We’re All Immigrants. Westport Historical Society Wants To Know How We Got Here.

We may not realize it. But Westport — like America — is a land of immigrants.

From the Bankside Farmers of 1648 to the Irish in the mid-1800s and the Italians a few decades later, then to the many international executives and their families we’ve welcomed recently, our town has served as more than just a home.

Whether for economic or education opportunity, or religious freedom — and yes, we are very different from neighboring suburbs when it comes to the latter — Westport has promised freedom, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness to many, for many years.

In January, the Westport Historical Society installs a new exhibit: “Liberty to Set Down: Migrants and Immigrants in Westport.”

In the 1920s — when Italian immigrants made Saugatuck a thriving community — Esposito’s gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge.

To make the new exhibit work, the WHS needs your help.

You can:

  • Share your family’s immigration story. Whether your people settled here in the 1700s or you arrived just last week, tell how they or you came to Westport.
  • Loan artifacts or photos that represent your family heritage. They’ll be displayed as part of the exhibit.
  • Participate in a video oral history project. Describe a highlight of your or your family’s story, as part of an online exhibit that will live on the WHS website.

The exhibit runs from January through June. It launches in conjunction with the Westport Library’s WestportREADS book selection. “Exit West” follows the plight of a couple forced to flee their war-torn homeland.

To participate in the Historical  Society’s exhibit, email info@westporthistory.org, or contact them via Facebook or Instagram (@westporthistory).

20 responses to “We’re All Immigrants. Westport Historical Society Wants To Know How We Got Here.

  1. Dan– your article needs a correction. The Bankside Farmers settled here in 1648 (36 yrs before you say above). Did you accidentally transpose the 4 and 8 above?

    • No – that’s how it came through in the press request from the Westport Historical Society. I’ll change it now. Thanks. – Dan

  2. Shortly after the end of the Pequot War, the Bankside Farmers actually followed their roving cattle in 1639 and started settling Machamux (“The Beautiful Land” — today, the Greens Farms area), but they did not receive official approval to do so until 1648. (Once the the Pequot “threat” was eliminated and the Pequot War peace signed in the autumn of 1638, the settlers started spreading south very soon thereafter. Although a contemporaneous painting of Daniel Frost’s lot does show two wigwams on it, co-existing next to his house.)
    Here is a helpful map that shows the lands of the five Bankside Farmers — Frost, Gray, Newton, Green and Andrews– in 1648.

  3. Good catch Kristin! You’ve got it exactly right–transposed numbers from too-fast typing in the document I sent Dan. Thanks for being a Westport History devotee and thanks to Dan for spreading the word. As an aside, the map above is an interesting one. It was created sometime in the 19th century and we’ve been looking for the original 17th century document which may have informed it, to no avail. What’s most likely is that a map of the plots didn’t even exist but an enterprising researcher/historian created this one later from the boundary descriptions on the original land grant (which we featured in our HISTORY OF WESTPORT in 100 OBJECTS exhibit).–very best, Ramin

  4. Ramin– You are right that the map must have been created sometime in the late 19th (or even the early 20th century) to reflect, post facto, historical sites such as the Bankside Farmers’ homes. The map appears to elide together different land-ownership epochs, because some of the landowners listed in the northern section of the map came more than a hundred years after the Bankside Farmers had already passed away. My guess is that it was created in the early 20th century after several owners’ properties were consolidated on Sherwood Island.

    Indeed, it was not until the 1860s– about 200 years after the Bankside Farmers lived on today’s Beachside Ave — that Sherwood Island started to be called Sherwood Island. Before the 1860s, it was known as Fox Island. So I think that clue, alone, indicates that the map was created after the 1860s.

    Moreover, in the 1600s, Fox Island would not have appeared as it does on this above map because it was a real island, until settlers dammed up a creek.

    • William Strittmatter

      The New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad did not exist by that name until 1872 so map would have been after that.

