Literacy and the Printing Press

An early printing press, ca. 1714, courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society.
Pieces of metal printing type from Colonial Harvard Yard. Photo by Mark Craig. Left to right: PM 2007.20.385, PM 980-3-10/99588, PM 2007.20.705, PM 2007.20.385, PM 2007.20.705, PM 980-3-10/99586, PM 980-3-10/99589, PM 980-3-10/99587.
A piece of printing type bearing a double pica (22 points) italic "l" was found during a 1979 excavation. This type piece was used to print the preface to The Indian Grammar, a book written by missionary John Eliot in 1666.

Literacy was integral to Protestant religious expression and a key component of proselytizing. English missionaries affiliated with the SPGNE established “Praying Towns” in order to spread the (spoken and written) word of the Christian God. Ministers believed that knowledge of the Bible was most powerful if it was personal, which led them to advocate English literacy among Native North Americans. This belief also led Puritan missionary John Eliot to print the first Bible in the British North American Colonies in the local Algonquian language in 1663. The volume was produced at Harvard at the first printing press in North America, which was for a time housed in the Indian College.

In the 17th century, literate Indians had skills that were widely valued. Two Native translators attended pre-Indian College Harvard: John Sassamon, a Christian Indian, probably Massachusett, and James the Printer, Nipmuc. Sassamon worked with missionary John Eliot for many years and is believed to have contributed to the first translation of the Bible.

James the Printer, also called Wowaus, was the son of the Christian Indian leader William Sudbury. James earned his English surname for the skill he displayed as a printer's "devil" (apprentice) at Harvard, where he worked the press. Here, Printer laid the type for the first Bible printed in the British North American colonies. He may have been among the first Native students enrolled in local preparatory schools in anticipation of their eventual matriculation at Harvard College. James Printer lived a long and productive life, traveling between Cambridge and his home community of Hassenamesit.

Printing Type and the "Eliot Bible"

The most intriguing objects found in the Harvard Yard excavations were pieces of lead printing type dating back to the 17th century. At first glance, these lead alloy bars may not impress, but they are small pieces of an important story. Each bears the mold of a single letter. When arranged in rows, coated with thick ink, and pressed onto paper, they created the first books printed in North America. The fonts, or particular shapes, of some of these letters have been matched to surviving 17th-century products of Harvard's early press.
The 1663 Eliot Bible, is an original volume translated by the missionary John Eliot and his assistants. Its publication date reveals that it was prepared in the Indian College building. The book is a legacy and symbol of religious conversion, literacy education, and complex cultural relationships.

The spread of literacy should not necessarily be equated with progress. For Native communities, new skills of reading and writing (their own languages and English) challenged some aspects of oral tradition. The intertwining of written and oral communication in New England communities proves complex. The "Eliot Bible" is now used in Algonquian language revitalization programs, such as the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.