History of Boston, Massachusetts

The history of Boston is an important part of the history of the United States as a country.

Boston is one of the most historic towns in Massachusetts. It is considered the birthplace of the American Revolution because so many groundbreaking historic events took place there. The many historic sites in Boston span nearly four centuries of history.

The following is an overview of the history of Boston:

Boston in the 17th Century:

Early Boston was a hilly peninsula originally inhabited by the Massachusetts tribe of Native Americans who have lived in the area since 2400 BC. The tribe 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 tribe living in the area. Two years later he published a map of the area and named it New England to make it more appealing to English colonists.

Map of New England by Captain John Smith circa 1616
Map of New England by Captain John Smith circa 1616

By 1618, more than two thirds of the Massachusetts Indians living in the area were wiped out by yellow fever and small pox brought by European traders. Only 25,000 Indians 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 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 from the Massachusetts Bay Company sailed to New England to flee 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.

These 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,” which was also known as the Massachusetts Bay colony.

Trimount or Boston as it was, illustration published in Gleasons pictorial, circa 1850
Trimount or Boston as it was, illustration published in Gleasons 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 on June 12 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 Blackstone’s offer and started to build houses for their new settlement. In September of 1630, the colonists officially named their 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 the Puritans 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.

More Puritans continued to immigrate 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 1632, Boston was officially named the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In 1643, the first slaves imported directly from Africa to Massachusetts arrived in Boston. They probably weren’t the first slaves in the colony, it is believed that an early settler named Samuel Maverick may have brought the first two slaves to the area in 1624, but it marked the beginning of widespread slavery in Massachusetts.

In 1634, Anne Hutchinson followed her mentor, John Cotton, to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and built a house in what is now downtown Boston.

A few years later in 1636, Hutchinson’s rebellious ways helped incite the Antinomian Controversy, a religious and political controversy that resulted in her banishment from the colony.

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.

While the Native American population declined, the number of settlers flourished. By 1676, Boston had 4,000 residents.

The colonists 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.

Boston in the 18th Century:

Boston continued to grow, despite small-pox outbreaks in 1690, 1702 and 1721. The city 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 meddle more deeply into the colony’s business matters, activities and daily affairs. This tension slowly began to sow the seeds for the American Revolution in Boston.

The first protests of the American Revolution began after the passage of the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act was a tax on all printed materials in the colonies in 1765. The colonists resented the tax because they saw it as a greedy attempt to make money off the colony.

To protest the Stamp Act, a group named the Sons of Liberty formed and began planning ways to thwart the British government’s plan to make money with the Stamp Act.

As a result, a number of protests and riots took place across the colonies, including a number of destructive riots in Boston.

During these riots, which took place in August of 1765, angry mobs tarred and feathered tax collectors, hung an effigy of tax commissioner Andrew Oliver from the Liberty Tree on Boston Common and looted and damaged the homes of many customs officials, including the Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson.

Due to the threats and violence, when the Stamp Act went into effect on November 1st, all of the tax collectors had quit and there was no one to collect the tax.

The Stamp Act was then repealed in March of 1766. To celebrate the repeal, Boston citizens decorated ships and houses with streamers, held a fireworks display and rang bells all over the city.

The Boston Massacre took place on March 5, 1770, and began as another protest, this time over the large presence of British soldiers sent to the city to protect customs officials after the passage of the unpopular Townshend Acts.

The massacre took place after a number of citizens had gathered outside the Old State House on what was then King Street and began insulting and harassing the soldiers on guard.

More soldiers appeared to provide back up. When one of the soldiers left his post to strike a protester, this prompted the mob to begin throwing rocks, sticks and snowballs at the soldiers. Chaos ensued and the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five civilians.

A trial was held in November of that year, during which John Adams defended the soldiers. Six of the soldiers were found not guilty and two were convicted of manslaughter and were punished by being branded with the letter M, for manslaughter, on the thumb.

The Boston Tea Party was a protest that took place in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. The protest was over the passage of the Tea Act, which placed a tax on all tea sold in the colonies.

After government officials refused to send away three newly arrived cargo ships containing British tea, the colonists rowed out to the ships in the harbor, climbed on board and dumped 90,000 pounds of tea, about $1 million dollars worth, into Boston Harbor.

The British government responded by closing Boston harbor and placing the city under military rule.

A few years later, in April of 1775, General Thomas Gage tried to get the upper hand in the rebellion by sending British troops to Concord in search of the colonist’s secret stash of gunpowder and supplies.

Around 10 p.m. on the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere was sent by Patriot leader Joseph Warren to ride from Boston to Concord to warn the colonists, as well as Samuel Adams and John Hancock who were in hiding in Lexington, of the approaching British army.

Revere warned many colonists along the way and arrived in Lexington around midnight. He warned Samuel Adams and John Hancock of the approaching army and set off for Concord with William Dawes and Samuel Prescott but was later caught by the British in Lexington and never made it to Concord. Nonetheless, Revere’s deed was immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1860 in his famous poem, titled Paul Revere’s Ride.

The Siege of Boston began after the British army was defeated at the Battle of Concord on April 19, 1775. The British army retreated back to Boston and the colonists surrounded the city’s gates and blockaded them in.

This blockade resulted in a year long occupation of Boston by the British army, known as the Siege of Boston, during which the British and colonists engaged in numerous skirmishes and battles, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775.

The siege ended in March of 1776, after the colonial army fortified nearby Dorchester Heights with cannons seized at Fort Ticonderoga and forced the British to flee the city via their fleet of ships.

