Greetings, TURNcoats! How about a nice link roundup to compliment the first two episodes of Season 3?
Here we are, technically 1/5 of the way into Season 3, and things have been suspiciously quiet over here at the blog. Sure, we’ve had a blast live-tweeting every episode, but no new articles here at the blog. What gives?
Well, to be honest, there hasn’t been a whole lot of actual historical stuff happening in TURN Season 3 thus far. As a historian watching the show, there’s very little fact-based material to capitalize on, aside from a few name drops (e.g. Joseph Reed, Austin Roe) that don’t yet have enough context in the show to merit a full-length analysis. Nearly all of the first two episodes have revolved around made-up love triangles, fictional family feuds, and other interpersonal relationships that never happened.
Thankfully, we have covered most of those subjects in previous posts – so while we wait for some meatier historical topics to arrive in Season 3, here’s a quick and dirty link roundup for those of you trying to sort fact from fiction regarding all the personal drama in the TURNiverse:
- Abe and Anna: Never happened. (Although thus far in Season 3, their fictional affair seems to have cooled considerably.)
- Abe and Robert Rogers: An amusing (if bizarre) premise – but this also never happened. For more about the real Robert Rogers’ wartime escapades, check out Todd Braisted’s excellent summary here.
- Anna and Hewlett: Never happened. Although if you’re interested in the real Hewlett’s role in occupying the town of Setuaket, we’ve got you covered. We featured an article on the historical Hewlett in the middle of Season 2, right before TURN’s Hewlett dramatically veered away from the (until that time) realistic portrayal of his real-life counterpart.
If you’re a little confused from the “authentic” messaging you’ve been hearing from AMC staff regarding Hewlett – no, you’re not crazy! On Twitter and Reddit, Alexander Rose (who joined the show’s writing staff in Season 2) has repeatedly insisted that TURN’s Edmund Hewlett, the royalist commander of Setuaket during the Revolutionary War, has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the historical Richard Hewlett, the royalist commander of Setauket during the Revolutionary War. It is a total and complete coincidence that both men held the exact same station, at the same time and in the same place, and had the last name “Hewlett.”
Needless to say, viewers of the show are right to be a little skeptical. By that logic, of course Anna Strong could never have had an affair with a fictional Redcoat officer! Not to mention, the real Anna Strong was still (by any reasonable account) contentedly married and the mother to several children by the time the summer of 1778 rolled around, so there’s that, too.
- Austin Roe: Okay, Austin Roe DID happen! He was a real person (definitely not anyone’s pseudonym or alias) and, for a time, an absolutely fascinating member of the historical Culper spy ring who served as the vital link communicating intelligence between New York City and Setauket. I’m seriously hoping the one mention he’s had thus far in Season 3 is some kind of bizarre red herring and/or bad history joke – it would truly be a shame for him to be cut out of this series, regardless of how much the show has already careened off the historical record. We will definitely revisit Mr. Roe here on the blog – after we get a better idea of where the show is going to take him.
- Woodhull family drama (especially concerning Mary and Thomas): Never happened. Thankfully,
we’ve got a post on TURN’s convoluted family trees to help viewers sort things out!
- Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold: Oh yes, this happened – although as many of you likely guessed, it wasn’t exactly the bizarre love triangle with ulterior motives depicted in TURN. We’re in the process of reaching out to a few exciting guest authors for this particular topic, so stay tuned!
- Blood-spattered John Graves Simcoe: Well, it looks like TURN’s “Psycho Simcoe” portrayal isn’t going anywhere this season! Only two episodes into the season and we’ve seen plenty of Simcoe-generated ketchup. If you’re only familiar with Simcoe through what you’ve seen in TURN, you may be in for a bit of a shock once you read a little bit about the real Queen’s Ranger commander by that name! Thankfully, Todd Braisted has not one but two excellent articles about the real Simcoe: one about Simcoe’s captivity at the hands of the Continental Army (as loosely portrayed in Season 1) and another about his tenure as leader of the Queen’s Rangers (TURN Season 2 and beyond). At the TURN roundtable on Common-place.org, guest author and Purdue University history professor T. Cole Jones also analyzes the many liberties TURN takes with John Graves Simcoe.
