First Impressions: TURN’s segue into slavery

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And… we’re back! After a long, refreshing, weekend without the Internet, I finally watched the latest episode of TURN:“Epiphany.”  The biggest storyline of Episode 5 (well, besides the nearly perfectly-executed dramatic reveal of General Washington) brought the issue of slavery front-and-center in the TURN universe. Since this will be a recurring theme in the show, and because there’s quite a backlog of updates here at the blog, I’ll mention just a few major first impressions here.

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation

Early in the episode, when Anna Strong petitions Major Hewlett about the attainder against her husband Selah, we learn that it apparently contains mention of a “Dunmore proclamation” that frees the slaves of “suspected patriots.” Indeed, there WAS a famous (or infamous, depending on who you asked) proclamation issued by a certain Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia – but naturally, the real story is more nuanced than what we see on-screen.

The original text of Dunmore’s Proclamation. Click to enlarge.

Colonial Williamsburg, quite appropriately, has a fantastic set of webpages defining and discussing Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775. Here are the main points:

  • Proclamation issued in November 1775 by the Royal Governor of Virginia (John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore).
  • Declared martial law in the colony of Virginia.
  • Promised slaves and indentured servants of Virginia rebels their freedom if they left their masters and took up arms in defense of the Crown (which is a pretty big “if”).
  • Dunmore’s motivations had little to do with the morality of slavery – his primary goal was to disrupt the growing rebellion in Virginia.
  • Dunmore’s proclamation would have no standing in New York (though it did make white slaveowners throughout the American colonies REALLY uneasy).

In short: The Dunmore Proclamation wasn’t the harbinger of universal emancipation that the show might have you believe. Granted, it’s a fascinating piece of Revolutionary War history (and I encourage you to click the links above for more information), but I’m a bit confused as to why the show’s writers mentioned it at all, since its usage in TURN is both unnecessary and out of place. Major Hewlett could have simply confiscated Selah Strong’s property – including his slaves – upon “confirming” (as he says) Selah’s traitorous actions against the Crown. No additional justification would be necessary. Not to mention, anyone trying to enforce a gubernatorial edict from Virginia in New York would probably be laughed out of town. (If you think state rivalries are bad nowadays, they’re nothing compared to the late 18th century, when Americans often equated their neighboring states/colonies with foreign countries.) But hey, if this means someone learned something new about the Dunmore Proclamation today, then I’m a happy camper historian.

attainder1   attainder3




Slave Literacy Laws

In Episode 5, the fact that Abigail and her son Cicero can read is treated like a terrible, life-threatening secret. Some of you – faintly remembering some distant high school history lessons, perhaps –might wonder if Abigail’s worry was due to slave codes forbidding slave literacy or education. In the 18th century, New York and other northern colonies did not forbid the education of slaves – but certain southern colonies like South Carolina (which passed such laws in 1740 following a major slave rebellion) did. Since the majority of enslaved blacks in the northern colonies (and there were many) worked in households and businesses, literacy could be viewed as a beneficial trait in some cases. In other circumstances, slave literacy was encouraged in order to read and study the Bible, though this encouragement was hardly universal, even throughout the northern colonies.

To be fair, no one in TURN has (yet) stated that slave literacy is a punishable offense, and there are plenty of other good reasons why an educated slave like Abigail would want to avoid drawing attention to herself or her literate son. But if you were pre-emptively wondering about the legality of slave literacy in colonial New York, there’s your answer.  New York had plenty of incredibly restrictive slave laws (click here to read a list of them through the early 18th century) but a ban on slave literacy was not one of them.


Also, in case you were wondering: the “BFF” vibe between Anna and Abigail is a painfully inaccurate portrayal of even the “friendliest” possible relationship between a slave and her mistress. If you felt funny watching Anna get on her knees in front of her slave, beg her for forgiveness, and tearfully ask for her advice, that’s a good indicator that your internal historical “spider sense” is working properly.

That about wraps it up for this “First impressions” blog post.  There’s still plenty to discuss on the thorny, complicated, and massively important topic of slavery during the American Revolution — and given Abigail’s new and extremely interesting role in TURN, I have no doubt that upcoming episodes will provide plenty of opportunities to talk about it.  It’s a delicate subject to portray on TV or film, that’s for sure.  What were YOUR first impressions of TURN’s inaugural venture into the subject of slavery, readers? Feel free to sound off in the comments!

