Literacy and the Printing Press

Eliot

Nineteenth century romanticized depiction of John Eliot,. Puritan minister and missionary, preaching to the Algonquin Indians. Copyright Bettman/CORBIS.

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.

Printing Press

An early printing press, ca. 1714, courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society

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.

Literacy Rates of Indians from a survey conducted in 1674 in Praying Towns of Plimouth Colony, Population: 497 

% who could read: 29%

% who could write: 14%

% who could read English: 2%

Literacy Rates of New England Colonists

Male: 60%

Female: 30%

 

These statistics indicate that Native people such as John Sassamon and James Printer—who could speak, read, and write in Algonquian and English—were among the elite of their communities.

 

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