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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.)