Gossips, Liars, Preachers, Truth-tellers (FYSEM-101MC-01)

North Carolina Algonquin, 1585, Watercolor, British Museum, London

North Carolina Algonquin, 1585, Watercolor by John White. Image courtesy of the British Museum, London

Information Networks and (Mis)Communication in Early America

Instructor: Professor Delucia

Social networks, multimedia, the rapid transmission of information across cultural boundaries and geographic distances: the twenty-first century can seem like a brave new world for communication.

Yet the peoples of the Americas have long been involved in creative ways of connecting with each other. This course surveys the history of communication in early America, from deep indigenous pasts to the early years of the American republic. It highlights the complex—and often surprising—strategies diverse peoples used to relay information about topics both important and commonplace. From wampum beads to oral traditions, speeches to incendiary political pamphlets, comets to newspapers, inscribed rocks to Neoclassical poetry, early Americans relied on a vast array of sources to gather information about the world around them, and to derive religious, social, and cultural meanings from them.

European settlers in North America were intensively literate, using the technologies of writing and printing and arguably wielding what seventeenth-century Englishman Samuel Purchas called the “literal advantage.”

Yet Native peoples had their own well-developed repertoires of communication technologies. They frequently used performance, gestures, material culture, and orality—and even adopted writing in selective ways as they encountered European settlers and their ways of signifying. Africans and African-Americans also employed a range of communicative strategies to endure in their new lands under the pressures of enslavement and active pursuits of freedom.

By studying a range of primary and secondary sources drawn from these multiple traditions, this course demonstrates how lively, loud, and uncertain early America was, and how the flow of (mis)information shaped exploration, conquest, war, and revolution. In addition, this seminar allows students to strengthen their own communication skills through class presentations, analytic/creative writing assignments, and on-the-ground explorations of local historical sites.

As a first-year seminar designed to orient students to Mount Holyoke College, this course does not presume any specific background in historical topics—only a willingness to explore and think critically.