banner search whats new site index home

Boston City

Boston City Hall is located at One City Hall Square, Boston MA 02201; phone: 617‑635‑4000.

Loring-Greenough House, ca. 1760, 12 South Street (Jamaica Plain), Boston, MA, National Register

Photo: Loring-Greenough House, ca. 1760, 12 South Street (Jamaica Plain), Boston, MA. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Photographed by User:Loring-Greenough (own work), 2008, [cc0-by-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed July, 2014.

Beginnings [1]

Boston's first settler was William Blackstone, a recluse of scholarly and probably misanthropic mental cast, formerly a clergyman of the Church of England. He had built himself a hut on the western slope of what is now Beacon Hill, planting his orchard on what later became Boston Common. At that time the wilderness occupied the peninsula, which was 1/3 or less the size of the current Boston peninsula. Almost an island, it jutted out into the bay, joined to the mainland by a long narrow neck like the handle of a ladle. It was a mile wide at its widest, three miles long, and the neck was so narrow and so low that at times it was submerged by the ocean. Blackstone's realm was bounded on the west by a mud flat (the Back Bay); on the north by a deep cove (later dammed off to make a mill pond); on the east by a small river which cut off the North End and made an island of it, and by a deep cove (later known as 'Town Cove'); and on the south by another deep cove. Here the disillusioned clergyman read his books, farmed a little, traded a bit with the Indians, and breathed air uncontaminated by any other white man.

His idyllic solitude was rudely shattered after four or five years, however, by the arrival of John Winthrop with a company of some 800 who settled in what is now Charlestown, just across from his paradise. Their miseries were many. The water at Charlestown was brackish; and their settlement could not easily be defended against Indian raids. Blackstone visited them and was melted by the spectacle of their plight. He invited them to come across the peninsula and the company eagerly accepted his hospitality.

Thus, in 1630, Boston was actually begun. Winthrop's settlers called it 'Trimountain,' possibly because of three hills later known as Beacon Hill, Copp's Hill, and Fort Hill (now razed), or possibly because of the three mounded peaks of Beacon Hill (later shaved down).

The first year acquainted the Englishmen and their families with the rigors of the New England climate, and as it was too late to plant crops, more than 200 died of starvation and exposure. The following spring a ship laden with provisions, long overdue, dropped anchor in the bay, and famine was averted. The freshly tilled soil later yielded a good crop and the Colony survived and grew.

Fisheries were established. Fir and lumber created an export market. The foundation of trade and agriculture were early laid. Within 4 years more the 4,000 Englishmen had emigrated to Boston and its vicinity. 20 villages ramified out of the peninsula town to form a definite Puritan Commonwealth.

Divines were preoccupied with dismal theological abstractions, but the statute books reveal the fact that there were secular souls who displayed a wholesome proclivity for life. 'Tobacco drinking' (smoking) tipling, card-playing, dancing, and bowling identified the colonists with their Elizabethan forbears, but caused the town fathers much alarm. Sunday strolls or street kissing — even when legitimate — were subject to heavy fine, and an attempt was made to legislate 'sweets' out of existence. Christmas, reminiscent of 'popery,' was immediately placed under the ban and the elders often boasted that none of the holidays of old England survived the Atlantic passage.

A breach of these regulations resulted in punishment which was based upon the theory that ridicule was more effective than the isolation of imprisonment. Market squares were embellished by the erection of punitive apparatus — bilboes, stocks, pillories, and ducking stools. Public floggings were common and offenders were often forced to display on the persons the initial letter of the crime committed.