Boston in the 19th & 20th Century:

The potato famine in Ireland led to a surge in Irish immigrants in the 1840s, which helped push the population of Boston close to 100,000 people.

Boston during the Civil War was a tense and sometimes violent place where abolitionists, Irish laborers and freed slaves clashed over political and social issues.

In 1872, Boston suffered a devastating fire that destroyed 65 acres of the city, killed 30 people, caused $73 million dollars in damage and left 1,000 people homeless. The fire broke out on November 9, 1872 in the basement of a Tebbetts, Baldwin & Davis dry goods warehouse on the corner of Kingston and Summer Street and raged on for 12 hours until it was contained.

Summer Street after the Great Boston Fire of 1872
Summer Street after the Great Boston Fire of 1872

Although the city had developed rapidly during the Civil War, the water mains had not been upgraded, which hampered efforts to control the fire.

In addition, there had recently been an outbreak of an equine flu that made the horses pulling the fire apparatus weak.

Many of the large granite and brick buildings in Boston at the time were thought to be fireproof but had highly flammable wood mansford roofs which helped spread the fire.

Even though the fire destroyed a large section of the city, it spared many historic buildings such as the Old South Meeting House, the Paul Revere House, the Old North Church and Faneuil Hall.

Boston underwent a large land making project in the 19th century when its five hills, Mt. Vernon, Beacon hill, Pemberton hill, Copp’s Hill and Fort Hill, were cut down to fill in the bays around the city in an effort to create more land. Rubble from the fire of 1872 was also used to fill in the bays. The project began in the early 1800s and by the time it ended in the late 1880s, it had more than doubled the landmass of the city.

An influx of Italian immigrants escaping famine, unemployment and a series of natural disasters in Italy between 1880 and 1920 contributed to the rapidly expanding population of Boston, which rose from 362,000 residents in 1880 to over 748,000 by 1920.

Workers building the Boston subway in 1895
Workers building the Boston subway in 1895

In 1895, construction began on the Boston subway, which was needed to help curb traffic congestion caused by trolleys and horse carriages in the narrow city streets.

During its construction workers uncovered many surprises and obstacles, such as 900 fragments of human remains near Park Street and a sulfurous-smelling salt marsh in Boston’s public garden.

The construction also caused a major gas leak on the corner of Tremont and Boylston on March 4, 1897, which resulted in a deadly explosion when sparks from a trolley on the street above ignited the gas, causing the trolley to explode and burst into flames. The explosion killed 10 people and damaged many nearby buildings.

Despite the setbacks, the subway project was completed in 1897, with a price tag of only $4.2 million instead of the predicted $5 million, and the subway official opened for business on September 1, 1897.

In 1991, construction began on the Big Dig, which is Boston’s largest and most expensive public works project in the U.S. to date. The Big Dig widened Interstate 93 and rerouted it into underground tunnels to reduce traffic congestion in the city streets.

A large hybrid steel and concrete cable bridge, named the Zakim bridge, was built to carry cars across the Charles River before funneling them underground. The elevated platform that originally carried Interstate 93 over the city was demolished and replaced with parks and open space.

The project took over 10 years to complete, finally coming to an end in December of 2007 and ran millions of dollars over budget to the price of $24 billion dollars.

For more information about the history of Boston, check out this timeline of the history of Boston.

Campbell, Ballard C. Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History: A Reference Guide to the Nation’s Most Catastrophic Events. Facts on File, 2008.
Marchione, William P. Boston Miscellany: An Essential History of the Hub. History Press, 2008.
“Boston History Before the Puritans.” Boston Discovery Guide, www.boston-discovery-guide.com/puritan-history.html
“History of the Boston Subway.” Boston Globe, archive.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/gallery/first_big_dig/
Lambert, Time. “A Brief History of Boston, Massachusetts, USA.” Local Histories, www.localhistories.org/bostonus.html
Lovestead, Brandon Gary. “A Tale of Two Bostons.” iBoston, www.iboston.org/mcp.php?pid=taleOfTwoBostons
“Native Peoples in Boston.” Pluralism. President and Fellows of Harvard College, pluralism.org/files/wrgb/native_american/Native-American_Timeline.pdf

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

9 thoughts on “History of Boston, Massachusetts

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Thanks for the heads up! 1700 is definitely a little early for the Boston Massacre.

  1. adam gaul

    Would you happen to know when electricity and the lightbulb began appearing in Boston?

    Could you recommend a good book to reference about Boston history during the 1880s?

    Could you recommend any books/resources/websites to help me learn about Boston speech/accents/vocabulary during the 1880s?

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Sorry I don’t know when light bulbs first appeared in Boston but I plan on writing some more articles about the industrial revolution so if I find out more I’ll let you know. I don’t really know any resources about speech patters in 19th century Boston or about Boston specifically in the 1880s.

      1. Richard

        Was born and raised in Concord, MA, of USA-raised parents, but always thought locals talked funny – not like anyone on tv. I never had the accent. Family strict Irish Catholic, but I never believed – always thought priests were weak weirdos – didn’t know how weird, though. Lived few houses from John Tortorella family – was very good family – no liars, thieves, racists, sucker punchers, gang members in Tortorella family. Was in same class as Ted Sarandis at Concord Carlisle High School – he was one of many imitating Howard Cosell/Don Meredith/Frank Gifford at the time, but I said he’s one with the brains to actually do it. Soon after took off for So Cal, So Fla, No Cal, then Tahoe area, only been back to visit family in MA twice since 1970’s. Seems like was someone else’s whole different life, in different world – but – go Patriots.

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