Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

Course No. 8510
Professor Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
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Course No. 8510
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 500 3-D graphics, maps, portraits, and illustrations. You'll enjoy portraits of colonial figures including John Smith, Mary Rowlandson, Olaudah Equiano, and Patrick Henry; maps detailing the historical layout of Jamestown, the Atlantic slave trade, the expansion of European colonies along the coast of North America, and more; and illustrations that capture the feel of events including the Salem Witch Trials and the Great Awakening.
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Course Overview

The history of colonial America is a story of extraordinary scope, with Europeans, Africans, and the native peoples of North America interacting in a drama of settlement and conflict that lasted nearly three centuries. In the midst of it, no one would have predicted that the profoundly different English colonies along the East Coast, separated by religion, politics, economics, and many other factors, would eventually join to form the United States of America.

Yet the seeds for this outcome and the future character of the United States were germinating in developments such as these:

  • The Mayflower Compact: As the Mayflower lay anchored in Massachusetts Bay in 1620, the Pilgrims drew up an agreement committing themselves to self-government. No other colony in the New World—French, Spanish, or Dutch—asserted such a right.
  • The Quaker colony: America's core ideals of democracy, fair trade, religious freedom, and social mobility first came together in the 1680s with the founding of William Penn's Quaker colony of Pennsylvania—"the best poor man's country in the world," praised one early visitor.
  • The Great War for Empire: Also called the French and Indian War, this global clash of empires began in North America with an attack led by the young militia captain George Washington. Lasting from 1754 to 1763, it ended with England and her colonies as the preeminent power on the continent.

Indeed, the events that led from the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607 to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, on the eve of the American Revolution, tell us who we are as citizens of the New World, what ideas and traditions shaped us, what our ancestors experienced, and how the United States came to be.

In addition, they tell a larger story of geopolitical rivalries that spread across the globe, as the major European powers competed to build vast empires based on their voyages of discovery and colonization—a struggle that forged the modern nations of Europe, the idea of empire, and the mercantile system of global trade.

Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies tells this epic story in 36 spellbinding lectures by Professor Robert J. Allison of Suffolk University in Boston. An acclaimed teacher, Professor Allison is also an eminent scholar who has served as an advisor to several prestigious museums and historical societies in Massachusetts, including the Commonwealth Museum at the State Archives in Boston.

Building a New World

While concentrating on British North America, Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies also covers developments in the colonial outposts of Spain, France, and the Netherlands. Britain's possessions in the West Indies loom large in this story as well, since the mainland colonies developed primarily to serve the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, which were the source of the most lucrative crop in the New World and the reason for the enormous growth in the slave trade.

You begin by examining the state of Europe, Africa, and the Americas in 1500, when the full extent of the New World was just becoming clear. After investigating Spain's initial dominance in the region, you turn to the earliest English efforts to establish a colony, resulting in the Jamestown settlement—a near-disaster that was saved by the discovery that a breed of tobacco from South America could flourish there.

Then you trace the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth and the society that they and the later-arriving Puritans built in New England. In recounting the ensuing settlement of North America, Professor Allison notes that the British crown had no grand plan for creating a unified political entity. Each colony had its own genesis. For example, South Carolina was founded by English planters from the West Indies, New York was won from the Dutch in a war over international trade, and Georgia was established from a private philanthropic concern for English debtors.

You also look at the settlement of the New World from the point of view of the native peoples, who responded to the colonists with a mixture of cooperation and fierce resistance. And you probe how the importation of African slaves transformed the civilization of the colonies with new traditions, skills, foods, and other aspects of the cultures represented by these unwilling immigrants.

The colonies were often turbulent, dangerous places, and you learn about Indian wars, slave revolts, witch persecutions, rampant piracy, and other upheavals, as well as the gradual cementing of social order and the development of customs that made the colonies distinct—and difficult for the British government to rule.

The course builds toward a discussion of the roots of the rebellion that succeeded in toppling the colonial system—the American Revolution—covering its long gestation and closing with an examination of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

Conflict, Hardship, and Adventure

Drawing on a wealth of illustrative material, including period engravings and maps showing the New World as it was known at the time, Professor Allison weaves a captivating story. His gift for conveying complex material in an entertaining and enlightening way has earned him teaching awards at both Suffolk University and the Harvard Extension School.