In spite of a narrow religious and moral outlook, her commerce insured Boston's future greatness. Scarcely a year after the Puritans had invaded the splendid isolation of Mr. Blackstone, Governor Winthrop launched the 'Blessing of the Bay.' The Puritan 'Rebecca' sailed to Narragansett and purchased corn from the Indians. Vessels called at the Bermudas and returned to Boston with cargoes of oranges, limes, and the equally exotic potato. They traveled up the Delaware in search of pelts. Frequently they put in at New Amsterdam to traffic with Dutch burghers, and 12 years after the founding (1642) ships laden with pipe staves and other products tied up safely at English docks. Thus began the maritime history of Massachusetts with Boston as its center. Shipbuilding, fishing, whaling, industry and exchange made the Colony a bustling outpost of imperial Britain.

From 1630 to about 1680, Great Britain was so absorbed in troubles at home that, notwithstanding the Navigation Act of 1651, she gave little attention to regulating her infant Colonies. In 1691 a royal governor was sent; in 1733 the Molasses Act was passed; but the Colonial merchants had virtually free trade until 1764 when Grenville began the vigorous enforcement of the mercantilistic measures. From then on friction increased rapidly and the Colonies developed a burning sense of grievance.

The American Revolution resulted from a series of bewildering subtleties, but many dramatic episodes, seemingly reflecting the broad issues of the controversy but actually telescoping them, took place in Boston's crooked streets. The Boston Massacre (1770) on King Street (later State Street) occurred in the shadow of the Old State House. News of the British advance on Lexington and Concord was semaphored to Paul Revere by the glimmer of a lamp which swung from the belfry of the Old North Church. The rafters of Faneuil Hall rang with the impassioned oratory of the champions of liberty. The Old South Meeting House was the point from which 50 men disguised as Indians rushed to Griffin's Wharf where British merchantmen rocked idly in the harbor, their holds crammed with East Indian tea (1773). It was the Boston Tea Party which confronted the British Cabinet with the choice of capitulation or force, replied to by the Port Act, which marked the beginning of a policy of coercion and led swiftly to open warfare. The battle of Bunker Hill in nearby Charleston was one of the early engagements of the war. Boston was regarded by the British as a most important objective, and the failure of the siege and the evacuation of the city by the Redcoats was the first serious blow to Tory confidence.

Commerce suffered a temporary eclipse in the depression of the post-war years, but the discovery of new trading possibilities in the Orient offered an opportunity which enterprising Yankee merchants were quick to perceive. The development of the China trade and the exploitation of the Oregon coast rich in sea otters restored Boston to its former eminence. Wealth poured into the coffers of merchants, traders and shipmasters. In 1780, 455 ships from every quarter of the globe docked in Boston Harbor, while 1,200 vessels engaged in coastwise traffic out of Boston. During a single year (1791), 70 Yankee merchantmen cleared Boston for Europe, the Indies, and Canton.

Boston's maritime prosperity was stimulated by the wars between England and France which followed the accession of Napoleon. In 1807 the shipping of Boston totaled 310,309 tons or more than 1/3rd of the mercantile marine of the United States. The Jefferson Embargo and the War of 1812 seriously crippled the city's maritime development. Although she recovered, and although the era of the clipper made Massachusetts famous throughout the world, and although the 'Sovereign of the Seas,' built by Donald McKay in East Boston (1852), was the envy of the British Admiralty, the War of 1812 really marked the beginning of the end of Boston's maritime supremacy. Thereafter manufacturing and industry gradually supplanted commercial interests.

In 1822 Boston became a city; railroads were being built from 1830 on and played an important part in urban development; the first horsecar line, connecting Cambridge and Boston, was built in 1853. Between 1824 and 1858, the Boston peninsula was enlarged from 783 acres to 1801 acres by cutting down the hills and filling in the Back Bay and the great coves with the excavated gravel as a basis for reclamation. The Neck, which William Blackstone could not always cross on foot because of the tidewater, was raised and broadened, so what was once the narrowest part of Boston proper is now the widest.

  1. Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for Massachusetts, Massachusetts: A Guide to Its Places and People, American Guide Series, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1937.
Information is deemed reliable but not guaranteed. • Privacy
Copyright © 1997-2016 • The Gombach Group • • 1105