In April 1782, while in France, Benjamin Franklin printed a broadside. It contained a bit of news. While on an expedition near the St. Lawrence River, the news sheet announced, New England militiamen had stumbled upon something staggering: nearly 1,000 scalps. They were the scalps of Americans—farmers, wives, boys, girls, and babies, bales full of them. And they were on their way to the British governor of Canada, as if in fulfillment of his orders. "I send herewith to your Excellency," read an accompanying message, "eight packs of Scalps, cured, dried, hooped and painted." It was an outrageous story. It was also entirely fake. Franklin, looking to cast aspersion on the British during treaty negotiations, simply made it up.
In early America, news was currency. It was precious. But, of course, it wasn't always reliable. Rumors flew. People lied. No one knew quite what to believe. In Groundless, Gregory Evans Dowd urges us to attend to these uncertain, or spurious, tales. "Flying reports … demanded the attention of Cherokee leaders, Ojibwe historians, British colonial governors, and American radicals, and they demand our attention, too," he writes (1). In this fascinating study of rumors, legends, and hoaxes (Franklin's among them), Dowd shows how groundless news shaped early American history. It drove European exploration of the continent. [End Page 584] It derailed relations between Native and European people. It colored public opinion during the American Revolution. Historians may like to imagine themselves feeling their way toward the true past, brushing aside what is suspicious or unconfirmed. But unreliable news had equal force for those they write about.
Groundless begins with a valuable meditation on what a "rumor" is, and does. A rumor is a form of news like any other, Dowd explains. But what sets it apart—what defines it—is "weakness of evidence." Rumors, by nature, are "without foundation"—or, literally, "groundless" (8, 9). Hence the metaphor of rumors flying. (That description was used in Indian circles, as well as European and American: Pontiac, the Ottawa leader, called rumors "bad birds.") Rumors, by definition, are uncertain. But so are the people who spread them. Rumors are searching, Dowd writes; they seek tentatively toward truths, like weightless trial balloons. That is why contexts of tension and uncertainty—like war and colonialism—tend to breed rumors (6–7, 9).
Early America was just such a breeding ground. The historical record is, in fact, littered with rumors. Groundless ranges widely, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, all over eastern North America. It includes stories that circulated among Native peoples, as well as those spread by colonizers. A sampling: Cherokee men worry that colonists mean to capture and enslave their wives while they are away from home. British officers peddle the tale of a dying grenadier, scalped, brutally, by Americans on the road from Concord to Lexington. Indians suspect Europeans of witchcraft, capable of sickening them with smallpox. Many of the stories in the book are dramatic and engaging. (One chapter opens with Henry Rowe Schoolcraft reading, in an Albany newspaper, a report of his own murder.)
The book is strongest where Dowd digs into these individual stories to explore the powers and the dangers of rumor. Rumor tested intentions; it brought panic; it threatened war. In one of the book's best chapters, Dowd explores the delicate relationship between Cherokees and the colony of South Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century. The two were "mutually needful allies," exchanging profits, goods, arms, and military assistance (81). But even among friends, trust was thin, and rumors flared, ominously. After mutual suspicions nearly drove Carolinians and Cherokees to blows in 1751, the Indians promised, in a treaty, that they would not "give Ear to any bad Talks." The governor, for his part, vowed not to believe everything he read in letters (100). [End Page 585]
But Groundless is more than a tour of case studies. It is also a thoughtful, sometimes cautionary reflection on the nature of historical evidence. One of the book...