bennett witnesssed the skirmish near the Post Road.

Bennett told Walker’s great-grandmother that 3 wounded British soldiers were brought to his house. The reason: The Bennetts were Tories.

As Walker researched this fascinating tale, he discovered that the injured men were not “Redcoats,” as he’d always assumed. They were “Greencoats” — provincial loyalists who joined the British fight, with the promise they’d be granted land in Mississippi.

They were at the front of the column that day for 2 reasons. They knew the way to Danbury. And they knew which homes — including the Bennetts’ — belonged to Tories.

The story Walker heard included details like this: One of the injured men, Capt. David Lyman from New Haven, was operated on in the Bennetts’ house. Supposedly his leg was amputated, and the bone remained in the cellar.

Deliverance Bennett's house still stands on South Compo Road. It's where wounded British soldiers were taken, and "given succor."

Deliverance Bennett’s house still stands on South Compo Road. It’s where wounded British soldiers were taken, and “given succor.”

There was more to the lore. The owner of the Bennett house — the Tory named Deliverance — had 9 children. One was Gigi’s great-grandfather. But Deliverance’s brother, Joseph Bennett, lived up the street. He was a patriot — and a captain in the rebel American Home Guards.

How could one family be so divided? Walker always wondered. How did Joseph Bennett end up in Deliverance’s bigger house by the end of the war? Why was Deliverance — despite losing his standing in the community, and his property — allowed to remain here, and not flee to Nova Scotia like other Tories?

Those questions are at the heart of Walker’s new book.

In it, a fictional character — 13-year-old Haynes Bennett — climbs that tree and watches the British land. Defying his father, he joins the patriots. The book is written in Haynes’ voice, 50 years later, as the narrator tries to imagine why his Tory father acted as he had.

In writing “A Certain Cast of Light,” Walker says he drew on fights with his own father, Bill, over the Vietnam War.

Jonathan Walker

Jonathan Walker

The 1820 and ’30s — when Haynes “writes” the book — was a fraught time in Connecticut. Walker made his narrator an abolitionist. It was not an easy position to advocate. Like his father, he was tormented by neighbors.

Walker did his homework. He studied the privateers and “skinners” who roamed Long Island Sound, ensuring that New York City’s trade in tea, cotton, china — and slaves — could continue without interruption. In Fairfield County, emotions on both sides of the slave trade ran so high that neighbors poisoned each other’s wells. During the 1700s, Walker says, the Bennett family owned slaves.

Like the Bennetts’ history in Westport, Walker’s book spans many years. He started it during the 1970s, as a student at Union College. He’d heard stories, but that was the first time he actually thought about what it meant to be a Tory family during the Revolutionary War. Even then, he says now, he did not realize how dangerous that was.

Jonathan Walker grew up in this "poor man's farmhouse," across South Compo Road from the larger Bennett house.

Jonathan Walker grew up in this “poor man’s farmhouse,” across South Compo Road from the larger Bennett house.

In pre-internet times, Walker did his research at the Westport and Pequot libraries, and in New York City.

He figured he’d take 2 years to write his novel. But he got an MBA, became a father, and real life took over.

Three years ago — after retiring from a career in business — he returned to his book.

The cover of Jonathan Walker's new book.

The cover of Jonathan Walker’s new book.

Historical accuracy was important. Walker researched sailmaking, and apple tree farming. A book of 18th-century slang provided expressions like “that tarnal idiot,” and enabled him to write dialogue for college-educated Bennetts, as well as those who were farmers.

But one thing always bothered Walker. Though his ancestors were as important to Westport as families like the Burrs, Sherwoods, Coleys and Stapleses — in fact, Narrow Rocks Road was once called “Bennetts’ Rocks” — nothing here remains named for them.

Delving into the past, and writing his book, he realizes one thing: “We were on the wrong side of history.”

(Next month, the Westport Historical Society celebrates the 240th anniversary of the British landing at Compo Beach, march to Danbury and subsequent Battle of Compo Hill. As part of its programming, on April 18 [7 p.m.], the WHS hosts a talk by Jonathan Walker, and a book-signing. “A Certain Cast of Light” is available on Amazon and Kindle.)

14 responses to “The British Were Coming! Jono Walker Was (Almost) There

  1. Hi Dan:
    This article brought back memories of the 50th class reunion of the Staples class of 1950. Class member Dave Rosenau, whose father was Westport’s police chief for many years, had arranged with the Westport Historical Society to take 33 members of the class on a bus tour of the raid.
    Each member was provided with a map of the tour which was issued by the Connecticut Humanities Council and we used this picturesque map to trace the route taken by the British. I keep my copy of the map with my high school souvenirs.

