Setting Sail: Early American History from the Water

Course Description

This course invites you back into a different time when oceans, inlets, and rivers—and those who knew how to navigate them—ruled the world. The only way to fully understand this reversed perspective is to experience it for yourself! Therefore, we will be getting out on the water for half of our class sessions – whether on a large and safe Coast Guard certified sailboat or a motorboat or kayaks.

Providence sits at the head of the Narragansett Bay, a stunningly beautiful 28 mile long protected body of water that empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The Narragansett Bay is also a microcosm of early American history, touching on Native history, early colonial arrival, slavery and the slave trade (African and Indian), warfare, politics, environmental history, animal-human relations, and the rhythms of everyday life. Combining in-classroom instruction with on-the-water excursions around the Narragansett Bay, this class will forever change your perspective of the water and early American history.

For the classroom days, we will meet for three hours for short lectures, videos, interactive activities, short reflection writing assignments, local walking field trips, and the discussion of assigned readings. The assigned readings will be drawn from primary sources (written by people in the colonial period) and some present-day historians' essays. Part of this skill development will be in reading maps, including older, colonial maps at the John Carter Brown Library, as well as modern nautical charts.

For our on the water days, we will take shorter day trips (3-5 hours) to various destinations around the Narragansett Bay, including Providence, Bristol, Newport, Gaspee Point, and Jamestown Island.

The point in our readings and on the water experience is to immerse ourselves in a very different world – one in which waterways were central to absolutely everything. Mail, communication, travel, immigration, trade, commerce, enslavement, liberation – these all required navigating the waterways that we now so casually drive over (with cars) or fly over (with airplanes). Highways and our modern technology have rendered this water-centric world almost invisible. And with our land-centric focus, we have also lost the essential wonder and awe of the power of the ocean and waterways. Their world is not ours, but for two weeks, this course invites you to experience that water-centric world in small (and safe!) doses.

By the end of this class, you will:

  • Understand the importance of waterways in early American history;
  • Experience the beauty and unique perspective of being on different watercraft on the Narragansett Bay;
  • Be able to read and interpret older maps and primary source documents;
  • Relate the environmental history and use of the Narragansett Bay (and, by extension, other waterways) to the present.
Taken all together, the readings and experiences in this course provide a terrific platform for further historical, demographical, cultural, environmental, and anthropological study.


There are no prerequisites for this class, except for a willingness to experience new things and have fun! No prior sailing or on-the-water experience is necessary. As this course entails several day-long excursions, students may not enroll in a second course during this term.


One Section Available to Choose From:

Online sections of Pre-College courses are offered in one of the following modalities: Asynchronous, Mostly asynchronous, or Blended. Please review full information regarding the experience here.

Dates: June 27, 2022 - July 08, 2022
Duration: 2 Weeks
Meeting Times: M-F 9A - 4P
Status: Closed
Format: On-Campus
Instructor(s): Linford Fisher
Course Number: 10048