Feb 1 2012

The Colonial Roots of Media’s Racial Narratives

‘Sculking Indians’ and ‘rebellious negroes’

News For All The People--Photo Credit: Verso Books

News For All The People (Verso Books)

Colonial printers, as we would expect, reported domestic events entirely from the perspective of the European settlers who were their only readers. They did, however, devote considerable space to two groups of non-Europeans who warily coexisted in the New World with the settlers: the Native American tribes and African slaves.

The lone edition of Benjamin Harris’ Publick Occurrences (commonly regarded as the first newspaper in the New World, with a publication date of September 25, 1690), contained five separate news items about the Native population in just three pages of text. In one entry, Harris wrote of two white children apparently kidnapped by “barbarous Indians” who were “lurking about” the town of Chelmsford. In another (the longest article in the newspaper), Harris gave an account of an expedition by the Massachusetts militia and their Mohawk allies against the French in Canada. The Mohawks killed some French prisoners “in a manner too barbarous for any English to approve,” he wrote.

In a related item on the same Canada campaign, Harris counseled his readers that they had “too much confided” in the Mohawks. “If Almighty God will have Canada to be subdu’d without the assistance of those miserable Savages…we shall be glad,” he added. Only one of his reports did not associate the Natives with violence—an item on how the Christianized Indians of Plymouth “have newly appointed a day of Thanksgiving to God.”

Publick Occurrences thus created “the perfect prototype for news coverage of Native Americans by colonial newspapers,” concludes David A. Copeland in an exhaustive analysis of the content of early American newspapers. Years of sporadic fighting over settler incursions on Native lands had already sparked the rise of anti-Indian captivity literature—outlandish tales of rape, infanticide, torture and dismemberment that both disgusted and fascinated the settlers.

19th century depiction of the battle of Fort William Henry.

Native Americas were depicted as cunning, barbaric and evil—and certainly undeserving of the vast lands coveted by the European settlers.

Descriptions of “sculking” or “barbarous” Indians were commonplace then, much as today’s news media use terms such as “wolf packs,” “drug gangs” and “superpredators” as monikers for non-white criminals. Indian-white conflict, after all, engendered the highest level of fear and hysteria in colonial society. During a series of Indian wars that erupted throughout the 1700s along the Eastern Seaboard, the Boston News-Letter and other colonial papers routinely stirred up settler outrage and dutifully reported government bounties for the killing of Indians.

Massachusetts, for instance, urged its settlers in 1706 “to kill all male Indians over the age of twelve and capture women and children under the age of twelve for rewards,” and when South Carolina declared war on the Tuscaroras in 1735, the colony’s leaders offered “Fifty Pounds Current Money [for every Indian] who shall be taken alive.” On more than one occasion, the papers reported scalps acceptable as proof that an Indian had been slain. Copeland’s study found positive news items about Indians rare unless they “were involved in fighting for the colonists.”

Some news accounts even alleged cannibalism as a Native American practice. A 1745 article in the Boston Evening Post reported: “The Enemies had 2 kill’d and as many wounded in the Engagement, which being over, the Indians cut open Capt. Donahew’s Breast, and suck’d his Blood, and hack’d and mangled his Body in a most inhuman and barbarous Manner, and then ate a great part of his Flesh.” Once war with the Cherokees engulfed South Carolina in 1760, an astounding 30 percent of all stories in the South Carolina Gazette that year, 18 percent in the Pennsylvania Gazette, and more than 15 percent in the New York Gazette were about violence by Native Americans.

Those early accounts thus established a voluminous and entirely one-sided newspaper narrative: Native Americans were depicted as cunning, barbaric and evil—and certainly undeserving of the vast lands coveted by the European settlers.


Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: One of the few colonial editors to challenge the dominant narrative of Indian savagery

One of the few colonial editors who challenged the dominant narrative of Indian savagery was Benjamin Franklin. In early 1764, Franklin published a pamphlet that exposed a horrific incident of anti-Indian rioting by white frontiersmen in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. In the pamphlet, he reported that on the previous December 14, a mob of whites had “murdered 20 Innocent Indians” who were living in peace among the Quakers. “These poor defenseless Creatures were immediately fired upon, stabbed and hatcheted to Death!” he wrote. “All of them were scalped, and otherwise horribly mangled. Then their Huts were set on Fire, and most of them burnt down.”

His description of the massacre is one of the few in colonial-era journalism to portray Indians as victims. It also offered a rare glimpse into the deep divide among Pennsylvania’s settlers over Indian policy, with the Moravians and Quakers urging humane treatment of the natives. As Franklin noted:

The universal Concern of the neighbouring White People on Hearing of this Event, and the Lamentations of the younger Indians, when they returned and saw the Desolation, and the butchered half-burnt Bodies of their murdered Parents, and other Relations, cannot be well expressed.

