Turn's enablers: A spy's support group

John Billingsley as Samuel Townsend, a spy's father and enabler.
John Billingsley as Samuel Townsend, a spy's father and enabler.
Image: AMC.
An intriguing character in the American Revolutionary War drama, Turn: Washington’s Spies, is a humble Quaker, Samuel Townsend, who happens to be the father of a spy.

    Fans of the AMC series know the elder Townsend, amiably portrayed by John Billingsley, as the upstanding father of Robert Townsend (Nick Westrate), perhaps the ring's most important spy. (More about Robert Townsend in a future post.)
    While loosely based on a historical figure, Samuel Townsend symbolically represents the role of the broader support circle -- the founding generation-- that surrounded the central players in the American Revolution. Our seventh post about the drama focuses on the historical Samuel Townsend:

Patriot and politician: Samuel Townsend (1717-1790) served as justice of the peace and town clerk of Oyster Bay on New York's Long Island and also was a member of the New York Provincial Congress from 1774 to 1777, according to Raynham Hall Museum, the family homestead in New York. 
    He ran a successful shipping business, married Sarah Stoddard and fathered eight children. After the occupation of New York by the British, many Patriots fled, but Townsend and his family remained.
    Townsend was a Quaker, and Quakers are known for pacifism. But Townsend's politics were squarely with the Whigs, the party known for resisting royal government. In his book, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (Bantam; 2006), upon which Turn is based, Alexander Rose writes that Samuel Townsend engaged in dirty politics in an attempt to wrest power from the area’s Tory loyalists.   
    At one point, New York Whigs wrote to Queens County towns asking them to hold elections for delegates to a provincial convention. At this convention, delegates to the Second Continental Congress would be chosen. Townsend “held a secret rump meeting of the town’s Whigs,” Rose writes. “Predictably, they voted unanimously for their man, Zebulon Williams, to ‘represent’ the town at the Convention.”

Under arrest: In 1776, British soldiers arrested Samuel Townsend for his patriotic beliefs, the Raynham Hall Museum recounts.
    Fortunately, Townsend had friends on both sides of the aisle. One of them, Tory Thomas Buchanan, saw Townsend being taken away, pursued the soldiers and paid for Townsend’s release, the museum’s website says.  (Buchanan’s good deed paid off. After the war, the merchant was allowed to stay.)
    Townsend had to take an oath of allegiance to the king. “In swearing his loyalty to the Crown, Townsend’s political career was finished,” Rose writes. But he continued to meet with other Whigs to discuss Washington’s progress.

Troops on the homefront: During six months spanning 1778 and 1779, British troops used Townsend’s property as headquarters for the Queen’s Rangers. Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe, “quartered himself in the house, alongside the family,” the museum’s website recounts.
     Samuel Townsend died in 1790. Afterward, Robert Townsend moved back to Raynham Hall and lived with two of his sisters.


       Simcoe: Turn's British (Colonial) villain

       Turn: Peggy Shippen as femme fatale

       Fact, fiction and 'Turn,' the Colonial spy drama   

       'Turn' serves up revolutionary history

       Turn: John Andre, melancholy spymaster

       Turn: Robert Rogers, the perfect rogue

       Men and women of the founding generation

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