Growing up I was a bookworm. (See yesterday’s blog post for Throwback Thursdays. That’s me on the right, nose in a book.) Even then I loved to read about history. There was a series of biographies at our school library that I worked my way through from start to finish. Between those and the Nancy Drew books I also went through at a rapid pace, looking back, my career path should have been obvious.
One of my favorite books was Celia Garth, by Gwen Bristow. I got it at a garage sale and must have read that book 100 times. It was the story of a dressmaker living in Charleston during the American Revolution. She became a spy and used her place as a dressmaker to eavesdrop on Loyalists in the shop. She passed that information on to her friends on the American side and I thought it would be so exciting to be a spy. There was a little romance, a little history, a little adventure—the perfect mix for me.
So when I heard AMC was going to run a series about a spy ring during the American Revolution, I had my husband set the DVR to record Turn every Sunday. We’ve found that it’s one of those rare series that we both enjoy, as we have somewhat different tastes when it comes to TV. As we were watching the show this past weekend, I was thinking that there are several things from the series that resonate with family history. (Of course. All roads lead to genealogy.)
Mind the Timeline
When I first heard about it, naturally I had to research the Culper spy ring, upon which the series is based. (‘Cuz that’s how I roll. I’m a research geek.)
The Culper Ring was formed following Benjamin Tallmadge’s appointment to lead the Continental Army’s intelligence service in 1778 by General George Washington. Just as in the show, he enlisted the help of trusted friends Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster.
But when I started watching the show, I was confused. The group was formed in 1778, but it kept referring to events of 1776. Clearly there were some liberties taken to align the show with the memorable events of that year. I get that. After all, AMC’s goal is to entertain. And in my book, anything that gets people interested in history is a good thing. Next thing you know, viewers are working on their family history and posting family pictures and Bible records. (Again, all roads lead to genealogy.)
We run into this thing all the time in family history. In my family we have a story an aunt told us of an ancestor that came over with Lafayette to fight in the Revolution and supposedly sired my ancestor. Putting that into context chronologically would mean that he was in his 80s at the time. Possible, but not likely. So that story’s on the shelf until I can figure out whether there are any grains of truth in it.
So, tip number one from Turn is, whether you’re looking at an online tree’s accuracy, trying to find the truth in a family story, or trying to determine whether that record really does belong to your ancestor, look at the timeline. Does it fit and does it make sense? If it puts your ancestor in multiple places at the same time, or if he seems too old or too young for it for it to make sense, more research is needed.
New to timelines? Here’s a free guide to help you get started.
Know the Lay of the Land
One of the cool features of the series is the StorySync and the interactive features on the website. While I haven’t actually done the StorySync while the show was on, I have done some exploring. The StorySync gives you some interesting historical insights into the historical characters and events, and I really like the map, because yeah, I’m a map freak too. You can click on the icons on the map and learn about various aspects of the show. When Abe crossed the Long Island Sound to Connecticut, I was wondering how far that really was and the interactive map tells me it was about 25 nautical miles round trip and that it was pretty rough travel.
Putting the lay of the land (and sea) into context is important in family history. Looking at migration and travel routes can be revealing. For example, we often think of our ancestors traveling by land because that’s most of us get around, but back in the 1700s, travel by water was often easier. Look at a topographical map of the places where your ancestors lived. Was there a mountain between them and the nearest town? Or perhaps there was a waterway could be crossed when settling in a new location. Long Island was first settled by colonists from New Haven, Connecticut, and during the Revolutionary War, many of those loyal to the American cause made their way to Connecticut shores when the British took control of the area. (See The Refugees of 1776 from Long Island to Connecticut, by Frederic Gregory Mather.)
So learn the lay of the land, rivers, lakes, and sea, and you may learn something new about your ancestors. And be sure to check TURN, Sundays at 9|8c! We expect you’ll become a fan of the show as we have.
Note: Past episodes are available online.
About Juliana Smith
Juliana Szucs Smith has been working for Ancestry.com for more than 16 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program, and is currently on the clock working towards certification from the Board for Certification of Genealogists.