By the time he issued the pamphlet in early February, two months had passed since the massacre, yet neither of Philadelphia’s papers—neither the Pennsylvania Journal, nor Franklin’s former sheet, the Pennsylvania Gazette—had printed any account of the gruesome affair, other than proclamations by the governor condemning it and offering a reward for information about the killers. Franklin’s rush to publish the details of the tragedy was undoubtedly his way of breaking the news blackout by the Philadelphia editors. His explicit condemnation of the bias and ignorance that fueled the massacre has a chilling resonance even today:

The only Crime of these poor Wretches seems to have been, that they had a reddish brown Skin, and black Hair; and some People of that Sort, it seems, had murdered some of our Relations…. If an Indian injures me, does it follow that I may revenge that Injury on all Indians? It is well known that Indians are of different Tribes, Nations and Languages, as well as the White People. In Europe, if the French, who are White-People, should injure the Dutch, are they to revenge it on the English, because they too are White People?

Franklin rushed to publish his account after discovering that leaders of the massacre were threatening to march on Philadelphia to attack other peaceful Natives that Quaker Governor John Penn had placed under his protection. The impact of the pamphlet was so great that “1,000 of our Citizens took Arms to support the Government in the Protection of those poor Wretches,” Franklin later reported. Those armed government supporters, who included the pamphleteer himself, confronted 500 of the anti-Indian rioters in Germantown and “the Fighting face we put on made them more willing to Reason.”

Unfortunately, no other colonial editor exhibited Franklin’s extraordinary empathy for Indians or his courage in exposing abuses against them. The image of skulking Indians thus became firmly entrenched in the colonial press.


Early colonial newspapers disseminated similar stereotypes of the “rebellious Negro.” Accounts of black life that did make it into print invariably focused on two main subjects: slave insurrections and common crimes. As early as 1706, editor John Campbell’s first full-fledged essay in the Boston News-Letter urged more importation of white indentured servants to reduce the colony’s need for African slaves. The local black population, he warned, was “much addicted to Stealing, Lying and Purloining,” and he urged the importing of more white servants because, unlike blacks, they could also be pressed into military service.

In 1712 the News-Letter reported one of the earliest slave rebellions in the colonies. Seventy New York Negroes, it claimed, had been arrested for “their late Conspiracy to Murder the Christians,” prompting authorities to execute the leaders of the plot and to punish their followers by breaking their bones on a wheel. Over the next 60 years, colonial newspapers chronicled 50 separate incidents of actual or suspected slave revolts.

A similar obsession prevailed for violent crimes by individual slaves. After a slave in northern Massachusetts threw her owner’s child down a well in anger, every newspaper between Boston and Annapolis reported the story. Such blanket news coverage revealed more about the anxieties of the editors and their readers than about the rage of a single slave.

Fear of violence by blacks was rooted in the settlers’ instinctual knowledge that slavery was not merely a highly profitable enterprise, but was indispensable to the very survival of the British colonies. Africans constituted more than half of South Carolina’s population in 1720, 8 percent of Boston’s in 1755, and a third of all new immigrants entering New York at mid-century.

That rapid growth of the black population only reinforced white fears of slave violence. In 1740, for example, the Boston Evening-Post published a letter from an angry resident who was seeking volunteers for a vigilante group to control slave conduct. “The great Disorders committed by Negroes, who are permitted by their imprudent Masters &c. to be out late at Night…has determined several sober and substantial Housekeepers to walk about the Town in the sore part of the Night,” the writer noted, adding, “It is hoped that all lovers of Peace and good Order will join their endeavors for preventing the like Disorders for the future.”

And in 1755 the New-York Weekly Post Boy reported that “nine of the Ethiopian Breed, belonging to this city, have been apprehended, committed, try’d and whipt at the whipping post for assembling and meeting together in an Illegal manner, on Sunday.”

As slave rebellions became more frequent and more violent, colonial editors adopted a new strategy: quashing all news about slaves. In South Carolina, suppression of such news started after the bloody Stono Rebellion near Charleston in 1739, in which 21 whites and 44 blacks lost their lives. The South-Carolina Gazette printed no information about similar revolts in the colony in 1739 and 1740. It never mentioned the colony’s newly enacted slave code that permitted any white person to stop and search a slave and kill him if he reacted violently.

The depiction of blacks in those early colonial papers displayed a remarkable consistency. “African slaves revolted against their owners. Slaves murdered, robbed, raped and burned out whites,” Copeland notes of the coverage. As for any other aspect of black life, colonial newspapers “rarely printed a positive word,” except to praise “slaves who warned their owners of impending slave revolts.”

One of the rare condemnations of slavery in the colonial press appeared in 1740 in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which published a letter from Rev. George Whitefield challenging the morality of holding others in bondage. Ben Franklin was the paper’s editor at the time. Even though he had owned slaves as a young man, and often published ads from slave-traffickers in his Gazette, Franklin was one of the few editors willing to provide space for abolitionist commentaries. He turned increasingly against slavery in his old age, and in his last public act in 1790 he petitioned Congress to put an end to the practice. By then, he was serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery.

This is an excerpt from News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Copyright Juan González and Joseph Torres 2011. Published by Verso Books. Reprinted here with permission.

Juan González is the co-host of Democracy Now! and a columnist for the New York Daily News; Joseph Torres is the senior adviser for government and external affairs for the media reform group Free Press.