AMC’s Turn: The Real Story of Capt. Simcoe

Our resident Revolutionary War expert takes a look at the historical Capt. Simcoe, known as the villain on AMC's Turn.

So far the most villainous villain in Turn is Capt. Simcoe, played by Samuel Roukin. He’s threatened to kill Abe Woodhull, loomed creepily over Anna Strong, and gotten under the skin of Ben Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster even after being both wounded and captured. Imagine how dangerous he’ll be when he’s free again!

One of AMC’s behind-the-scenes promotional videos for the series features creator Craig Silverstein telling us there’s “something a little wrong with” Simcoe. Roukin has described him as “basically a sociopath”—and in that interview he was trying to convince viewers that the character will show depth!

There was a real Capt. John Graves Simcoe in 1776, who later came up against the Culper Ring. The source material for Turn, the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose, refers to that Simcoe as Abraham Woodhull’s “nemesis,” and claims, “Simcoe exemplified the worst aspects of the British army” (though mentioning officers who seem worse).

In fact, the historical Capt. Simcoe was a respected, forward-looking British officer. After the war he became the first governor of Ontario. To be exact, he was the first royal Lieutenant Governor of the province of Upper Canada, answering to the Governor of Lower Canada. That doesn’t sound so scary, does it?

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The real Simcoe was born in 1752 to a Royal Navy captain who died during the French and Indian War. His godfather was an admiral. Despite having those naval connections, in 1770 Simcoe decided to join the British army. He and his first regiment arrived in Boston in 1775 two days after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Following standard procedure, he purchased the rank of captain in another regiment toward the end of that year. In March 1776, Capt. Simcoe sailed out of Boston for Halifax, Nova Scotia, along with the rest of the British military. He had yet to fight any battles.

Simcoe came to Long Island, New York, in the fall of 1776, along with 21,000 other British and Hessian soldiers. His company was one small part of the overwhelming force that pushed Gen. George Washington out of Brooklyn, off of Manhattan, and down through New Jersey. The next year, the captain took part in the British advance on Philadelphia, suffering a wound at the Battle of Brandywine.

All during that time, Capt. Simcoe kept lobbying his superiors to form a light infantry force that could maneuver more quickly and effectively than regular regiments. In October 1777 he got his wish, receiving the rank of major and command of the Queen’s Rangers, a corps made up of Americans loyal to the Crown. Instead of the standard army drill, Simcoe’s training emphasized physical fitness, speed, and bayonets. His corps also included a company of hussars, or light horsemen.

The rangers’ bayonets became notorious among Americans after the Battle of Quinton’s Bridge in March 1778, when they made a night-time raid on a house full of enemy troops. Maj. Simcoe’s men stabbed up to twenty Continental soldiers as well as the house’s owner. Americans called that a “massacre,” but it was within eighteenth-century rules of warfare.

In the spring of 1779, an informant told British authorities that Abraham Woodhull was supplying information to the Americans. Simcoe and his soldiers came to Setauket but could find only Woodhull’s father (who in real life was a Patriot judge, not a Loyalist as in Turn). According to the spy, the rangers “fell upon my father and plundered him in the most shocking manner.” Later Woodhull wrote that he’d like to kill Simcoe “for his usage to me.”

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Another important member of the Culper Ring also had a personal encounter with Maj. Simcoe which may have convinced him to become a spy, but since the show has yet to introduce that character I’ll leave that for later. Given that history, it makes sense for Simcoe to be one of Turn’s main antagonists.

However, in carrying out raids, hunting for spies, or fortifying his regiment’s positions, the historical Maj. Simcoe was doing his job as an army officer in wartime. The Queen’s Rangers were especially effective at fast strikes and reconnaissance. Simcoe once boasted that his corps lost only one patrol during the war—though that must have been the time in late 1779 when he himself was captured, leading to several months as a prisoner. For more on that event, see Todd Braisted’s essay “The Calamitous Captivity of John Graves Simcoe”.

After being released, Simcoe returned to England, turned thirty, married, wrote a book about his military experiences, and served briefly and unmemorably in Parliament.

In the early 1790s Simcoe lobbied for a high post in North America. Upper Canada was then a sparsely populated settlement of Loyalist and Native subjects of the king (it was called “Upper Canada” because it was upriver from Lower Canada, or Quebec). Maj. Simcoe was appointed Lieutenant Governor, moving to the Niagara region with his wife and youngest child. Though he was on the job for less than five years, he established the basics of government, the English common law, and policies encouraging new settlements and immigration (especially from the USA). Veterans of his ranger corps laid out roads leading west into the vast territory.

In one way, Maj. Simcoe was progressive for his time: he opposed slavery when it was still standard practice in the British Empire. All the way back in Boston in 1775, Simcoe had suggested forming an army company from freed slaves. In May 1792, before taking his post as governor, Simcoe warned: “From the moment that I assume the Government of Upper Canada, under no modification will I ever assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between the natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”

Simcoe asked the legislature of Upper Canada to end slavery in the province. At least six out of those sixteen lawmakers already owned slaves, and they resisted change. Simcoe insisted. Finally in early 1793 the two sides reached a compromise that barred people from bringing slaves into the province and provided for the gradual emancipation of people already enslaved there. This was the first law to end slavery in any part of the British Empire (Vermont and a small number of American states had ended slavery in their territories by then, but other states were importing more slaves than ever).

So far, we’ve seen only a one-sided caricature of the historical Simcoe in Turn. To explore the real Maj. Simcoe’s Revolutionary War adventures from his point of view, check out his book.

J. L. Bell is proprietor of the Boston 1775 blog, which offers daily doses of history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England. He is an associate editor of the Journal of the American Revolution and an assistant editor of a forthcoming Colonial Comics anthology.