  2. Ernest Lorimer

    There are echoes of the difficulties of being a Tory in the Revolutionary War pension records, a valuable genealogical reference. From my great grandfather I learned that one of my ancestors was denied a pension because he was shot in the buttocks (in other words, running away). Another’s pension was denied because there was no evidence that he had fought “on either side”. Perhaps worse than being a Tory.

    And then, of course, there are the branches of the family tree that pulled up stakes and moved to Canada.

    • I look forward to reading this book! My family landed in Connecticut in 1635 and, like a branch of your family, departed for Canada after the war. We just moved back last year. I am looking forward to learning more details about this historical period. This book will be great.

  3. Jono,
    Just read Dan’s blog about your book. I hope it is a fabulous success for you!
    Hoping you and your family are all well!! Looking forward to reading the book!!
    Congrats #60 on your amazing accomplishment.
    All the Best!!!

    Tom

  4. Just curious if you been able to date when the Bennett house in your picture was built?

    • Mark,
      The big Bennett House – 96 S. Compo – was built in 1762 over the foundation of an earlier house that burned down. The house I grew up in across the street was built by my GG Grandfather, John Henry Bennett in 1857.
      Jono

  5. Boy howdy, you had to know I would respond to this one. First, congratulations on your book. Second, I wouldn’t take the lack of things named for your family to have anything to do with their stance on the Revolution. All of the ancient and venerable local families had members who fought on both sides. We, in this day, tend to view the Patriot cause as wildly popular, as being on the “right side of history”. But that wasn’t the case way back then, at best a simple majority of people supported the cause. It wasn’t uncommon for brothers, cousins to be on opposite sides. Even those illustrious families you name had people that fought for King and Country against their rebel kin.

    Why then are the Bennett’s consigned to the scrap heap of history, with nothing named for them? There probably isn’t a reason, at least an intentional one. Many of the old time families have nothing named for them, and most that do are recent appellations. The Jennings family, one of the most numerous and prosperous? They have a small cul-de-sac built not so long ago. The Burrs? They will still living there when the school was built. Even my own Mills family has one road, which we built, named by us for us. In short, the lack of naming is not that telling.

    • Always look forward to your responses, Jacques!
      — from proud former resident of a Mills home (29 N. Ave.)
      Jo Shields

      • Well, since you brought up 29 North Avenue, there is a tale, connected to that house and apropos to Patriots and Loyalists. It is now thought that the house wasn’t built by Hezekiah Mills, but rather his father, Daniel Mills. Now, Daniel was one of three boys of William Mills, the others being John and Ezra. When the Lexington Alarm went out, Daniel, his brothers, his cousin John from Stamford, and his other cousin John from Fairfield all marched off with the militia from Fairfield County. At some point Daniel and Ezra felt they could no longer support the Patriot cause. They didn’t fight against the Patriots as far as I can tell, but certainly held Loyalist sympathies. Enough so that they were tarred and feathered for them. Their brother John became a far more ardent Loyalist, retreating to Long Island, and being one of those men that would row across the Sound at night to raid into their former homes. He fled to Canada after the war. Cousin John of Fairfield was a fervent Patriot, he was commissioned as an officer in the Continental Army, and is know to have taken part in repelling the Raid on Danbury. As for cousin John of Stamford? I can’t say much, only that his son was a Loyalist, and apparently so obnoxious in sharing his views the good people of Stamford intended to do him much bodily harm, but he ran to his sister’s house where he found shelter, not before being shot in the hand and crippling it. So you see, we all had people fighting on both sides of the war.

  6. Vivianne Pommier

    Hey Jono:

    How amazing.. All the best wishes. VIV

  7. Gerry Kuroghlian

    I read the first draft of this book which is a MUST for all Westporters interested in the history of the town. Hop on to AMAZON and purchase a copy. Interesting family conflict and exciting action. I lived at 95 S. Compo when I began teaching with Jono’s mother Joy, who was a fabulous mentor.

  8. Jono, Congratulations! How exciting! I can’t wait to read this. And I will definitely be at your book signing & talk in April. In the meantime, I wish you much success.

  9. Jono! This is totally cool. Can’t wait to read it! All best- Marc Bailin

  10. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    Jono always knew how to turn a phrase and tell a story. This book is long-awaited by his many good friends. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a draft copy which was devoured in one sitting.
    Alex Hailey step aside!!!!

Commenters must fill out their real full names, and provide their real email addresses.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s