  5. Here is a good clue of when the map might have been created (which I think is in the early 1930s):
    If you go to the link of the book “Greens Farms, Connecticut.
    The Old West Parish of Fairfield”, by George Penfield Jennings, copyrighted in 1933, you will see the very same map on page 157.
    See this link: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89067361014;view=1up;seq=16

    I think there is a very good chance that the map was created by that George P. Jennings in the early 1930s because of how many Jennings’ properties he draws on the map and because he lists Charlotte Jennings’ homestead as that of “Aunt Charlotte Jennings” — indicating it was drawn by someone for whom she was an aunt.

  6. Ramin– It turns out the map was 20th, not 19th century. Wikimedia says the map was created by George P. Jennings. So the map dates from around 1932. Another good clue that he is the author is that George lists his own birthplace on the map!!

  7. We are not all immigrants. Many – most of us were born here; I think you can comfortably (and accurately) say that those of us who are not immigrants are descended from immigrants. In my case, I am American born, as was my father, and his father immigrated to the US in 1910 from England.

    • And my family is descended from slaves and brought here against their ill. No immigration for us, thank you. An as a black American I detest illegal aliens.

      • I cannot claim to know what feelings you derive from that slave ancestry but I definitely should have allowed for that possibility in my statement. I would revise it to “I think you can comfortably (and accurately) say that those of us who are not immigrants are descended from immigrants or, in the case of those brought here against their will, descended from slaves.”

    • Thanks, Jack. I meant all of our FAMILIES are immigrants. My bad for not making that clearer!

  8. Richard S. Seclow

    According to a book with a forgotten title about Italian immigrants in Westport, there were nine shoe cobblers in Westport to mend the shoes of Italian workers who walked to their jobs in the earlty thirties. I don’t believe there were Uber cars then.

  9. My family is descended from slaves who were captured and forcibly brought to this country and made to work to make the country great. We are not immigrants and descendants of slaves do not ant illegal immigrants. Former African American slaves and their descendants gave their blood and lives to this country and we object to these illegals coming here trying to capitalize on the civil rights blacks have earned with their lives and blood.
    Without the slave labor the USA would not be the superpower it is today. By standing against illegal aliens Trump has a better interest in the black community than our own sellout elected black Democrat representatives.

  10. My Native American friends get irate when they see headlines or hear speeches saying we are all immigrants. They have educated me to avoid saying that, although it is hard to come up with a catchy phrase that does make the point that many of us are from immigrant families. It is also a good reminder to note that many Americans have ancestors who were brought forcibly to these shores.

  11. I would encourage all to come and see this exhibit. Our position at WHS is to use research and primary sources to recount well-rounded, apolitical, fact-based history–even if that history is not always comfortable. This is apparent in our current, award-winning exhibit, REMEMBERED: THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS IN WESTPORT. Our next major year-long exhibit in 2020 will be about the native people of this land. Our January exhibit is titled LIBERTY TO SET DOWN: Immigrants and Migrants in Westport, Connecticut. It will cover those who came of their own volition, were forcibly brought here, and those who lost their homelands in the building of the town. Westport is a microcosm of the larger American narrative in all its various iterations and WHS’ only mission and responsibility is to share sourced, reliable material to holistically tell that story.

  12. Sounds like another terrific exhibit, Ramin and Sarah. I greatly appreciate that WHS has taken a deep dive into areas of our community’s history that aren’t all kitty cats and rainbows. As a 12th generation Westporter, I felt a lot of different things when I went through your astonishing REMEMBERED: THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS IN WESTPORT exhibit on opening night. Confronting an original bill of sale for a slave that one of my direct ancestors purchased was something which defies description. Thank you for revealing the stories of those who had no voice.

    Commenters have made some superb points about the fact that many African Americans did not come here because they chose to but because they were enslaved. I might add that, for a time, not all free persons who wished to “set down” here had the liberty to do so. Westport might not have been a so-called Sundown Town like Darien, but when it came to Jews, not so much. At least not south of the Merritt Parkway. Fortunately, that’s in the past. But it ought not be forgotten.

  13. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    I’m 1/12500th Cherokee. Didn’t do me much good at Harvard. Maybe it was the 1/600th Asiatic that sunk my boat. It couldn’t have been my non gregarious demeanor.