Newman Essay: ‘Red Journalism’: Modeling Primary Research with Historical Newspapers

Paul Newman
Paul Douglas Newman, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

“‘Red Journalism’: The Allegheny Indians, Ben Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, and the Ethnic Cleansing of Pennsylvania, 1747-1764” (Journalism History, September 2019) started as my term paper. In August 2018 I assigned my Colonial America seminar a term research project and announced that I would perform the assignment with them.

Decades ago, I adopted this pedagogy following the lead of my friend, the late Dr. William Pencak of the Pennsylvania State University. He employed this technique with his graduate students. Bill’s concept was “modeling” and “workshopping.” He modeled the craft of scholarship to his students, and together in one semester they would workshop their projects to completion. He delivered his work at conferences with his students and then sought outlets to publish his work and theirs.

Teaching only undergraduates, I thought this technique would require significant structure to prove useful. I broke the research project into fifteen weekly assignments, including topic proposal development, bibliography construction with secondary and primary sources, research and note-taking, outlining, draft writing, revisions, poster creation, and presentation. I perform each step of the project one week prior to the students’ due date, and they model my work. At years’ end, we present our work together at our college’s undergraduate research symposium.

Through the early years, when the internet was new, obtaining primary resources for their projects proved difficult. While teaching undergraduates and finishing my dissertation at the University of Kentucky, I had used the library’s microfilmed collection of early American newspapers for students to engage primary research. When in 1995 I took a job at my small undergraduate institution, I found it did not have those resources. Then, in 2004, Readex launched “America’s Historical Newspapers,” and my university purchased a digital subscription. Here was a trove of eighteenth-century primary source documents, searchable and accessible.

Investigating Colonial Pennsylvania

From 2005-2010, I served as the editor of Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. I encouraged my students to investigate colonial Pennsylvania history and to use its premiere newspaper, Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. Students used it, and others, to write term papers about slavery and indentured servitude; crime and gallows confessions; traveling dance troops and Philadelphians’ reading habits; local, provincial, and imperial economy and politics; war and pacifism; the visibility and invisibility of women; and countless other topics. We started every class period talking about their projects with my question, “So, what’s in the news?” Every class was a workshop.

By 2009, through writing little term papers, I developed an idea for a book. I would attempt to write a narrative of Pennsylvania’s colonial history from 1682-1776 from the Indian point of view. I had been trying to show students how to interpret newspapers to reveal the motivations, ideologies, and actions of people, like Indians, who in the colonial era did not commit their own thoughts to paper. I taught them how to recognize writers’ biases and how to read between the lines, or behind them, to ascertain the Indian perspective.

It was no sooner that had I begun this exciting work—authoring a book with my classes! —that my university swept me into administration, and I left the seminar classroom and the project behind. I labored there for seven years, returning to the seminar room in 2017. I immediately resumed my term-paper pedagogy and my larger monograph project. I secured a fellowship at Franklin’s American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia that summer to jump start research there as well as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia. That project is nearing completion.

Over this time, I returned to reading the Pennsylvania Gazette, especially from the 1730s-1760s, the pivotal years of Indian diplomatic and political confederation in the face of Pennsylvania betrayal that led them to their war of independence in 1755. The rapidity of publication of war news from the whole colonial frontier struck me, as did the lurid descriptions or real, embellished, and sometimes imagined violence. In fall 2018, I wrote my research proposal for the seminar to investigate the Pennsylvania Gazette’s coverage of the outbreak of the 1755 war and the beginnings of the second war of independence— “Pontiac’s War”—in Pennsylvania eight years later. Foremost, I wanted to glean Indian motivation, ideology, and military and diplomatic tactics from the two wars for comparison, and secondarily I planned to compare the Gazette’s coverage from the first to the second war, and to look to other papers to see how they covered it.

Embellishing Indian violence

Researching this project, I discovered David Copeland’s excellent 2004 Journalism History article “JOIN, or DIE: America’s Press During the French and Indian War.” He argued that the American press slowly developed professional standards and a network of news exchange during the war, mostly after 1758 when Franklin as deputy postmaster general for the colonies waived postage for America’s press to share war information. I found both developments originated at the very beginning of the war in 1755—at least in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Franklin’s paper immediately began using editorials (with cartoons), requiring multiple sources for verification, relying upon eyewitness accounts, and engaging correspondents from the battle zones (including Franklin himself in 1756!). Franklin used his own “franking privilege”—free postage, a benefit of the postmaster job—to send and receive reports to and from other papers, thus elevating the Pennsylvania Gazette.

At the same time that Franklin’s press—under lease by his protégé David Hall—pioneered these modern techniques, Franklin and Hall embellished horror stories from the frontier, neglecting not a drop of blood-soaked gore from colonial victims while simultaneously calling for a provincial scalp bounty for civilians to hunt down Indians—children even, as young as ten years old. Their stories often asked the reader to “imagine” scenes not enacted and warned readers of Indian “lust” that would defile the bodies of female captives, although no evidence existed for such behavior.

This discovery led me to question why and when this all began for Franklin, and I turned back to his “retirement” from printing in 1747 to run for Pennsylvania Assembly. His issue was pushing to arm the Quaker colony during King George’s War for defense against the French-allied Indians to the north and west. Failing this, Franklin attempted to raise his own volunteer militia of 10,000 frontiersmen, but the war ended before it could take the field. He continued to push militarization, and in 1754 he led an Assembly delegation to the Albany Conference where he attempted to create an inter-colonial military union. Again, he failed—but there Pennsylvania agents purchased Allegheny and Ohio Valley land rights from the Iroquois.

This led Allegheny Indians—Delawares, Shawnees, western Senecas, and others—to declare war on Pennsylvania in October 1755, to fight for their independence from Pennsylvania settlers and the Iroquois and for sovereignty over their land. Franklin and Hall covered the war and followed their salacious stories with a push for militarization and scalp bounties, warning easterners that the frontier would soon be at their doorsteps. Sufficiently awed, Quakers resigned their Assembly seats as eastern public opinion swung to militarization, Franklin pushed militarization and scalp bounty bills through the Assembly, and by January, he was commanding Pennsylvania troops in the field building fortifications against Indian attacks. Franklin and Hall had engaged in “Red Journalism,” ginning readers’ fears to generate political support for militarization.

By 1758 the Pennsylvania militia had proved ineffective, and the colony came to peace with the Indians at the Treaty of Easton. The Allegheny Indians there had won their right to their transmontane home, independence secured, so it seemed. Then settlers poured into the region after the fall of Fort Duquesne, and the British army refused to leave. In 1763 the Allegheny Indians again went to war for independence, and again Pennsylvania raised and army and passed a scalp bounty—this time with no age limit—and it became open season on Indians.

The most horrifying example was the “Paxton Boys” massacre of twenty unarmed peaceful Indians, including children, in Lancaster during the Christmas season of 1763. Franklin wrote and Hall printed a pamphlet decrying the “savagery” of the act, but the Paxton Boys were a monster of his own making. Both the Allegheny Indians’ tactics of attacking frontier civilians and the Pennsylvania Gazette’s embellished reporting of those attacks had the unintended consequence of turning William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” into a killing field of ethnic cleansing in the years between 1747-1764.

I was excited to make this discovery with my students. I plan to investigate more examples of “Red Journalism” in the coming semesters by looking at General Sullivan’s campaign against the Iroquois in 1778, the wars in Ohio from 1789-1794, Tecumseh’s War, the Blackhawk War, the Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the final wars of ethnic cleansing leading to Wounded Knee. I do not know what I will find, but I do know that sharing the search with my students over then coming years will enrich us both.

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