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  • Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier by Gregory Evans Dowd
  • Madhavi Venkatesan
Gregory Evans Dowd. Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. 408 pp. Cloth, $34.95.

What is the basis of rumor, hoax, and legend? Are these mistruths an aberration to be excluded from history, or are they of historical [End Page 276] significance? In Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier, Gregory Evans Dowd focuses on the role of rumor and hoax and their traction in the form of legend in shaping impressions of early North America. Highlighting well-circulated perceptions, Dowd explores the relationship between the Indigenous inhabitants of North America and the European invaders. He accessibly conveys the immediate historical context and clearly articulates the fallacy or truth embedded in the originating rumor. Noting that in some cases a rumor was not deliberately constructed to misinform but was groundless nonetheless, Dowd explains the rationale for rumor as a coalescing force for solidarity in both Indigenous and European communities and makes explicit the significance of unquestioning, intergenerational transmission of historical perceptions in the establishment of legend.

Across the text’s six parts, Dowd attempts to provide a balanced perspective by relaying the role and substance of rumor spread by both the invading colonists and the Indigenous inhabitants. His twelve chapters include an exploration of the legend of gold in the North American interior, the transmission of smallpox from colonists to the Indigenous inhabitants, and the rumored use of scalping by invaders and Indigenous inhabitants alike, as well as the related hoax of Benjamin Franklin and other topics. In detailed discussion employing extant news, memoirs, and corroborating historical recording, Dowd presents and refutes the rumor, hoax, or legend of discussion. He validates these mistruths as history, promoting the view that whether purposely deceitful or based on conjecture they captured either a rationale or an objective perception, respectively, to the initiating observer. In this manner Dowd relays how the very conveyance of information seemingly established their validity, prompting the attribution of self-fulfillment.

Part 1, entitled “Extraction, Domination, Extermination,” provides the foundational themes of the text. In the chapters that comprise this section Dowd conveys the primary themes of fear and conquest, which formed the basis of Indigenous perception of Europeans, as well as the European mindset toward the invaded lands as being theirs for the taking. He narrates actual events to expose the role of superiority, violence, and domination in the behavior by Europeans. Chapter 1 addresses how the legend of gold in North America began and how the speculation of its existence impacted both Spaniards and Indigenous peoples, with the latter focus being the foundation for fear and mistrust. Dowd relays [End Page 277] that as European interest in North America increased and Indigenous contact with Europeans became more prevalent, rumors within both communities spread, albeit with the seed of rumor being an exaggeration or variation of fact. Tracing the purposeful contamination of items to be gifted to the Indigenous inhabitants by the European colonists, Dowd relays in chapter 2 how the Indigenous rumors related to European “evil” began. He provides the factual evidence of the strategic dissemination of disease as a means of eliminating the Indigenous inhabitants, sharing the historical record, including relatively unknown stories. In chapter 3, the formative relationship between the two groups is discussed from the perspective of social relations. Dowd provides evidence of positive relationships between European men and Indigenous women but also warns that these were isolated relationships. The general treatment, however, provides a solidification of the Indigenous inhabitants’ distrust of the Europeans. As Dowd explains, stories spread within Indigenous communities about slavery, mistreatment, and sexual objectification of their women by Europeans. Dowd expresses that the treatment of the Indigenous inhabitants by Europeans affected and garnered the sympathy and solidarity of the Indigenous inhabitants with African slaves while also strengthening the view of the Europeans as “not trust worthy” and “dangerous.”

From the starting point of the initial chapters, Dowd narrates how the referenced early interactions formed the basis of rumor and how rumor initiated by actual events was manipulated by both...


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pp. 276-279
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