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Response to Review of Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier

Asheesh Kappur Siddique's generous yet critical essay models an ideal review: it seeks value in my sprawling and unruly book, it captures key arguments, and it accurately note several shortcomings in a manner that may guide further research. For one of these shortcomings, my relative neglect of changing media contexts, which ‘never seem central to Dowd’, I agree and acknowledge the importance of the observation. The kind of analysis Siddique calls for seems day-by-day more pressing as we ponder the bearing of new technologies channeling rumor and legend to specifically receptive populations. The second ‘knottier problem: that of agency’, and the third difficulty, the ‘paradox’ of groundlessness, are in my mind closely related, since many indigenous North Americans and the settlers who came among them saw rumors as flying (groundless) entities – such as Fama or the voices of bad birds – that acted, as if willfully (as agents), upon them. On agency, then, I drank too deeply from my sources, especially in my book's final sentence. So again, guilty as charged: rumor is no actual agent, however powerful it may be. I hope, however, that my book overall convinces readers that historical rumors are worth study because they arose and took flight among groups of people attempting to make sense of and to give shape to their world. We (people) rumor in groups; doing so, we reflect intelligently and collectively if often wrongly on the evidence of experience. In rumoring we are not entirely free agents – one cannot rumor alone. There was, particularly among ‘enlightened’ 18th–century Britons and colonists, a conviction that rumors might be traced to individual actors or small clusters of conspirators, and this makes for very interesting records. But even when rumors did have such an origin, even when they were the product of a deliberate hoax, the power of a given rumor to grow and spread required susceptible host population. This is why the rumor phenomenon is inherently social and a worthy topic for social history.

Discussing groundlessness, the review, or perhaps my book, leaves an impression that troubles me, and I beg some indulgence. I wish to be clear: it has long been known that British officers and colonists committed and approved of the effort to infect visiting indigenous leaders by a gift of blankets, linens, and handkerchiefs from the smallpox hospital at Fort Pitt in 1763. As I state, ‘This atrocious act definitely happened’ (p. 57). I suggest in Groundless that the 1763 atrocity remained secret; it did not become news outside military circles for over a century. Neither the targeted Indians nor non-complicit colonists knew of it. To be sure, British officers and a provincial soldier left a record, and a distant officer at Detroit may have been aware of it. But within a short period, the attempted atrocity became lost to history, including oral history. Then, in 1870, historian Francis Parkman published archival revelations about the vicious act, which repelled him; later historians discovered increasingly definitive evidence. These scholarly discoveries have since given credence to the other (as yet) less well-grounded smallpox blanket stories that circulate in our time, so much so that in the United States, the phrase ‘smallpox blanket’ carries the whiff of genocide. Much as poorly-grounded legend can influence professional history (which is my point in the separate discussion of the incident at Fort William Henry), so well-grounded professional history can launch unverifiable legend (which is my chief takeaway from the all-too-real incident at Fort Pitt). That said, long before Parkman, indigenous North Americans circulated a wide range of accounts of colonial and imperial efforts to eliminate Native Americans by disease and other insidious means. Those indigenous accounts had no need for Fort Pitt, they had no need for the date, 1763, and they rarely mentioned blanket gifts. But they did not need these facts; the experience of colonization already provided ample cause for intelligent indigenous concern. Were these other indigenous stories ‘groundless’? Yes by historians' standards, but those are not the only standards by which we live, as Siddique astutely observes when he calls for more attention than I give in my work to genres, forms, and scales of credibility and authority. I entirely agree with Siddique that such careful work is needed, and that even false rumors and legends often rest on truths. I am grateful for this forward-thinking, insightful, and kind review.