.annaabby2 annaabby3






Other Notices

Site notice 1: Holy backlog, Batman! Between a multi-day absence and a misbehaving spam filter, there are an awful lot of outstanding questions and comments in the blog’s moderation queue. If you’ve submitted a question or comment lately, my apologies – I’m working on them ASAP. It’s great to see that readers’ spy-curiosity remains unabated!

Site notice 2: The post on the gravestone conundrum of Episode 4 (“Eternity How Long”) will be slightly delayed due to ongoing revisions, since I found a few surprising new sources dealing with the subject. And the Historical Timeline will be updated very soon. Thanks for weathering the dry spell, faithful readers! We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…


5 thoughts on “First Impressions: TURN’s segue into slavery

    not Bridget said:
    May 9, 2014 at 5:08 am

    Thank you for your continued unbotching of the show’s botched history. Didn’t The Real John Graves Simcoe later end slavery as Lt Governor of Upper Canada? Too bad he couldn’t lecture Anna on the sinfulness of the dreadful institution–but that would be out of character for the show’s Cartoon Simcoe.

    Feeling nice: What do I like about TURN? Samuel Roukin (“Simcoe”), Burn Gorman & J J Feild have thrown themselves into their parts; if enjoying Naughty John André is wrong, I don’t want to be right. The episode’s music was varied & interesting. And they haven’t screwed up George Washington. Yet.

    I read that the show was originally going to focus on Benjamin Tallmadge. Perhaps that would have made for better plotting without the need to warp chronology as they have. But they decided to focus on the invented emotional trials of a cabbage farmer with an Oirish accent…..

      Dan said:
      May 10, 2014 at 12:54 am

      Everyone may want to consider that one of the reasons the timeline is all mixed up is because the producers and writers have absolutely no idea whether they’ll have a season 2, 3, or 4 to work with. It would be historically accurate to wait until 1779 to introduce Andre, for example, but that would probably be somewhere around season 4, which may not exist, particularly if people keep complaining about things happening in the wrong year, whether a baby less than a year old was wearing trousers, or whether someone’s accent is wrong.

        spycurious responded:
        May 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

        There are plenty of good, defensible reasons for mixing up a historical timeline in a TV show — although most of them are rooted in an optimism that the show WILL be renewed for many more seasons, not the opposite. For example, setting the show two years earlier (1776) than the actual creation of the Culper ring (1778) gives the showrunners much more ‘historical’ time to play around with. On this site’s Timeline page it explicitly states:

        “It’s not unusual for movies and TV shows to heavily adapt a real-life timeline of events to fit their own goals and time constraints. Historical timelines are often compressed or shuffled around in order to create a more dramatic pace suitable for a modern audience. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect that a show like TURN will contain some “chronological flexibility.””

        The motivation for creating a timeline here — and, in fact, the entire purpose of this blog — is to provide accurate historical information about the Revolutionary War for the many people who are seeking it, not to “complain” about the show — although, since the producers have repeatedly claimed that “TURN is a true story about America’s first spy ring” (For example, in this video at the 20-second mark: I can see where some viewers would get annoyed (and yes, complain) at how things have progressed thus far.

        You make a good point about the early introduction of Andre, though the producers have also stated that they’re leaving out several key members of the Culper Spy Ring in this season in anticipation of the show being renewed. The ratings for each episode of TURN can be seen on the show’s Wikipedia page ( — though since I’m no TV industry insider, I have no idea whether those bode well or not for a likely renewal of TURN. I know many viewers (including myself) are eagerly waiting an announcement on Season 2. Hopefully they’ll make one soon!

    Simira Tobias said:
    May 11, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Finally! People of color appear in the storyline. I was afraid they would be relegated to the background. As a descendent of Selah and Anna Strong’s enslaved workers, I know from genealogy research that they had names. They are mentioned in the Town Record of manumissions. Don’t remember an Abigail, though. Eunice was manumitted by Strong in early 1800s. Five of Eunice’s daughters, were freed under gradual manumission and at least two of them married free men of color who were the Tobias brothers and my forefathers. By the way, when will Indians be portrayed?

    jishica said:
    September 9, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    This is a very cool blog, which I sought out after my bs alarm started sounding over historical things I really know nothing about. Some of the dumber things about this show make me wish (only momentarily, I swear) that the Brits had indeed won so that our TV productions would be bbc quality! That said, you asked what we thought of the foray into issues of slavery. Besides being a little confusing to a non-historian, I had a reflexive eye roll over the Anna Strong portrayal (thank you for calling it out!). Hollywood really needs a white hero(ine) in race stories, and it is a tired trope that needs to go. The best way to get white people to deal with our race history is to stop softening it for our delicate self-concepts.

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