Well, I think that just about does it for tonight’s link roundup. Plenty of reading to re-visit while we wait for bigger and better spy-related history to materialize in TURN Season 3. Enjoy tonight’s new episode, TURNcoats – and if you’re watching live, don’t forget to join in the fun on Twitter and Facebook!
Today we’re tackling a popular subject: What’s going on with all the different accents in TURN? It’s one of our most-requested topics! The questions we’ve received range from skeptical commentary to pure curiosity (which tends to be the case with every topic, not just this one). We’ve chosen one example from each category below. The greater takeaway is that among TURN viewers, there’s clearly a lot of interest in what people in the 18th century sounded like when they spoke. There’s a wealth of scholarship on 18th century linguistics out there, but for purposes of answering these TURN-related questions, we’ll try to tackle one small slice at a time — with plenty of links for further reading!
Question 1: “Yeah,” “Okay,” and Other Aggravating Anachronisms
Q1: “I am curious about the recent devolution of the King’s English this season. “Yeah”? “Great!”? Seems disappointingly anachronistic.”
Well, yeah! Great question. (wink) Although as we can see from the pictures below, anachronistic speech has been present throughout TURN’s entire run.
(Once again, Caleb Brewster takes first place as the most egregious violator of 18th century standards: a quick script search shows that “Yeah” is one of his favorite replies to just about anything.)
While the words and responses above are good examples of modern words that are inappropriate for 18th century speech, just how “disappointing” they are is a good subject for healthy debate. Most modern viewers don’t even notice anachronistic words, inflections, and turns of phrase like “yeah” and “that’s great” because they’re so deeply ingrained into our everyday conversations. If you find your ears perking up at the sound of modern words in a historical setting, your historical spider-sense is finely tuned, indeed! (Readers: Are you bothered when you hear modern words and phrases in historical TV shows? Do you even notice them at all? Let us know in the comments!)
Your question brings up a very interesting larger point, however: Should a period TV show or movie aspire to linguistic purity as one of its goals? Of course, like everything else in historical fiction, it’s more than just a simple yes or no question; there’s a huge range of historically-informed possibilities to consider. Modern audiences would likely be lost if TURN used nothing but meticulously reconstructed 18th century American accents and vocabulary. However, words like “yeah,” “okay,” and even “hello” are pretty obvious anachronisms (well, obvious to anyone who’s studied the 18th century in depth) that could easily be swapped out for other period-correct alternatives.
The writers of TURN have touted the show’s very sporadic use of 18th century slang (like “chunder bucket” in Episode 8 of Season 1) – but while those occasional trivia tidbits are certainly fun, viewers shouldn’t be fooled into believing that the dialogue in TURN is a faithful representation of how people conversed in 18th century America.
Interested in more word histories? Want to try hunting down linguistic anachronisms yourself? Try searching online dictionaries like the extremely thorough Oxford English Dictionary or free sites like dictionary.com to look up the etymology (historical origins) of common words. Most etymologies specify a date range when the word in question was first observed in common use. Then, if you’re really ambitious, you can even search online transcripts of TURN (or any other historical show) to see if and when they pop up in the script!
In order to try and piece together accurate vocabulary lists and speech patterns of the past, historians have to cross-reference as many letters, journals, diaries, schoolbooks, and other documents as they can find. It’s no easy task! (Yet another good reason for Hollywood to hire — and actually listen to — reputable historians as behind-the-scenes consultants.) If you’re feeling ambitious, you can browse through Samuel Johnson’s famous 1755 dictionary for a better idea of how English speakers used certain words. For those who might be intimidated by total immersion in 18th century sources, Colonial Williamsburg has a fun, light, and very readable guide with greetings and phrases appropriate to the Revolutionary era.
Question 2: Anomalous Accents
Q2: “What kind of accent would people [in colonial America] have in the 1770s?”
In lieu of using 18th century language, it seems like the strategy on TURN has been to give the main characters distinct accents in order to subtly remind viewers that the show takes place in the 18th century. Apparently this strategy has been very successful, if the volume of accent-related questions we’ve received about accents is any indication! While all of the colorful shades of English, Irish, and Scottish accents featured in TURN are pleasing to the modern ear, how appropriate are they for the historical characters and places depicted in the show?