Professor Allison conducts you through a subject unusually rich with absorbing personal narratives. The very nature of the colonial enterprise ensured that there would be no end of conflict, hardship, and adventure, providing a stage for many heroic and colorful characters. Among the historical figures you learn about are the following:

  • Captain John Smith: Professor Allison calls Smith "one of the most interesting characters in the history of Great Britain and North America." Smith's alleged rescue by Pocahontas (which may not have happened) almost pales beside his other exploits.
  • Anne Hutchinson: A brilliant theologian, Hutchinson took on the Puritan establishment of Massachusetts, arguing against its punitive interpretation of scripture. Banished, she moved to Rhode Island where she founded the town of Portsmouth. She later died in an Indian massacre in New Netherland.
  • Mary Rowlandson: Taken captive by the Wampanoag leader King Philip during his uprising against the Puritan settlers in the 1670s, Rowlandson wrote a remarkable memoir about her ordeal. King Philip's War was the bloodiest conflict per capita in American history.
  • Olaudah Equiano: Kidnapped as a boy from a West African village in the 1750s, Equiano spent years being sold from owner to owner throughout the New World and England. He eventually bought his freedom and became a powerful advocate for the abolition of slavery.
  • Benjamin Franklin: This celebrated Founding Father shows up in numerous lectures in the course—dealing with his impoverished upbringing, his youthful clash with Cotton Mather over smallpox inoculation, a famous and misunderstood political cartoon, and his diplomatic genius.
  • Patrick Henry: Henry was a failure at everything he tried until he bluffed his way into the Virginia legal profession, took on a hopeless case, and achieved renown for his bold argument that the king of England could not veto an act of the Virginia legislature—a startling view that resonated with the public mood.

