boston history guide
Boston was founded in 1630 by chartered Puritan colonists from Britain. It was the third European colony in Massachusetts, following the establishment of Plymouth in 1620 and Salem in 1628. The colony was then situated on the star-shaped Shawmut Peninsula, a hilly piece of land initially connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus called the Boston Neck. Boston’s deep harbour and strategic situation eventually helped it become the most important port of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and one of America’s most important settlements. Until the 1760s, Boston remained the largest city on the continent.
Early Boston was imbued with religious importance, as colonists believed that the city perched upon a hill had a special covenant with God. Colonists legislated morality, church attendance, education, and the persecution of sinners — values that molded a very stable Puritan society in the city. Indeed, the Puritan values of hard work, morality, and education remain a part of Boston’s modern culture. These values also sparked the establishment of America’s first school, the Boston Latin School, and in 1636, America’s first college, Harvard College. Boston is also home to America’s oldest city park, Boston Common, which was founded on the then outskirts of the city in 1634. The park was used as common pastoral land until 1830, and soon thereafter became a public recreation space.
Boston became well connected with the other American colonies and became a critical link in the burgeoning American independence movement. By the 1770s, the British attempt to exert control over the thirteen colonies, primarily through taxation, created a massive uproar in New England. Boston played a critical role in sparking both the American Revolution and the ensuing war.
On March 5th, 1770, the heavy British military presence in the city boiled over and incited brawls between soldiers and civilians. On King Street near where Faneuil Hall now stands, a British officer and twelve privates, under increasing pressure from the unruly mob, fired into the crowd, killing five people and injuring six others. The incident became known as the Boston Massacre and instantaneously became a symbolic event for the young revolutionary movement. The event inspired Bostonians John Hancock and Samuel Adams to become a financier of the Revolutionary movement. Hancock would later be the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The most famous protest to occur in Boston, however, occurred in December 1773 in Boston Harbor. At that time, Bostonians were protesting the British government’s unfair taxation and the new Tea Act, which allowed the East India Company to monopolize the colony’s tea market. Before the evening tea shipment was due to be landed that day, the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and disguised as Mohawk Indians, boarded three stationed ships and dumped a total of 45 tons of tea worth an estimated 10,000 pounds into Boston Harbor. This act eventually proved to be one of the many instigators of the Revolution.
Some of America’s most notable Revolutionary figures hailed from Boston. Paul Revere, born in the North End in 1734, began his career as a silversmith. He is most famous, however, for his Midnight Ride of 1775, when he rode from Boston to Lexington to warn of the advances of the British military, bent on arresting revolutionaries. The warning was to be given with the utmost secrecy, and he did not yell “the British are coming”, as is famously attributed to him, but rather, “the regulars are coming out”. Revere’s midnight ride is commemorated in the North End with a prominent statue of him riding his stallion. Revere also instructed the sexton at Old North Church to signal by lantern the colonists across the river at Charlestown of an invasion — one signal if by land, two if by sea.
After the Revolutionary War, Boston assumed the status of one of the world’s wealthiest international trading ports. By 1822, the community was chartered as a city, and by the mid-1800s, the city had become one of the most important manufacturing centres in the nation, specializing in garments, leather, and machinery. Throughout the 18th century, new waves of European immigrants, mainly from Ireland and Italy, gave the city a strong Roman Catholic presence that challenged the dominance of the wealthy colonial Boston Brahmins. The new Bostonians often sought residence in the crowded North End, which from the 19th century has variously been the city’s main Irish, Jewish, and Italian neighbourhood.
Disaster struck the city in 1872 as a fire began in the basement of a commercial warehouse on Summer Street that would eventually engulf most of what is today the Financial District. The fire overnight consumed 65 acres of Boston’s downtown and a total of 776 buildings, causing the equivalent of $73.5 billion in damage. The Great Fire of Boston today remains one of the most costly fire-related incidents in American history.
Boston’s physical form has changed dramatically over the centuries. Prior to European settlement, the Shawmut Peninsula was a rocky outcropping in the mouth of the Charles River that was only barely connected to the mainland. Today, the land area of Boston is more than triple its original size. By the early 19th century, the city’s population became too large for the small peninsula to support. Dams were initially placed across Mill Pond (near the North End) and the Back Bay to harness tidal power for mill industries. Between 1807 and 1824, the soil from the top of Beacon Hill was used to fill in Mill Pond, thus solidly connecting the North End with the rest of Boston. Prior to this, the North End was often made an island during extreme high tides.
Landfills also took place in the South End, over West Cove on the Charles River, and near Quincy Market, which used to be adjacent to the water (hence the namesake of Water Street). However, the most famous landfill in Boston is the Back Bay, which used to be a swampy tidal flat that was integrated with waters of the Charles River. Between 1857 and 1894, the bay was filled in, making room for the development of the neighbourhood of the same name. Quickly some of Boston’s elite began constructing the characteristic Brownstone residences on the land’s new streets, which unlike the rest of Boston, were arranged in a grid pattern. The Back Bay also became a centre for the city’s new cultural institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the Public Library, and Trinity Church.
Boston is home to the first subway system in the United States. The Green Line tunnel from Park Street opened in 1897, and the downtown portions of what are now the Green, Orange, Blue, and Red lines were completed by 1912.
On January 15th, 1919, a storage tank containing 2.3 million gallons of hot molasses at the Purity Distilling Company’s North End plant suffered a rupture, unleashing a massive wave of molasses between 8 and 15 feet in height and traveling at 35 miles per hour. The wave was strong enough to damage the elevated railway on Commercial Street and lift a train off its tracks, damage or destroy several buildings, and immerse several blocks in 2 to 3 feet of molasses. 21 people died in the incident and 150 others were injured. It took six months to remove the sticky molasses from the buildings and cobblestone streets, and Boston Harbor ran brown until that summer. To this day, some North End residents claim that the site (now occupied by a large park) smells of molasses on hot summer days.