In most cases, not very. For example: in TURN, Robert Rogers’ Scottish brogue is so thick you could cut it with a knife. The real Robert Rogers, in marked contrast, was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Hampshire – two colonies with overwhelmingly English populations in the 18th century. And the original ‘Major’ Hewlett (meaning Richard Hewlett, of course, not the “wait, never mind, we decided to call him Edmund, he’s a completely different person now!” Hewlett revealed to viewers during last week’s episode) was a Long Island-born American loyalist who certainly wouldn’t have spoken with an impeccably crisp high British accent. Indeed, many of the most heavily-accented characters in TURN were, in reality, American-born men and women whose families had been anchored in the American colonies for generations. Their families weren’t “fresh off the boat” from England, Scotland, or anywhere else. The Woodhull family alone had been anchored in Long Island for over a hundred years before the Revolution began!
All right, then: So what did American colonists from New England and New York sound like in the 18th century?
First of all, there’s no one right answer to that question. It depends on a number of factors, like the heritage, location, and education level of any given person. In some bustling colonial port cities, an 18th century traveler could find himself surrounded by several strange and exotic-sounding accents all in the course of a single day, as one itinerant doctor observed while traveling through New York in 1744. It would be just as hard to argue for one single representative “Colonial American” accent as it would be to argue for one single representative “Modern American” accent today. (Try getting a Texan and a New Yorker to agree on that!)
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have SOME idea of what colonists sounded like in the 18th century! Colonial Americans, especially in the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, had a remarkably high rate of literacy, even among women – but few received anything more than a rudimentary education from home or a local tutor or grammar school. These modestly-educated people, for the most part, tended to spell words phonetically – i.e. how they heard them spoken. So, perhaps ironically, the documents left behind by these less-educated colonists are often more helpful in determining the sound of local speech than those written by educated elites!
Take Paul Revere for example. In his (excellent and very readable) book Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer helps us imagine what it might have been like to converse with the famous (and modestly educated) Boston patriot:
“His spelling tells us that Paul Revere talked with a harsh, nasal New England twang. His strong Yankee accent derived from a family of East Anglian dialects that came to Boston in the 17th century, and can still be faintly heard today.
When Paul Revere’s friends wrote in defense of their cherished charter rights, they spelled “charter” as chattaer… and probably pronounced it with no r at all. All his life Paul Revere spelled “get” as git. His mother’s maiden name of Hitchborn was written Hitchbon in the town of Boston, which was pronounced Bast’n. His friends wrote mash for “marsh” and want for “weren’t,” hull for “whole” and foller for “follow,” sarve for “serve” and acummin for “coming.” …This was the folk-speech of an Anglo-American culture that was already six generations old by 1775, and deeply rooted in Paul Revere’s New England.”
Notice that Fischer states that this proto-Boston accent had been in place long before the start of the Revolution! (Fischer expands on this concept in his book Albion’s Seed.) Indeed, British soldiers and European travelers had been noting since the mid-18th century how odd the speech of American colonists sounded compared to the King’s English.
Thankfully for historians, Revere and many of his peers weren’t “over-educated” to the point where they stopped spelling words like they heard them. But while that fact makes modern historians happy, it was a thorn in the side of Early American pedants and schoolmasters who saw it as their mission to popularize “proper” spelling and punctuation. As a result, we can find some pretty amusing “corrective” lists well into the early 19th century! We’ve included one such list below for you to browse through and/or download and enjoy. Published in 1808, Caleb Brigham’s “The Child’s Companion” spelling book contained the following appendix of “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England.” While this dates from after the Revolution, you can spot several overlaps between Brigham’s list and Fischer’s description of Revolutionary Boston speech above. I’ll bet some of you New Englanders can find some overlap with modern Boston accents, too!
So, while there’s no single correct answer to “What did people in Early America sound like?”, we can get a fun glimpse of what common New England speech might have sounded like in the late 18th to early 19th century thanks to primary sources like the one below. This is just one of many books, diaries, and journals out there that give us a colorful glimpse into the sounds and speech of Early America. If you have any favorite sources, share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below! Enjoy your browsing, and keep those questions coming!
