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, 408 pages

2 b&w photos, 5 b&w illus., 2 maps

November 2015



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Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier

Why did Elizabethan adventurers believe that the interior of America hid vast caches of gold? Who started the rumor that British officers purchased revolutionary white women’s scalps, packed them by the bale, and shipped them to their superiors? And why are people today still convinced that white settlers—hardly immune as a group to the disease—routinely distributed smallpox-tainted blankets to the natives?

Rumor—spread by colonists and Native Americans alike—ran rampant in early America. In Groundless, historian Gregory Evans Dowd explores why half-truths, deliberate lies, and outrageous legends emerged in the first place, how they grew, and why they were given such credence throughout the New World. Arguing that rumors are part of the objective reality left to us by the past—a kind of fragmentary archival record—he examines how uncertain news became powerful enough to cascade through the centuries.

Drawing on specific case studies and tracing recurring rumors over many generations, Dowd explains the seductive power of unreliable stories in the eastern North American frontiers from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. The rumors studied here—some alluring, some frightening—commanded attention and demanded action. They were all, by definition, groundless, but they were not all false, and they influenced the classic issues of historical inquiry: the formation of alliances, the making of revolutions, the expropriation of labor and resources, and the origins of war.

Gregory Evans Dowd is a professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815 and War under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire.

"Skillfully written, informative, and stimulating. More than just a collection of rumors and the stories they generated, this book is a smart exploration of the issue of hearsay and the limitations in the evidence historians depend upon to craft their narratives."

"Groundless is satisfyingly grounded. Dowd has eavesdropped credibly as well as prodigously, listening to the many voices across time whether recorded safely on microfilm or in the inky scribbles in the National Archives at Kew."

"Dowd’s work has much methodological import for historians of early America and beyond who will certainly benefit from the approach he presents. Groundless shows that paying attention to falsities can uncover important cultural truths."

"In this innovative, intriguing study, Dowd (Univ. of Michigan) examines how rumors or "flying reports" shaped the dynamics of communication between colonists and Native Americans... This work deserves broad readership for its wealth of insights on early America’s frontiers and for what it says about the nature of historical evidence."

"Dowd's perceptive analysis ably establishes that rumor revealed deep-seated concerns and shaped both events and narratives."

"... imaginative and forthright approach to evidence and its analysis..."

"[Groundless] will appeal to scholars—and not only to early Americanists and ethnohistorians but also to historians concerned with rumor, communications, group identity formation, and memory. This is a masterful work worthy of attention and careful reading."

"The result is a book that all scholars will have to take seriously, and it will likely find its way into the shelves of early Americanists and historians of the American South. It should also find its way into graduate seminars, as the topic will likely spur good conversations about sources and interpretation. Undergraduates, too, will likely enjoy reading parts of the book..."

"[Groundless] has dones a great service to the field of early North American studies in pushing our understandings of rumor... We owe a debt to [Dowd] for his work in this area."

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