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Gregory Evans Dowd’s Groundless takes students of early American frontiers in a new direction from the debates and concerns that have dominated the field in recent times. This is no rehash of Richard White’s “middle ground” or its revisers and critics. Rather it is a powerful statement about how misinformation not only shaped early America but also how it continues to (mis-)shape our understanding of it. Rumors, legends, and outright lies are often understood as the bane of historical scholarship. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, they are often buried in the historical record. Should they make their way past the critical eye of the researcher, they will undermine the factual accuracy of the narrative and leave the scholars’ analysis in question. But Dowd, following the lead of cultural historians studying other places and times, finds opportunity in what others might simply see as pitfalls. The misconstruing of information, whether intentional or unintentional, can, as Dowd writes, “bear witness to widely shared beliefs and understandings” (p. 14). As such, this book is explicitly as much an inquiry into historical method as it is [End Page 267] an argument about the past itself. It is this quality that will make it a refreshing and novel read for scholars and serious students of early North America’s frontiers.
Many of the vignettes Dowd mines to explore and illustrate the role of misinformation will be familiar to scholars of early America. But what they will find new is his perspective on them. He turns his evidence inside out, not to salvage the evidentiary building blocks for a narrative revolving around events and personalities but rather in an exposition of the evidence itself. Because there is no central narrated event or character, the book revolves around several interrelated and somewhat chronologically developed themes dealing with the colonial conquest of North America, including the colonial search for and expropriation of wealth, the subjection and destruction of American Indian communities, the emergence of race-based slavery, and the use of violence and coercion in all these endeavors. The book is divided into six parts, which alternate in giving what the author terms “longitudinal” and “episodic” perspectives. The three “longitudes” take a theme or a set of interrelated themes and pursue it or them over a broad period of time. For instance, Part One of the book addresses how treasure hunting, pestilence, and slavery all worked together over some two and a half centuries to reveal colonial intentions and stoke indigenous fears. The three “episodes” are focused around more discrete historical events, for instance Part Two focuses on the role of rumors in the turbulent Cherokee-British alliance in the years immediately preceding the Seven Years’ War.
Consistent with the author’s previously published books, this one is clearly written in accessible language. He tackles complex issues with sophistication but without jargon. That being said, the book’s several arguments span a vast geography encompassing much of North America east of the Mississippi River, a broad period of time stretching over three and a half centuries, and a host of characters from a multiplicity of Indian and colonial communities. Serious students of early America will have no problem with this episodic quality, but more casual readers could find this “hop-scotching” challenging, [End Page 268] particularly considering the absence of maps. Yet the value of such a quality is that even if not read in its entirety, this book is a powerful statement about why scholars should approach evidence with circumspection, an open mind, and imagination. By not only understanding but also acknowledging the shortcomings of evidence and by allowing the evidence to speak before coming to one’s own conclusions, scholars might actually find the unexpected. They might find fallacies that speak truths. Given the imaginative and forthright approach to evidence and its analysis, I can imagine using this book in any advanced course on early America or historical methods. And today when information overload threatens to overwhelm us with both...