Thanks to the contributions of these and many other notable inhabitants of the New World, the American colonies became a crucible of social ferment and innovation, testing new ideas about society, religion, agriculture, and economics. Some ideas caught on; others did not. But the resulting change was rapid and profound—not only in the colonies themselves but around the globe. In fundamental ways, the world we know today emerged from the tempestuous and eventful history of colonial America. Deepen your appreciation for this formative era with Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The World before Colonial America
    What was the world like in 1500? Begin your investigation of colonial America by exploring the European discovery of the New World. What was happening in the Americas, West Africa, and Europe, where seemingly unrelated events would converge to change history? x
  • 2
    Spain's New World Empire
    Newly united under the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain accidentally found itself in possession of previously unknown lands. Learn how Spain set about exploiting the New World and how it acquired the mineral wealth of Mexico, which excited the ambitions of other European powers. x
  • 3
    John Smith, Pocahontas, and Jamestown
    Investigate the varied life of Captain John Smith, a prototypical Englishman in an age of expansion. After a career as a mercenary fighting Turks, he was assigned to the London Company's venture to Virginia, where he helped found Jamestown and was famously saved by Pocahontas—a story he may have fabricated. x
  • 4
    Virginia and the Chesapeake after Smith
    Discover how tobacco seeds from South America rescued the Virginia colony from extinction but also caused increased conflict with Native Americans. Virginia remained a death-trap for Europeans brought to work in the tobacco fields, which led to a greater reliance on slave labor. x
  • 5
    The Pilgrims and Plymouth
    Who were the Pilgrims, and how did this small devout religious community revolutionize the colonization of North America? Learn how a crisis aboard the Mayflower prompted the Mayflower Compact, which asserted a principle claimed by no other colony in the New World: self-government. x
  • 6
    The Iroquois, the French, and the Dutch
    Expansion by the Dutch and the French into New Netherland and New France brought them into contact with the Iroquois, the most powerful people in eastern North America. See how the goals and principles of these three peoples collided as they competed for pelts and power. x
  • 7
    The Puritans and Massachusetts
    The Puritans represented a different religious sect from the Pilgrims and were from a more prosperous social class. Learn what motivated them to migrate to New England in the 1630s, and how they developed self-governing institutions such as the town meeting. x
  • 8
    New England Heretics—Religious and Economic
    Study three figures who disrupted the social order of New England. Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were religious heretics in the 1630s. In the 1640s, merchant Robert Keayne also challenged Puritan orthodoxy—not on religious grounds, but because the Puritan hierarchy disputed his right to trade. x
  • 9
    The Connecticut Valley and the Pequot War
    Although the founders of Massachusetts believed they were coming to save the native people, they were soon involved in a bloody war to exterminate the Pequot of eastern Connecticut. Examine the causes of this conflict and its consequences for the Indians and for the Puritans themselves. x
  • 10
    Sugar and Slaves—The Caribbean
    Focus on an area where the colonization venture flourished: the Caribbean. Barbados and Jamaica produced sugar that enriched English investors. Other European powers fought for control of the West Indies, and here the Europeans developed a system of slavery unknown in the Old World. x
  • 11
    Mercantilism and the Growth of Piracy
    Sail the seas with a notorious byproduct of the newfound colonial wealth: pirates. During its golden age in the 1600s, piracy was a big business, fueling the economies of countries that harbored freebooters. The need to suppress pirates ended up strengthening the authority of the imperial powers. x
  • 12
    South Carolina—Rice, Cattle, and Artisans
    The only North American colony founded from the West Indies, South Carolina had a different social fabric from its neighbors. Professor Allison explains how rice, a crop essentially unknown to the English, became a lucrative export, thanks to the importation of African slaves skilled in its cultivation. x
  • 13
    New Netherland Becomes New York
    The Iroquois alliance in the fur trade made New Netherland a prosperous colony of the Dutch West India Company. Discover how conflict between the Dutch and English led to the British conquest of New Netherland, though many of the Dutch chose to stay under the new regime. x
  • 14
    King Philip's War in New England
    Encounter the bloodiest war per capita in American history, a rebellion of native people led by Metacom, also known as King Philip. Bands of Indians attacked half of the English towns from Maine to Connecticut, burning 17 to the ground. The conflict caused thousands of deaths among settlers and Indians. x
  • 15
    Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia
    Nathaniel Bacon, an English aristocrat, led a military force of former indentured servants that nearly toppled the Virginia government. Learn that in the aftermath, Virginia planters turned more toward African slaves for their labor force, bringing Virginia's era of indentured servitude to a close. x
  • 16
    Santa Fe and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680
    Examine Spain's strategy of securing the remote upper Rio Grande as a protective buffer for its rich mines in Mexico. Conflict with the Pueblo Indians led to a Spanish policy that resulted in a hybrid culture in the region—part Native American, part Spanish. x
  • 17
    William Penn's New World Vision
    In 1681, King Charles II granted to William Penn, an English Quaker, all of the land west of the Delaware River. Gauge the success of Penn's goal of establishing a place of fair trade, benevolence, religious freedom, and peaceable relations between Europeans and native people. x
  • 18
    The New England Uprising of 1689