Caleb Bingham’s “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England”
Click on the thumbnails to view and/or download the full sized pages. If you’re not used to reading Early American print, keep in mind that many of the “f” characters are actually a lowercase “s.” Google Books has a full copy of Mr. Bingham’s spelling book online, if you’d like to save or view it as a PDF form.
As of this point in Season 2, Major Hewlett’s character has taken a rather interesting TURN (forgive the pun). He’s undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in the entire show, and has more fans than one might expect, given the color of his coat! This week, Todd Braisted brings us yet another detailed look at one of the most influential Loyalists in the TURN universe — and who was a major player in the real-life history of Revolutionary Long Island, too! -RS
Often lost in the shuffle of TURN’s vision of Setauket is Richard Hewlett, played by actor Burn Gorman. The show has decided to have this Long Island-born American loyalist portrayed as only a major, but in actuality, Hewlett served his whole seven year career in the Revolutionary War as a lieutenant colonel. In TURN, Burn Gorman delivers a convincing portrayal of Hewlett as a somewhat mild-mannered professional veritably obsessed with “law, order, and authority.” On screen, Hewlett is an aloof British outsider to the Long Island community whose unflinching dedication to his duty and occasional displays of humanity and compassion make him a sympathetic character, in spite of his role as an antagonist. His likeability has prompted many TURN viewers to wonder: What was the real Richard Hewlett like?
Richard Hewlett was born on 1 November 1729 at Hempstead, Queens County, Long Island to Daniel Hewlett and Sarah Jackson. In 1753, at the age of 24, he married Mary Townsend (five years his junior) in Hempstead, and over the next twenty years they would have eleven children together, all Long Island natives just like their parents.
(Editor’s note: As you may have guessed by this point, there is nothing to substantiate any rumor of romantic interest or infatuation between Richard Hewlett and Anna Strong. They were both in lasting, stable marriages and raising very large families of their own by the 1770s, with no documented evidence of marital strain. Yet another fictional Anna Strong romance invented for the TURN storyline. When will we reach critical mass? – RS)
Soon after his marriage, Hewlett would soon be swept up in the winds of war blowing between France and Great Britain – a conflict known in America as the French and Indian War. Hewlett served as Captain in a New York regiment of Provincial (read: American) troops under Colonel Oliver DeLancey and saw plenty of action in Canada. In 1758, Hewlett’s corps helped capture Fort Frontenac from the French, the site of modern Kingston, Ontario.
With the end of hostilities in 1763, Richard Hewlett returned to Long Island where he became a leader in the Hempstead community and served as lieutenant colonel of the Queens County Militia. As the Revolution approached, Hewlett, through inclination and family connections, remained steadfastly loyal to the British. Indeed, Queens County by far was overwhelmingly Loyalist in its support of the British, so much so that New Jersey militia under Colonel Nathaniel Heard were sent in January 1776 to confiscate the arms of the inhabitants and render them less dangerous. Hundreds of Hempstead residents likewise signed a submission, apologizing for causing “uneasiness” in their neighbors by their politics and pledging to never take up arms against the Americans. Six members of the Hewlett family were amongst those that signed this document – but not Richard.
By August 1776, William Howe’s army had landed on Long Island and by the end of the month had routed Washington’s forces at Brooklyn Heights. Amongst the first to greet the British was a large group of Loyalists from the island, possibly including Hewlett. Within a week, these men would become the very first officers and soldiers in a brigade of three battalions to be raised by (now) Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey, Hewlett’s former commander from the French & Indian War. DeLancey’s recruits would come primarily from Loyalists in Queens and Suffolk Counties of Long Island, as well as Connecticut, with a smattering of Rebel deserters and prisoners of war.
Recruiting could be dangerous on Long Island during the war. Even the very first episode of TURN featured the murder of a British officer (Captain Joyce) as a major plot point. On September 24th, 1776, one of DeLancey’s would-be officers named Miller was shot and killed by a raiding party on their way to… yes, the town of Setauket!
