During Christmas break of 2015 I realized that I needed something to chew on, mentally, aside from my many worries. I decided then to return to some research I had done at age 19 on the American Revolution in Fairfield County, Connecticut. I still had the rusting steel file box with all my files and had always dreamed of writing a novel using that research. Now, before getting started, I would reopen my investigations and nail down all the facts.
Historical research is the perfect pastime for me. I can pick it up and put it down for greater or lesser periods of time. Weeks or months can go by when I don’t have a moment for digging into or even thinking abut the Revolution. Then suddenly I’ll have a free afternoon and I can dive in and lose myself. Whether it’s period newspapers, letters, journals, muster books, or legal trials — with today’s internet access I can track down and read materials in libraries all over the country and the world.
Moreover, historical research is one of the few things I have an innate talent for. DH and Lucy are accustomed to me rushing out of my office gibbering with excitement to report that I’ve found an obscure person or put together obscure facts. They listen as I explain my brilliant discovery and then reply politely, “I’m happy for you.”
My friend Alison has been more concerned. “You do know, right, that people don’t care about facts and you have to actually tell a story?”
Yes, I do know. However as someone who does care about facts it has been important to me to find out, as much as possible, what really happened. Besides, it’s endless fun.
Naturally, having tracked the lives of a number of the townspeople in southwestern Connecticut, I have come to feel I know them. With no one is this more the case than with a loyalist from Norwalk named Stephen Hoyt. In 19th and 20th century histories of these towns, he is always described as “the notorious Tory Hoyt” or “the renegade Captain Hoyt.” When at 19 I discovered that in 1776 the infamous raider was only 26 years old, I knew I had to put him in a story someday.
Today I know that the exploits ascribed to “Tory Hoyt” were actually an amalgamation of actions by Stephen, his older brother Jesse, and a cousin Joseph. The real story of their lives in this first American civil war is far more complicated and interesting than the Victorian morality tale. Stephen and Jesse (one a captain in the Loyalist military, the other a sea captain) were both pillars of the Anglican church and respected as men despite being hated as enemies. When I found a letter from a Patriot general describing “Captain Hoyt, though a Tory,” as “a man of strictest honor, probity, and truth,” I beamed as if I were their mother.
When the war was lost, both brothers left America in 1783, evacuating with their families to the wilderness of Canada. Jesse never returned. However, after ten years Stephen came back to the United States and settled in upstate New York, where he died in 1809. Last fall, while at a conference in the mountains with DH, I spent a happy morning looking for his grave. His bones had been moved in the 1880s from the church cemetery to the rural cemetery, and now his headstone was one of about forty aged markers in a corner.
I scuffled through the fall leaves, struggling to read the slabs. Most were weather-worn and illegible. Many were, literally, blank slates. Here’s a rare one on which the inscription could actually could be distinguished.
After an hour I was frustrated and ready to give up. I stopped at the cemetery office before I left, to admit defeat. A kind young woman jumped up to look in a file. In the early 20th century, a man had made a list of the stones. Perhaps using that list we could retrace his steps and figure out which was Stephen’s.
We trooped back out.
We tried to imagine the path of our scribe in 1920. Which way had he wandered?
At last, by triangulation and deduction, we found the headstone. “White marble.”
I traced Stephen’s name with a fingertip. The 1920 scribe had noted the line of a poem at the bottom of the stone. (I think both Stephen and his wife Esther were readers — unlike most loyalists who put in claims to the Crown, Stephen reported that when his house was ransacked by the Norwalk mob in 1776, among other valuable items, he lost his books. And the 1774 estate papers of Esther’s father, a minister, included a library inventory.) I could feel the inscription through the lichen. I could also feel another line below.
In the 140 years since it was moved, the stone has sunk into the ground. Of course I have since found the 1808 poem … and I’m guessing that there may be up to three more lines under the soil.
The cemetery has added Captain Hoyt to their walking tour and has promised to try to lift the stone this summer and clean it. I’ve also offered to drive down to clean it myself. Yes, I know this is eccentric. But that’s me. We shall see.
I have often told myself that I have all the information I need. Then I stumble on something else — and new windows of understanding open. However, three and a half years after starting my research, I reluctantly realize I have to stop. This summer I am organizing all my material and starting to weave my story.
Of course, Stephen Hoyt will be in it.
That’s what I am thinking about when I’m mowing and mucking.