It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Jul 16, 2011

Benjamin Franklin and Indian Savages

Historical Background

Benjamin Franklin stands tall among a small group of men we call our Founding Fathers. Ben used his diplomacy skills to serve his fellow countrymen. His role in the American Revolution was not played out on the battlefields like George Washington, but rather in the halls and staterooms of governments. While he can be seen on our $100 bill, contrary to what many people believe, he was never president of the United States. He was far too busy to take on a job like that.

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Politics became more of an active interest for Franklin in the 1750s. In 1757, he went to England to represent Pennsylvania in its fight with the descendants of the Penn family over who should represent the Colony. He remained in England to 1775, as a Colonial representative not only of Pennsylvania, but of Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts as well.

Later, Franklin was elected to the Second Continental Congress and worked on a committee of five that helped to draft the Declaration of Independence. Though much of the writing is Thomas Jefferson's, much of the contribution is Franklin's. In 1776 Franklin signed the Declaration, and afterward sailed to France as an ambassador to the Court of Louis XVI.

The French loved Franklin. He was the man who had tamed lightning, the humble American who dressed like a backwoodsman but was a match for any wit in the world. He spoke French, though stutteringly. He was a favorite of the ladies. Several years earlier his wife Deborah had died, and Benjamin was now a notorious flirt.

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In part via Franklin's popularity, the government of France signed a Treaty of Alliance with the Americans in 1778. Franklin also helped secure loans and persuade the French they were doing the right thing. Franklin was on hand to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783, after the Americans had won the Revolution.

Benjamin Franklin and Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle

Being deeply involved in the overseas diplomatic activities, Benjamin Franklin was preparing the public opinion for the Americans fighting for Independence. At some point, he has become deeply troubled by Britain's alliances with, and arming and training of, Iroquoian peoples for the explicit purpose of attacking colonial settlers and American militia indiscriminately.

This was a strategy that Britain had used with success during the wars against the French in North America during the 1740s to 1750s. The strategy, in other words, was one from which the colonists had at one time benefited. Franklin was well aware of the centrality of the Iroquois to any sense of security on the part of the colonists living in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Although he knew and understood the reasons why the military administration was attempting to break the colonists (not to mention the Iroquois) by enlisting Iroquoian groups to support Britain, he also understood that the real-life effects of the war against the colonists were not being brought home to Britons in England, many of whom did not take the colonists' grievances very seriously.

Franklin used his creativity as a manipulative diplomat, framing reality to best serve the purpose of revolutionary success. In 1782, he printed the fake newspaper, Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle, where he published a fabricated letter showing out that Indian warriors, working for the British crown, were sending hundreds of American scalps back to the Monarchy as war trophies. The scalps included those of women, as well as young boys and girls.

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The scalping letter in the Supplement reveals an effort to bring home a sense of the cruelty of the bloodshed of war, along with the dastardliness of the British policy of inciting groups of the Iroquois to kill colonists in undefended areas. His ultimate goal was to secure reparations for American Britons who suffered personal and property losses as a result of British-sponsored invasions and attacks.

The "scalping" hoax is a purported letter from a Captain Samuel Gerrish, of the New England militia, to his commander, reporting on the booty taken in a recent capture of British military goods. This New Englander reports being horrified that one James Craufurd, in the British service, was attempting to transmit to England, "at the Request of the Senneka Chiefs," a large package including "eight Packs of [colonists'] Scalps, cured, dried, hooped and painted, with all the Indian triumphal Marks," detailed carefully as to how and where the scalps were taken, how they are marked in the package, and the relative age of the people thus taken. In grisly but interestingly dispassionate articulation, some of the torments are elucidated in the supposed Seneca orator's speech recorded by Craufurd.

For instance, included in packet "No. 1," the Seneca leader asserts, are "43 Scalps of Congress Soldiers killed in different Skirmishes; these are stretched on black Hoops, 4 Inches diameter; the inside of the Skin painted red, with a small black Spot to note their being killed with Bullets. Also 62 of Farmers, killed in their Houses; the Hoops red; the Skin painted brown, and marked with a Hoe; a black Circle all round, to denote their being surprised in the Night; and a black Hatchet in the Middle, signifying their being killed with that Weapon."

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Franklin’s articles were so psychologically moving that they shocked European public opinion and encouraged aid to the American war effort. Franklin’s ploys were particularly effective in acquiring the public support in Britain, France, and also the support of the Spanish king who provided all money, weapons, and even military assistance for Americans to win the Civil War.

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