J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, November 13, 2017

A “horrid Scheme” on Nantucket?

On 5 Oct 1738, the Boston News-Letter published an article describing a planned uprising by Wampanoags on Nantucket Island:
We hear from Nantucket, That there has been lately a horrid Scheme conceiv’d by the Indians of that Island, to set Fire to the Houses of the English Inhabitants in the Night, and then to fall upon them arm’d, and kill as many as they could.

But the Execution of this vile Design was happily prevented by an honest Indian Fellow, whom they could by no means seduce to join with them in so desperate an Undertaking, but gave Timely Notice to the Inhabitants thereof, who accordingly keeping upon their Guard, the Indians have desisted.

It seems these Indians have for some Time past appear’d surly and discontented; and ’tis said the above Affair was conceived last Spring, before the Vessels sail’d on the whaling Voyages; and that the Indians who went out with the English on those Voyages were in the Confederacy, and were to do their Part by destroying the English on the Sea:

As several of those Vessels are not arrived tho’ long expected; and as the greater Number in the Crews were Indians, the Consequence thereof is much to be feared.
On 9 October, the Boston Evening-Post reprinted most of that item, adding in the middle:
The Pretence the Indians have for this cruel Attempt, is, as we hear, that the English at first took the Land from their Ancestors by Force, and have kept it ever since, without giving them any valuable Consideration for it;…

Upon the Discovery of the Plot, the English took to their Arms, and stood on their Defence, which discouraged the Indians from making any Attempt upon them; and we are impatient to hear whether their whaling Vessels are return’d in Safety, and what Measures have been taken to secure the Peace and Safety of the Island.
This summer, Missouri University of Science and Technology history professor Justin Pope published a study of this incident in the Early American Studies journal. The university proudly touted that publication, saying:
The “Nantucket conspiracy,” as Pope calls it, is also a cautionary tale for historians who rely on newspaper reports for their accounts of life in colonial America, Pope says. . . . The 1738 newspaper story began as a rumor that “would have passed into local lore if not for the newspaper men of Boston,” writes Pope. It began with printer John Draper, who first reported the account in his Boston News-Letter on Sept. 28, 1738.
That issue of the newspaper is actually dated 28 Sept–5 Oct 1738 on its front. That means it was printed and distributed on 5 October, collecting news that had arrived since 28 September.

Back to the university press release:
…the Boston News-Letter story “took off,” Pope writes. Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic ran with the story, which soon became the 18th century equivalent of a viral social media post. “Draper’s story made for good copy,” Pope adds.

“Within a week, his rivals in Boston had copied his version of the conspiracy verbatim,” writes Pope. Within two weeks, printers John Peter Zenger in New York City and Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia were running the story.
But that wasn’t the final word.

TOMORROW: “wholly contradicted.”

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