American Southern Colonies
The first permanent English settlement in North America was the Jamestown colony, founded in 1607. Although the Anglicans who settled Chesapeake, Virginia, and the Catholics who settled Maryland had very different religious ideas, they shared similar cultural standards. The leaders of both colonies came from wealthy families in England, accustomed to controlling everything and everyone around them. Literacy for the masses was feared and carefully controlled. Coastal North and South Carolina functioned in much the same way. In all four colonies, wealthy men had a literacy rate of close to 100 percent. In contrast, only 30 percent of indentured servants could at least sign their names and only 1 percent of African American slaves could do so. Likewise, only 25 percent of women, even wealthy women, were literate. As a means of controlling literacy, education was carefully managed. Slaves were subject to the strictest laws and could have a finger amputated for learning to read. While grammar schools were rare, the region founded universities equal to those in England.
A planter’s son could be taught at home and then sent on to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Unlike other parts of North America, even yeoman farmers’ children had few options for an education. The best they could hope for was literate parents. To limit the spread of books, Virginia’s governor, Lord Culpeper, ordered that all printers be subject to the “king’s pleasure” in the 1670s. The first printer in Maryland, William Nuthead, was ordered in 1693 to print only blank bonds for fear that he might circulate subversive broadsides. Backcountry Literacy Literacy in the western backcountry of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina was also low. The region was settled predominantly by indentured servants and Scots-Irish emigrants who were well enough off to afford passage to North America but too poor to afford land near the coast. Literacy for the population as a whole stood at about 30 percent at the time of the American Revolution.
Unlike other regions, literacy was not linked to religion. Faith was spread through the spoken rather than the written word. This emphasis is evident even among literate settlers. In the early 1750s, four out of five titles found in personal libraries were secular rather than religious. In contrast to the Scots-Irish communities, Protestant German and French settlers also created small pockets of literacy throughout the backcountry. The primary reasons for illiteracy in the West, unlike the coastal South, stemmed more from cultural differences than from strict laws. Literacy today and in the other English colonies is defined by the ability to read or write. In contrast, literacy in the backcountry was defined by oral tradition. A man or woman who could remember stories, ballads, and the lore of cooking and herbs without written text was not illiterate by backcountry standards. They were also carrying on the traditions of hundreds of years in Ireland and Scotland.