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Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies

Deepen your appreciation of the formative era before the birth of America. In 36 lectures, Professor Robert J. Allison tells the epic story of the events that led from the first permanent settlement at Jamestown to the eve of the Revolutionary War. Along the way, you examine in-depth topics such as the Mayflower Compact, the Pennsylvania Quaker colony, and more.
Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 116.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Slight historical errors In general, I am enjoying this series. I am very disappointed that it is only available on DVD and not digital video which I learned the hard way. I've noticed some slight historical errors in the lectures - for example, he cites the Port Royal, Jamaca earthquake in 1688 - it actually happened in on June 7th, 1692. Not a big deal but wonder about other facts that may be in error.
Date published: 2024-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from worth the time - informative Very well presented & very informative. Learned much about what the US was before it was the US - often not a pretty picture.
Date published: 2024-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceeded my expectations This is absolutely one of my favorite titles... and, over the decades, I have purchased well over one hundred courses. I had no idea what I was missing regarding early colonial history until I watch "Before 1776". And I am a history buff that has read quite a bit of American history... mostly political stuff. This has added so much to my understanding of this relatively unknown period (to me) of history, culture, and politics. This has truly broadened my understanding of this crucial period of American history. Thank you, Great Courses, for having these lectures by Professor Allison!
Date published: 2023-09-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EXCELLENT ... EXCELLENT ... EXCELLENT !! This course was excellent. I learned things that should have been taught in school about the Colonial times. I would have liked to see the presenter during the lectures.
Date published: 2023-09-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great insight! This is a wonderful series on ordinary people who did extraordinary things during this historic period.
Date published: 2022-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent overview of Colonial Life This course gave me a new vision of my family's life as Colonial Americans in Virginia. The professor was excellent and gave a realistic account including how and why the Colonies were first created, who financed the first settlers, the truth about slavery in North America and the challenges of everyday life and interactions with the Native Americans. An excellent course that I highly recommend.
Date published: 2022-05-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Solid Foundational Course on the Topic. This program of learning offers a solid foundation for the subject. Some of the lectures are excellent (e.g. lecture 33: The North Carolina Regulators Seek Local Rule), while others are considerably less so (e.g. the first three courses, and the information offered, just did not seem to move from item to item easily). Although the course included 36 lectures, extending it to 48 would probably have enabled additional information and explanation that might well have smoothed out the periodic rough, or rushed, points in the program. That said, much useful learning regarding a frequently misunderstood and often oversimplified historical time & place is provided.
Date published: 2022-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Overview I have been researching my family history and wanted to get an overview of the development of the American Colonies so that I could better understand the situations of my pre-Revolutionary ancestors. This course does provide a good overview of the history of the period, with emphasis on Native American peoples and on the institution of slavery -- areas which were not covered much when I studied American history many years ago. The professor is articulate, knowledgeable, and obviously interested in his subject. Some parts of the course were more interesting to me than others, which was to be expected. Overall, I enjoyed the lectures and learned a lot.
Date published: 2022-04-20
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Deepen your appreciation of the formative era before the birth of America with Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies. In 36 lectures


Robert J. Allison

The best thing [about writing this class] has been hearing from so many students who have watched or listened, as they've asked new questions and raised new ideas about this exciting history.


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 Government Association's Distinguished Faculty Award in 2006, and the Suffolk University Outstanding Faculty Award in 2007. His books include The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815 (2000); A Short History of Boston (2004); Stephen Decatur, American Naval Hero (2005); The Boston Massacre (2006); The Boston Tea Party (2007); and the upcoming A Short History of Cape Cod. He has edited books on American history spanning from the colonial period to the 20th century. Professor Allison was a consultant to the Commonwealth Museum at the State Archives in Boston, and he is on the board of overseers of the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts. He is vice president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, an elected fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and president of the South Boston Historical Society.

By This Professor

The Age of Benjamin Franklin
Before 1776: Life in the American Colonies


The World before Colonial America

01: 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?

34 min
Spain's New World Empire

02: 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.

30 min
John Smith, Pocahontas, and Jamestown

03: 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.

30 min
Virginia and the Chesapeake after Smith

04: 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.

30 min
The Pilgrims and Plymouth

05: 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.

32 min
The Iroquois, the French, and the Dutch

06: 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.

34 min
The Puritans and Massachusetts

07: 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.

30 min
New England Heretics—Religious and Economic

08: 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.

32 min
The Connecticut Valley and the Pequot War

09: 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.

31 min
Sugar and Slaves—The Caribbean

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.

31 min
Mercantilism and the Growth of Piracy

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.

30 min
South Carolina—Rice, Cattle, and Artisans

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.

30 min
New Netherland Becomes New York

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.

31 min
King Philip's War in New England

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.

30 min
Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia

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.

29 min
Santa Fe and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680

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.

30 min
William Penn's New World Vision

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.

30 min
The New England Uprising of 1689

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.

29 min
Witchcraft in New England

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?

31 min
Captives and Stories of Captivity

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.

31 min
The Indians' New World

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.

31 min
Family Life and Labor in Colonial America

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.

31 min
Smallpox, 1721—The Inoculation Controversy

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.

31 min
France, Senegal, and Louisiana

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.

33 min
Georgia—Dreams and Realities

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.

31 min
The Atlantic Slave Trade and South Carolina

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.

31 min
The New York Conspiracy of 1741

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.

31 min
The Great Awakening

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.

32 min
The Albany Conference of 1754

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.

30 min
The Great War for Empire

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.

32 min
Pontiac's Revolt against the British

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.

31 min
Imperial Reform—The Sugar and Stamp Acts

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."

31 min
North Carolina Regulators Seek Local Rule

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.

31 min
Virginia—Patrick Henry and the West

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.

31 min
Destruction of Tea and Colonial Rebellion

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.

31 min
Independence and Beyond

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.

32 min