But Richard Hewlett would face no such danger. To the west of Setauket, Queens County (despite Nathaniel Heard’s previous efforts) still remained predominantly loyal to the British, with hundreds of recruits flocking to the royal standard after hostilities began. Hewlett was commissioned on September 5th 1776 as lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade, commanded by Colonel Gabriel G. Ludlow. Although liable for service anywhere in America, Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett never left Long Island during the war, nor did the majority of his battalion. As we have discussed in previous posts, Hewlett and his men were stationed at Setauket during Parsons’ August 1777 raid, a.k.a. the Battle of Setauket (depicted with considerable artistic license in in TURN’s Season One finale).
The Battle of Setauket, as minor as it was in the overall scope of the war, was actually Hewlett’s only moment of glory in the contest. While he received considerable praise from General Clinton for his defense of the post, Hewlett was no fan of the town itself, as evidenced by his letter to Major General William Tryon soon after the Setauket raid. Hewlett’s letter wonderfully describes the chaos of the town during Parsons’ visit, and even sheds some interesting light a certain Setauket resident viewers of TURN might recognize by name! (The letter below has been slightly edited for readability; to read a direct transcription, click here.)
“I take the Liberty to give You an Account of the Behaviour of some of the Inhabitants of this County when lately visited by the Rebels, that Your Excellency may have an Idea what kind of Subjects many of them are.
Our Hospital was at some Distance from the Works – as there was not a convenient House nearby – When we were attacked by the Rebels – a Party of them was sent to it – those Sick who were able [to walk], attempting to make their Escape – were fired at. Jonathon Thompson who lives next to the Hospital, seeing which Way they ran, Called out to the Rebels “here here they run” pointing with his Hand the Way they went. Samuel Thompson Son of the above at the same Time endeavoured to intimidate the Inhabitants – By telling them – Our Fort had surrendered – that the Rebels intended staying two or three Days – and had a twenty Gun Ship and [a] Number of Privateers in the Sound – Stories well calculated to prevent our having Assistance.
Men of this ungenerous Stamp endeavour further by sly underhand Methods to defraud [the] Government. Their Young Men go over to Connecticut and enter the Rebel Service while their Fathers and Friends take Mortgages on their Estates – and secure in the Oath of Fidelity – hug themselves when they think they have saved their Property. There is a constant Correspondence between Connecticut & this Country carried on to a most daring Degree I am well convinced. The late Party that came over robbed only me and my Officers] Doctor Punderson & Mr. Hubbard of our Horses – they must have been particularly pointed out to them as they made great Inquiry after a fine Horse of Captn. Allisons on which one of our Men made his Escape that Morning…
I have this Instant while writing the following authentic Information lodg’d against a Justice Selah Strong by a Gentleman from Connecticut – that he [Strong] wrote to Genl. Parsons there were a Number of Vessels collecting Forage at Southold – Guarded by a fourteen Gun Schooner and fifty Men on Shore under the Command of Captn. Raymond – who might easily be surprised. That he secreted a Deserter three Weeks who went by the Name of Boyd – that he has repeatedly sent Intelligence to the Rebels in Connecticut of the Situation of the Troops in this Place by John and Cornelius Clark. This very Mr. Strong has pretended to be our Friend – and several Times given Information of the last named Persons being over – but not until they were gone. What Security can Government receive – while there are such Villains ready to stab her in secret?
That Success may attend your Excellency’s Arms and all Traitors be discover’d is the sincere Wish of Your most oblig’d humble Servt.
. Lieutenant Colonel.”
The above letter deliciously gives a real look at what was going on in Setauket at the time. It also foreshadows the arrest of Selah Strong, who was detained for “treasonable correspondence with His Majesty’s enemies” and then sentenced to imprisonment on one of the infamous British Prison Ships in New York harbor. (Selah’s arrest and imprisonment is depicted over the course of several episodes in Season 1 of TURN – although, like most real events in the show, it didn’t happen until years later in the war.)