    King James II proposed reforming the New England colonies into one entity: the Dominion of New England. Witness the reaction of recalcitrant colonists when the new governor arrived to tell them that they couldn't hold town meetings, set aside common land, and otherwise govern themselves. x
  • 19
    Witchcraft in New England
    In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, experienced the most famous outbreak of witchcraft persecution in colonial America. Probe several intriguing questions: What caused these incidents? Why did people accuse their neighbors of witchcraft? And what were the long-term consequences of this public hysteria? x
  • 20
    Captives and Stories of Captivity
    New England and New France were on a collision course after the 1660s. In Canada, the French spurred their Native American allies to attack frontier settlements in New England, seizing hundred of captives who were taken to Canada. Learn why some captives, particularly women, preferred their new lives to their old. x
  • 21
    The Indians' New World
    Weigh the price that Indians paid for European colonization. While Europeans encountered a previously unknown land, rich with new plants and animals, the Indians also faced a new world—of imported crops, livestock, tools, weapons, religions, and, above all, diseases, which devastated native populations. x
  • 22
    Family Life and Labor in Colonial America
    Notions of family life and the nature of a family were undergoing a transformation during the centuries of colonization in the Americas. Here, grasp the parental and social forces that welcomed the independence of children. x
  • 23
    Smallpox, 1721—The Inoculation Controversy
    Delve into an important early episode in the battle against smallpox: the 1721 outbreak in Boston, which triggered a heated dispute over a method of inoculation recommended by Rev. Cotton Mather. The young Benjamin Franklin wrote an anonymous series of essays satirizing Mather and New England culture. x
  • 24
    France, Senegal, and Louisiana
    Shifting attention back to New France, consider France's strategy of planting colonies from Canada to the lower Mississippi, which met setbacks along the Gulf Coast. The French trading post on the Senegal River in Africa provided most of the immigrants to French Louisiana, profoundly influencing the developing culture there. x
  • 25
    Georgia—Dreams and Realities
    Learn how Georgia was born from two motives: English philanthropists hoped to found a colony in the New World where debtors could find useful labor; and the British government needed a buffer on the South Carolina border to prevent expansion of Spanish Florida and French Louisiana. x
  • 26
    The Atlantic Slave Trade and South Carolina
    By the mid-1700s, Britain was bringing more than 50,000 African slaves to the New World every year, with South Carolina providing one of the major markets. Learn how the small white population in South Carolina faced insurrection from the slaves on whose labor their survival depended. x
  • 27
    The New York Conspiracy of 1741
    Discover that New York City, too, was ripe with unrest. In 1741, a tavern frequented by slaves and free blacks, Irish servants, and Spanish dancing masters (who may have been disguised Catholic priests) was the alleged headquarters for an attempt to burn the city. x
  • 28
    The Great Awakening
    Investigate the origins of the Great Awakening, a religious revival that swept the American colonies in the 1740s and 1750s. At its root was a new relationship between worshipers and their churches, which displaced Old World traditions. The movement produced such notable evangelists as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. x
  • 29
    The Albany Conference of 1754
    Responding to moves to consolidate France's position in North America, the British government ordered its colonies to meet at Albany and restore their alliance with the Iroquois. As you'll discover, a delegate named Benjamin Franklin tried in vain to unite his fellow colonists in this cause. x
  • 30
    The Great War for Empire
    The first global war started as a frontier skirmish between a Virginia militia unit led by 22-year-old George Washington and a group of French soldiers and Native American warriors. Explore this contest of empires, which Americans call the French and Indian War—a struggle that the British won after initial reverses. x
  • 31
    Pontiac's Revolt against the British
    A confederation of native tribes under the leadership of Pontiac very nearly drove the British out of the Ohio and Great Lakes valleys. Follow the Indians' well-coordinated plan and the aftermath, which saw the rise of vigilante groups of settlers that indiscriminately killed Native Americans. x
  • 32
    Imperial Reform—The Sugar and Stamp Acts
    Regarding its colonies as a cohesive economic unit, the British Parliament set up a system to regulate colonial trade. Hear about the impact of the Sugar Act and the notorious Stamp Act, which incited violent resistance by self-proclaimed "Sons of Liberty." x
  • 33
    North Carolina Regulators Seek Local Rule
    Watch the seeds of revolution take root in North Carolina over seemingly petty local grievances. There, misrule by colonial officials spawned the Regulator movement, which sought to reduce taxation and curb the abuse of power. The movement reached a bloody climax at the Battle of Alamance in 1771. x
  • 34
    Virginia—Patrick Henry and the West
    Trace the rise of Patrick Henry from an obscure lawyer to public figure, thanks to his brilliant argument for the autonomy of the Virginia legislature in a case called the Parson's Cause. Also look at Dunmore's War, in which aggressive Virginians frustrated the Indian policy of the British. x
  • 35
    Destruction of Tea and Colonial Rebellion
    Probe behind the scenes of one of the most famous incidents leading to the American Revolution: the Boston Tea Party. The British Tea Act in 1773 focused on India, but a minor provision relating to the North American colonies provoked rebellion in Boston and other colonial seaports. x
  • 36
    Independence and Beyond
    After exploring the starkly different colonial societies in the previous lectures, consider how remarkable it was for them to sign a common Declaration of Independence in 1776. Investigate what united and divided England's North American colonies, which were about to embark on a bold new experiment in government. x

