History of Early Boston

Early Boston was a hilly peninsula originally inhabited by the Penacook, Wampanoag and Massachusetts Native Americans tribes who have lived in the area since 2400 BC. These tribes called the area Shawmut and the nearby river, which is now known as the Charles river, the Quinnebequi.

The small peninsula was only 789 acres wide and consisted of three hills that settlers later named Trimount: Mount Vernon, Beacon hill and Pemberton hill, as well as two other hills they named Copp’s hill and Fort hill.

In 1614, explorer Captain John Smith sailed to the Massachusetts bay and befriended the tribes living in the area. Two years later he published a map of the area and labeled it “New England” to make it more appealing to English colonists.


John Smith’s map, circa 1616

By 1618, more than two thirds of the Native Americans living in the area were wiped out by yellow fever and small pox brought by European traders. Only 25,000 Native Americans survived.

After a settlement known as the Gorges colony failed in Weymouth, Massachusetts in 1623, almost all of the colonists returned to England, except for one, Reverend William Blackstone. Blackstone, an Anglican clergymen, moved from Weymouth to Shawmut in the area that is now Beacon Hill. This made him the first permanent European settler in the New World and the first settler to live in Boston. Blackstone (also spelled Blaxton) built a cabin near a fresh water spring, at what is now the intersection of Charles street and Beacon street, and lived isolated and alone. He sustained himself by hunting animals and planting the first ever apple orchard in New England from seeds he collected.

In 1630, Puritans found their way to New England after fleeing from religious persecution in England. Although it was illegal at the time to settle in New England without permission from the King, the Puritans found a legal loophole that they used to their advantage. The Puritans owned and operated the Massachusetts Bay Company, which was given a charter by Charles I to engage in trade in the New World colonies. When the charter was issued, it failed to say that the governor and officers of the company were required to stay in England. The Puritans used this omission to move the company and its members to New England to establish a religious community they called “the holy commonwealth.”

Trimount, or Boston as it was, illustration published in Gleason's Pictorial, circa 1850

Trimount, or Boston as it was, illustration published in Gleason’s Pictorial, circa 1850

In April of 1630, the Puritans, led by one of the company’s stockholders, John Winthrop, left their homes in Boston, England and sailed from Southampton towards the New World. The fleet of 12 ships reached the shores of Massachusetts in July and landed at Salem but the existing colony there did not have enough food or shelter to accommodate the new colonists so they continued down towards Charlestown. By the time the Puritans reached the mouth of the Charles river, more than 200 of them had died from poor health and lack of food and water.

The Puritans settled in Charlestown, across the river from the Shawmut peninsula, but the colony suffered due to a lack of fresh water. William Blackstone learned about the new settlers troubles through his Native American friends in the area. Winthrop went to visit Blackstone, whom he had attended Cambridge University with in England, and Blackstone invited Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay colony to live on the Shawmut peninsula. The group accepted and started to build houses for their new settlement. One settler, Thomas Dudley, decided to name the new town Boston after their hometown in England.

By the mid 1630s, Blackstone grew tired of the Puritan’s strict ways and the pressure he felt to conform. The Puritans had invited hundreds of more Puritans over from England and were taking over the area. After they took control over all but 50 acres of the land Blackstone believed was his, Blackstone decided to sell his remaining land back to the Puritans, which became Boston Common, and moved to what is now Rhode Island.


Illustration of Blackstone’s cabin, published in “Homes of our Forefathers in Boston, Old England, and Boston, New England” by Edwin Whitefield circa 1889

More Puritans continued to travel over from England and the number of colonies in Massachusetts multiplied to a total of four: Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven. These colonies included many villages that consisted of houses, a community garden and a meetinghouse for church services. Schools were soon built, including the first American public school called the Boston Latin School, and laws were passed requiring a school in every town with more than 50 inhabitants. In 1643, the four colonies formed a military alliance, known as the New England Confederation, to help defend themselves from Native American attacks.

Disease continued to ravage the Native American population. By 1650, about 90 percent of the Native Americans living in New England died due to diseases brought by the European settlers. Resentment between Native Americans and settlers led to King Phillip’s War in 1675, which completely wiped out the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes. The Native Americans that survived the war fled to the west or surrendered and were sold into slavery.


The Massachusetts Bay Colony used this seal until 1691

While the Native American population declined, the number of settlers flourished. By 1676, Boston had 4,000 residents. Settlers built the city’s first post office in 1639, the first bank in 1674 and published its first American newspaper in 1690 titled “Publick Occurrences: Both Foreign and Domestick.”

The Massachusetts Bay Colony received bad news when its charter was revoked in 1684, due to repeatedly violating the terms of the charter. These violations include running an illegal mint, establishing religious laws and discriminating against Anglicans.

A new charter in 1691 united the Massachusetts Bay colony, Plymouth colony and Maine colony into one single colony. This charter restricted religious-based laws, such as the church membership requirement needed to become a voter, and tightened the British government’s control over the colony which caused much anxiety among the colonists. The colonists worried that their religion, and they themselves, were once again under attack. This anxiety may have been one of the many underlying causes of the hysteria that sparked the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.


Trimount in 1630 by S.L. Gerry, circa 1836

Boston continued to grow, despite small-pox outbreaks in 1690, 1702 and 1721, and had over 13,000 residents by 1730. Many of Boston’s most famous buildings were built during this time period, such as the Old State House in 1713, Old North Church in 1723, Old South Meetinghouse in 1729 and Faneuil Hall in 1742. By 1750, Boston’s population had risen to 15,000 people.

By the mid-18th century, Massachusetts Bay Colony had grown into a successful colony with a large trade industry that exported fish, lumber and farm products to Europe. Tensions quickly began to brew between the colony and Britain when the British government started to mettle more deeply into the colony’s business matters, activities and daily affairs. This tension slowly began to sow the seeds for the American Revolution.

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Boston Discovery Guide: Puritan History in Boston:http://www.boston-discovery-guide.com/puritan-history.html
The Official Website of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: John Winthrop (1587-1649):http://www.mass.gov
Local Histories; A Brief History of Boston; Tim Lambert:http://www.localhistories.org/bostonus.html
iBoston; A Tale of Two Boston; Brandon Gary Lovestead:http://www.iboston.org/mcp.php?pid=taleOfTwoBostons
City Data: Boston: History:http://www.city-data.com/us-cities/The-Northeast/Boston-History.html
“Boston Miscellany”; William P. Marchione; 2008
Northeastern University; Uncommon Ground; Susan Diesenhouse:http://www.northeastern.edu/magazine/0211/books.html
The Pluralism Project: Timeline of Native American Traditions in Greater Boston:http://pluralism.org/files/wrgb/native_american/Native-American_Timeline.pdf


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