For the remainder of the war, Hewlett and his battalion would garrison different posts on Long Island, only occasionally seeing combat. On September 29th, 1779 Hewlett was commanding at the major post of Lloyd’s Neck, on the north shore near Huntington, when four vessels flying British colors sailed into the harbor protected by the fort where the garrison lay. Upon sailing by the fort, the ships lowered their British flags and “Showed their Thirteen Stripes.” The four rebel privateers immediately boarded and captured a brig and three sloops before being fired on by the two small four pounder cannon within the fort. Hewlett credited this artillery with the saving of over a dozen other vessels, as the rebels “Seemed not to like our Cannon.” The ships sailed off, content with their four prizes.
Hewlett’s last official command was the dubious honor of commanding all the Provincial regiments heading to the River Saint John, Nova Scotia in September 1783. The end of the war left thousands of Loyalists seeking asylum in what remained of British North America. For many, that translated to what is now modern Canada. Hewlett’s instructions, which must have been extremely painful, were to take charge of the remainder of the Provincial Forces in what would become the Province of New Brunswick and disband them. The war was over, their side had lost, and their services to the king were no longer needed. The lieutenant colonel would retire on half-pay and settle on a free grant of land in the small hamlet called Gagetown on the Saint John River. Here the former resident of Queens County and defender of Setauket would die in 1789, six years after the official end of the war. Judge Thomas Jones, the contemporary Loyalist historian remembered him as “a bold, spirited, resolute, intrepid man.” Another British officer, in sizing up the various Provincial field officers at the end of the war, summed up our Loyalist character simply and succinctly as a “good, useful man.”
Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject. Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society. His newest book, Grand Forage 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, will be published in 2016.
Greetings, TURNcoats new and old – and a special welcome to the scores of new spy-curious readers that found this site after binge-watching Season 1 on Netflix! The hardest part about finishing a good TV show binge is waiting for new episodes to start airing again — but thankfully, you won’t have long to wait. The two hour premiere of TURN Season 2 airs in less than a week from today!
Thanks in no small part to TURN’s debut on Netflix, I’ve recently received an avalanche of queries (either through the ‘Ask a Question’ feature, via Twitter, or via search engine click-throughs) about the historical accuracy of the on-screen romance between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong. For obvious reasons, it’s one of the most frequently-asked questions surrounding the show. Now, we did feature a short discussion about Abe and Anna last season, but it was tacked onto the end of a much longer blog post, which means it’s easy for new readers to miss. And given the amount of questions we’ve received on this single topic, it seems like readers are hungry for more details than a simple “Nope, didn’t happen.” Ask and ye shall receive! (No, really, go ahead and ask us a question! The submit feature had some issues during the off season, but those should be fixed now. Ask away!)
A whole lot of “shipping” going on
Not to be confused, of course, with Shippen (although there will definitely be a whole lot of Shippen going on in Season 2, according to AMC).
For readers who many be unfamiliar with the latest in internet slang, I refer you to the definition above. In the context of TURN, “shipping” is an especially appropriate term to use for Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith Strong, because their forceful on-screen romance is completely lacking any basis whatsoever in historical fact.
(For the record, I’ve tried to find some kind of proper “ship” name for Abe and Anna, but just can’t make it work. Neither “Abeanna” or “Annabe” has a lot of staying power, and if I start dropping references to “WoodStrong” all over the place, the internet is definitely going to get the wrong impression about this blog.)
So, in the TURN universe (which really does read like historical fanfiction, now that you mention it), both the TV show and TURN Origins comic (pictured below) claim that Abe and Anna, roughly the same age, grew up together as neighbors and best friends in the village of Setauket. But even that simple description of their childhood background is misleading. A little basic biographical information should help set the record straight. (Nearly all of the genealogical info cited in this post is freely accessible by searching longislandsurnames.com.)
Anna Strong 101: A Primer
Let’s start by addressing the simple premise above. Yes, both Abe and Anna were Setauket born and raised – but in reality, Anna was ten years Abraham’s senior. Born on 14 April 1740, she would have just turned 35 years old when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. (Interestingly enough, Heather Lind – the actress who plays Anna Strong – is currently 32 years old, making her pretty close to the age of the historical Anna at the beginning of the war.)