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Your professor

Robert J. Allison

About Your Professor

Robert J. Allison, Ph.D.
Suffolk University
Dr. Robert J. Allison is Professor of History at Suffolk University in Boston and also teaches history at the Harvard Extension School. He graduated from the Harvard Extension School with an A.L.B. before earning a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization at Harvard in 1992. Professor Allison received the Harvard Extension School's Petra Shattuck Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997, the Suffolk University Student...
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Reviews

Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 92.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from New Information This filled in a gap in my knowledge. It was well-presented and had a nice combination of known material along with short pieces on some of the interesting people of the period.
Date published: 2018-07-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wide scope of topics with interesting details I watched Professor Robert Allison's “Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies” course on a portable dvd player. As a lifelong New Englander, it was nice to be reminded that there’s more to that time period than England, Pilgrims, the Mayflower, and Plymouth Plantation. Professor Allison spent much time discussing events in colonies along the entire Eastern seaboard, including those of the French, Dutch, and Spanish. There was also extensive coverage of Native American life, their relationships amongst themselves and to settlers, and much more material about the topic of slavery than I expected, including many facts that were new to me (such as that between 1550 and 1850, about seven-percent of the people taken from Africa were brought to North America, with about half of the rest going to South America, and half to the Caribbean, and that America banned the import of slaves in 1808). I enjoyed Professor Allison’s style of presentation so much, I purchased a more recent course of his about the age of Benjamin Franklin.
Date published: 2018-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Comprehensive Look at Colonial America Colonial history has fascinated me since I first developed a love of history. In fact, it was the Colonial era that made me become interested in history. It was fascinating for me to learn about another life in another time other than my own. This is the complete history of American colonial history that you will ever watch or listen to. However, I feel that the title is misnamed. I think a better one would have been “American Colonial History”. It thinks that it more accurately describes what this course it about. This course charts the early settlements and developments of all Thirteen Colonies. There is some excursion into the colonies of the Spanish, French, and Dutch. I enjoyed these a lot because I knew very little about them so it was fun to learn about something that I could appreciate more. Professor Allison was well chosen to teach this course. He is authoritative and I learn so much from him. He had a good presentation style which I found to be personal, which made me feel like he was right there beside me as I listened. Before 1776 is an invaluable course in understanding our colonial origins about how the clash of different worlds and cultures came together to form the American identity. This course is not to be missed.
Date published: 2018-03-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating Subject, But a Bit Dry The material is fascinating and I've learned a lot about America's colonial history. My one complaint is that the lecturer's delivery is a bit dry and he frequently repeats material.
Date published: 2018-03-14
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Misnamed Course Professor Allison is a good lecturer with a sense of humor and an affable style, but he misnamed this course. The title should be "Early History of New England." Out of the 36 lectures about 11 concern other colonies. He even stated he was sorry to keep returning to New England, but it was the most important area of the colonies. Huh? Not to worry, he was inaccurate on many other occasions, too. Sadly disappointed that he did not dwell on, or barely mention, actual LIFE in the colonies. Could have been another Great Course.
Date published: 2018-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mislabeled but very good anyway This course is good but mislabeled. I was expecting a much more detailed view of day to day life pre 1776. There is some of this but the course should have been labeled “History of America 1492 to 1776”. The lecturer is knowledgeable and his deliver is good but if you have already purchased “the History of the United States” this course is mostly a duplication of the larger course. There is more nuance to this course and the lecturer’s viewpoint and sense of humor is different than that of the larger course so I don’t regret buying it. I merely wished to note that many may find it redundant if the larger course has already been taken. If the student’s interest is in pre 1776 America alone this is an excellent course.
Date published: 2018-03-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from …and they all lived happily ever after… For someone like me who has spent in N.America, only a few months in toto, it was not easy to fully appreciate and delight in the “foundation myth” of the United States—though the teaching is superb. Only knowledge about the end-point, that is to say the emergence of a great power—perhaps the best around- which has worked for the good of the world, for freedom and almost invariably against totalitarianism, only the knowledge of the end-point was able to sustain my interest. Otherwise, this great course seemed to me to revolve mostly around a series of skirmishes and/or other exchanges between a handful of colonists and the natives--a nasty and very backward lot in the 17th century as the portrait sketched out by (the native-friendly) Professor Allison for the Iraquois demonstrates, with pirates, witches, and slaves—a bad omen for the future--thrown in for good measure. Almost nothing is large scale—we are examining here the …”primeval atom” from which the American colossus has evolved, gathering cell by cell…. Some lectures (e.g., lecture 8) are prosopographic. Indeed, one of the few large scale phenomena described is the transmission of infectious diseases to the natives: Steven Hawking, the great cosmologist, invokes the historical example of these epidemics to argue that contact with extraterrestrial life, visitations by aliens, etc., might prove disastrous for humankind and should, therefore, better be avoided! Professor Allison did a terrific job, introducing as many scientific insights (mainly economics and sociology) into the account as possible and keeping all the time the account distinct from a ferry-tale but still very lively and fresh. The thematic lectures (1-2, 10-11, 19-22) were the very best for my purposes. Visuals were plentiful and maps extremely helpful since my familiarity with the geography of the Americas is very limited. My only sort of complaint is that the Revolution for Independence appeared as a chance event in response to financial developments evolving over few years rather than as the culmination of a long-standing process, an inevitable outcome. Perhaps this is how it was, the emergence of the US was not an inevitability, and better management by the British authorities would have led to a radically different modern world with what is today the US being a part, at least for a much longer period, of the British Empire! There is, of course, another great course devoted to the Revolution to which I will now turn to find the answer to some of these questions…
Date published: 2018-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just Some Impressions This review is simply based on impressions. The content is what was expected. The course begins with an overview of what is modern day China, the Indian subcontinent, and the Arabian Peninsula. Quickly the presentation shifts to the Iberian Peninsula and away we go. Professor Allison is authoritative and deliberate but his style has a halting quality. As the lectures go by, his increasing comfort is in evidence despite constant encircling of the podium. I particularly enjoy when Professor Allison reads from primary documents, shows period piece maps, and provides those unusual ramifications of historical moments. A lengthy quote from The Great Gatsby was novel. I was surprised by the story of how America is tied to cowboys, Sickle Cell Anemia, and peaches (causing a minor war). The expected connections are certainly reviewed in depth like furs, rum, Native Americans, and slaves. So, if your interest is in looking back at the roots of the United States then I would highly recommend this purchase.
Date published: 2017-12-14
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