Posted by Juliana Szucs on May 25, 2014 in Moments in Time

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.)

Characters/Actors: Daniel Henshall as Caleb Brewster, Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull, Heather Lind as Anna Strong, and Seth Numrich as Ben Tallmadge. Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC


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


Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 19 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.


  1. Melanie Pancho

    Juliana, I love ‘Celia Garth, too!’ Have you read Gwen Bristow’s other books? She wrote several big American historicals that I’ve read and re-read many times over the years: ‘Calico Palace,’ about the California gold rush, ‘Jubilee Trail,’ about the overland trail to California in the early days, before the gold rush: and a trilogy about a group of families in Louisiana: ‘Deep Summer,’ ‘The Handsome Road,’ and ‘This Side of Glory.’ Sometimes you can find those three in one large volume. Of all her books, these three are my favourites, partly because of the genealogy inherent to the story. I doubt any of them are in print now, but I often see Bristow’s books at thrift stores and used bookshops.

  2. Richard Belz

    If you would like to learn more about the Culper Ring, I recommend “George Washington’s Secret Six The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.” Great book, about $18.00 at Amazon.

  3. Elaine Davis

    Celia Garth was a favorite book of mine also. I’ve never seen the book mentioned in anything before. Your mention of it also made me remember reading the Cherry Ames nursing books in between other library books.

  4. Melissa

    Your point about “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” is very true… and I have to share a funny example. I was looking for records on my great grandfather, and it was really getting frustrating. I found a census listing the same name and birth date, but different spouse and children… one of which was the same age as my great grandmother. This other census listed a daughter named Adeline, and I thought “well that’s weird! Great grandma’s brother married a girl named Adeline!” So when I saw my grandmother I asked her if her father had been married before he married great grandma. She said “Yes, and his daughter was the same age as her.” So next question was about her uncle marrying Adeline… yep! Talk about some confusing family tree, that I would not have been able to figure out without my grandma’s help. Fun times! lol

  5. BEE

    I too recommend “George Washington’s Secret Six The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.” A book I hated to put down.
    There was even a mention of a relative of a direct ancestor of my husband’s who aided the Patriots, although my husband’s ancestors were Tories. After the Revolution, they boarded ships and headed to New Brunswick Canada.
    Although the series was based on a different book, I was really looking forward to it, having toured the home of Benjamin Tallmadge in Litchfield CT at least twice on the annual July house tour.
    Litchfield is also home to the Tapping Reeves Law School and museum, with a long list of illustrious students and graduates. A great place to visit.
    As I watched the series, I was impressed with the scenery, costumes and acting, but I couldn’t get past the “blood and gore”. I read somewhere that the brutality{savagery?} shown in the first episode would not have been carried out by either side.
    I tried to get past it {and the “romantic” involvements} and enjoy it for the historical content, but there were far too many “liberties” taken in the telling.
    Except for the main characters, I lost track of “who’s who” and what side they were on, so after the first two or three episodes, I lost interest.
    Perhaps others will enjoy it more than I did.

  6. Rachel Evans

    I was cautious about watching it at first due to my husband not being interested in history. It just didn’t seem a show that he would watch but I asked him to watch the first episode with me. After much joking about me forcing him to watch a bunch of traitors (he’s from Scotland) he admitted he enjoyed it and even went so far as to look up a history of the spy ring. Since we are behind on the show and catching up on on-demand he now even suggests watching the show over others we are behind in watching.

    Your tips about timelines and mapping ancestors are perfect. I am actually mapping censuses, church records, and land records to separate several men by the same name. It definitely helps in showing patterns between them.

Comments are closed.