Anna married Selah Strong, another Setauket native, in November of 1760, when she was 20 and he was a month away from his 23rd birthday. Abraham Woodhull was only ten years old at the time. (While the Woodhull family likely participated in the wedding festivities, I doubt little Abe had much to drink that day, even after taking colonial America’s lax attitudes toward alcohol consumption into consideration.) Needless to say, there was never any kind of engagement or betrothal between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith. Anna was happily married and the mother to a handful of children before Abe even hit puberty. In fact, by the time the historical Culper Ring began its operations in 1778 (two years later than the fictional date of 1776 given in TURN), Anna had given birth to seven children, and would have yet one more before the war’s end. (And just in case you had any doubts about where Anna and Selah’s historical loyalties lay, check out some of the names they gave their children!)
Abraham Woodhull: Single, Married, or “It’s Complicated”?
Next, let’s examine Abraham’s side of the equation. Obviously there’s no historical evidence for any kind of romantic attraction between him and Anna – but in addition to that, in TURN he is a not-so-happily married man with a young son. We’ve already pointed out in previous posts (and the Historical Timeline) that Abraham Woodhull didn’t marry until 1784, after the conclusion of the war. (Nor did he ever have a son OR an older brother named Thomas, but we’ve already covered that, too.) In the alternate universe of TURN, the fact that Abraham and Anna are married makes their affair even more dramatic, naturally. But prematurely “marrying off” Abe cancels out one of the most interesting and significant common factors between most members of the Culper Ring: their bachelorhood.
In Season 1 of TURN, we were introduced to Abraham Woodhull, Benjamin Tallmadge, and Caleb Brewster: three major participants of the Culper Spy Ring. These three men did marry and have families of their own… eventually. But while they were active members of the Culper Ring, they were all young bachelors with nothing left to lose, relatively speaking. They had no wives; they had no children; no one who depended on them for survival. None of them were settled and established as the head of a prosperous business or farm, or even as the head of their own independent household (which was not uncommon for unmarried men in the Northern colonies in their early 20s). For obvious reasons, unattached young men like Tallmadge, Woodhull, and Brewster made much more attractive recruiting targets for intelligence activities that, in the case of failure, often led to death or financial ruin. To put it plainly: single men “only” put their own lives and fortunes at risk, whereas family men incurred more casualties. This rather cold and calculating fact still carries a lot of weight in the intelligence communities of today – both actual and fictional. (Spy movie fans might recall M’s blunt remark to James Bond in Skyfall: “Orphans always make the best recruits.”)
Obviously, giving Abraham Woodhull a wife and son multiplies the level of dramatic tension and nail-biting suspense in the show on both the espionage and romantic fronts. But historically, that’s exactly the kind of family situation that would have likely ruled him out as a participant in the Culper Ring in the first place.
Finally, I should emphasize that none of our favorite young spies had any kind of aversion to the institution of marriage itself — rather, in all likelihood, they solemnly realized that a stable and secure marriage was incompatible with their wartime line of work. In fact, 1784 was quite a banner year for the old Setauket gang, with Woodhull, Tallmadge, and Brewster all tying the knot! The timing seems to underscore their awareness of the dangers of espionage: they were only ready to settle down after they were convinced that the War of American Independence was truly over and that their services would no longer be needed. (The Treaty of Paris that officially ended the war was signed in September 1783.)
In conclusion: The romantic drama between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong seen in TURN may be totally made up — but that’s not to say the real Culper saga is lacking in historical romance!
There seems to be quite a bit of confusion surrounding TURN’s curious habit of misnaming “real” historical characters throughout Season 1 — especially family members immediately related to the show’s protagonists. This post is intended to straighten out the issue with the help of some handy charts and other primary sources, since we’ve received so many questions about it. (If you’re not familiar with the rather tedious ins and outs of genealogy, you might want to grab a shot of espresso before reading on.)
Episode 9 of TURN, “Against Thy Neighbor,” introduced yet another example: The good Reverend Nathanial Tallmadge, fiery patriot and dutiful father to our favorite dragoon major. His refreshingly straightforward character is pretty much impossible not to like. If his speech from Episode 9 doesn’t rouse your inner American Revolutionary,
you’re probably a Loyalist then I don’t know what will.
However, if you’re a viewer who is interested in historical accuracy (and you likely wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), you might be surprised to learn that Benjamin Tallmadge’s real father — who was indeed the pastor of Setauket’s Presbyterian church and opposed the loyalist occupation of his town — was also named Benjamin Tallmadge. (Benjamin Tallmadge Senior, of course.) In fact, there is no “Nathanial Tallmadge” in Major Tallmadge’s immediate family tree.
Thankfully, Benjamin Tallmadge himself clears things up for us on the very first page of his memoirs (pictured at right). In a similar case of mistaken identity, it was actually Benjamin’s eldest brother William, not his brother Samuel, who perished as a prisoner of the British Army in 1776.
The Tallmadges, however, aren’t the only Long Island family that might look funny to any genealogists who happen to watch TURN. The Woodhull family tree is also beset by a number of identity (and existential) crises. While Abraham Woodhull did have an older brother who died just before the Revolutionary War began, his name was Richard, not Thomas. Similarly, when Abraham finally did get married and have children (which wasn’t until 1781, as seen on the Historical Timeline), he did have a son, but he was named Jesse, not Thomas. There is no Thomas Woodhull anywhere in Abraham’s immediate family tree.
The two charts below contain biographical information about the branch of the Woodhull family tree that’s of most interest to TURN viewers. Note that there’s no “Thomas” to be found anywhere. The images are screencaps from longislandsurnames.com, a site I highly recommend to any TURN fans who want to investigate the family histories of Long Island revolutionaries for themselves. You might want to bookmark the site if you’re trying to keep track of the multiple families mentioned on TURN.
In both of these family cases, the relatives in question “did” exist, which makes TURN’s naming conventions even stranger. Benjamin’s clergyman father, Benjamin’s brother who died in British custody, Abraham’s son, and Abraham’s older brother who died prior to the start of the war were all real people in the historical record. But for some reason, the names for all these “real-life” characters have been swapped out for fictional ones in the show.
As the keeper of this blog and all the social media accounts connected with it, I often get asked why the writers and showrunners of TURN would alter history in the ways that they do. (For example: “Why would they change the names of real people like Benjamin Tallmadge’s father?”) In the case of the martyred ‘Samuel’ Tallmadge, the show implies (in Episode 6) that he was the inspiration for the first half of Abraham Woodhull’s “Samuel Culpeper” alias, so that’s likely why the writers swapped the names of the Tallmadge brothers. As for the others… well, since historical accuracy is evidently not a factor, your speculations are as good as mine!
Nor do I know why Abraham Woodhull’s alias is named “Culpeper” in the show, and not “Culper,” which was obviously the real name at the heart of the eponymous Culper Spy Ring. Since it was Washington’s suggestion in the show, it might have to do with his connection to Culpeper county, Virginia. Either way, I’m assuming that will be changed/explained in a future episode. Perhaps these other naming conventions will be, too. Hey, even MORE reason to call for a second season!
Bonus: “Abe and Anna”
While we’re on the topic of real-life genealogy of TURN characters, I’d like to take the time to gently remind viewers of the historical ages and marital situations surrounding Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong, who have become quite… involved on screen. (Several blog followers via Twitter and email have asked about this issue as well!)
Both the TV show and the TURN Origins comic imply that Abe and Anna as roughly the same age and grew up as children together in Setauket. In reality, Anna was ten years older than Abraham. She married her husband Selah in 1760, when she was twenty and Abe was just ten years old. (Needless to say, there was never any promise of marriage between the two.) Anna was pretty well invested in her marriage, too: by 1776 she and Selah had six children, with more to follow soon (some of whom had fantastically patriotic names, as seen on Anna’s family page).
Of course, it’s no surprise that TURN (or any TV drama, for that matter) is chasing after sexual tension in hopes of pleasing a modern-day audience. But just in case there was any lingering doubt: the on-screen romantic relationship between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong has no historical basis whatsoever.
Well! There’s nothing like hard genealogy if you’re looking for a cold dose of historical reality. On a more exciting note: there’s only a few more days until the TURN season finale! Coming up soon: a short, reader-requested post on jewelry and accessories in the late 18th century. (Fewer charts; more sparkly things.)
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.
- 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
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!
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…