Boston: History

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Boston: History

Site on Peninsula Settled by Puritans

The point of land that juts into a natural harbor connecting with the Atlantic Ocean and forms the site of present-day Boston was once occupied by Native American tribes. They named the peninsula "Shawmut," which meant variously "land accessible by water" in reference to the harbor or "land with living fountains," a comment on the area's abundant fresh water springs. When two-thirds of the native population succumbed to a European disease against which they carried no immunity, the way was clear for transAtlantic settlers.

The area's first white settler from across the Atlantic arrived on the peninsula in the 1620s. William Blackstone, an English clergyman, was the leader of a small band who eventually returned to England, leaving Blackstone alone in his home atop what was later Boston's Beacon Hill. Blackstone and subsequent English settlers eventually became friendly with the local native tribes, whose democratic form of tribal governance, some historians claim, influenced the country's founding fathers in their conception of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.

Boston was founded in 1630 by a Protestant religious sect called the Puritans. They named the new town for their former home in Lincolnshire, England. The same year, Boston was declared the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bounded on three sides by water, Boston soon became the colonies' major New England seaport and the largest British settlement on the continent as well. When the Massachusetts Bay Colony's charter was revoked in 1684, Boston for the first time was subject to direct British authority.

Although unused to trans-Atlantic interference in their affairs, Bostonians nevertheless enjoyed a flowering of thought and culture never allowed during the years of strict Puritan dominance. As it developed into a major colonial center, Boston was the site of the calling of the nation's first Grand Jury in 1635; the opening of the nation's oldest school, the Boston Latin School, in 1635; the building of the first post office in 1639; the chartering of the colonies' first bank in 1674; the publication of the nation's oldest newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick, banned after one issue in 1690; and the publishing of the nation's first long-running newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, in 1704. By 1750, Boston's population was 15,000 people.

Revolution Precedes Maritime Supremacy

Continued protest over the British Crown's introduction of a series of unpopular taxes (including those on stamps and tea) brought British soldiers to Boston in 1768. The colonists' rallying cry soon became "No taxation without representation!" Two years later, in 1770, British soldiers opened fire on a hostile crowd gathered in front of the Old State House. Five people were killed, including Crispus Attucks, a mulatto and the first African American to fall in America's fight for freedom from colonial status. The confrontation, dubbed the "Boston Massacre," further inflamed Bostonians and patriots throughout the thirteen colonies. In 1773, Samuel Adams and a group of followers dressed as Indians carried out the "Boston Tea Party" by emptying the holds of three British ships and dumping their shipment of taxable tea into Boston Harbor. The British Parliament responded by closing the port, effectively stifling the city's economy.

Troops of Minutemen began to drill throughout the colonies. Then, in 1775, ill feeling intensified when colonists learned that the British troops planned to seize weapons stockpiled in Concord, eighteen miles west of Boston. On the night of April 18, two lanterns were hung in the belfry of Boston's Old North Church, signaling that the British were approaching by land. Silversmith Paul Revere received the message and rode through the night to warn his colleagues at Concord. Revere was arrested along the way, but a second rider, Charles Dawes, delivered the warning. On April 19, British troops found the Minutemen armed and prepared for the confrontation that would become known as the "shot heard 'round the world." It was the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.

Following the Revolution, Boston once again resumed its maritime activity. Outgoing cargoes included ocean fish and rum from New England and tobacco from the South. Incoming goods included molasses from the West Indies, used to distill rum. With the successful resolution of the War of 1812, Boston began a lucrative trade with China. U.S. ships sailed around Cape Horn and into the Orient and India, returning to the United States with tea, silks, and spices. The design of a new and faster vessel, the clipper ship, further enhanced Boston's maritime supremacy. The invention of the water-powered loom made Boston an important textile center, and its wool industry grew to rival England's.

Boston received its city charter in 1822 and chose a mayor-council form of government. The original hilly Shawmut Peninsula upon which the city was built covered 800 acres surrounded by salt marshes, mudflats, and inlets of water. As Boston outgrew her site in the 1800s, most of the hills were leveled and used as fill to create Boston's famous Back Bay district. Boston's tax base grew when the city annexed neighboring towns such as Noddle's Island, which was renamed East Boston. In 1821, Boston opened Boston English High School, the nation's oldest high school.

Manufacturing, Finance, Education Take Lead

Boston's population remained largely of English descent until the mid-1800s, when the first waves of European immigrants began to arrive. The Cabots and Lodges were typical of the leading Puritan families who became known as the Boston Brahmins. The city experienced an upsurge in manufacturing around the mid-1800s, aided by the invention of the railroad. Among the new industries were the making of shoes and other leather goods, until recently a mainstay of the Boston economy. Irish peasants seeking refuge from the potato famines in Ireland found work in Boston's factories and on the wharves. They settled in East Boston and Charlestown, which remain blue-collar Irish enclaves.

From the end of Puritan domination, Boston had been a religiously tolerant city. In the mid-1800s, Boston became the site of two major movements in the United States. The Unitarian Church was founded when a portion of dissatisfied Congregationalists broke away and formed a new sect. The Unitarian Church, in turn, became a progenitor of the Transcendental movement of the late nineteenth century. Boston was also the focus of the New England Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1832. The Society's publication, The Liberator, helped identify North-South differences that eventually erupted into the Civil War. Boston's African American population in the mid-1800s was sizable, in part because Massachusetts had declared slavery illegal in 1783. By the time of the Civil War, Boston was the center of the Abolitionist Movement and a stop on the Underground Railroad, which aided escaping slaves.

During the Civil War, Boston supplied 26,000 soldiers and sailors to the Union and acted as an important military seaport. When the war ended, Boston's maritime importance diminished, though the city gained prominence in the world of finance. Meanwhile, intellectuals who gathered in Boston helped reunite the divided nation. Poets like James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Greenleaf Whittier, along with novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, jurist Oliver Wendall Holmes, philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and historians William H. Prescott and Francis Parkman wrote about the American spirit and helped define the American character. It was Holmes who, noting this concentration of influential thinkers, dubbed Boston the "hub of the solar system."

Set-Backs Countered by Redevelopment

By 1900, Boston's population had reached 561,000, partially swelled by the new wave of Italian immigrants who settled on Boston's North End. Along with the French-Canadians who arrived next, they combined with the resident Irish to make Boston the nation's second largest Roman Catholic archdiocese. An established population, Boston's Irish began to figure in municipal politics. John F. "Honey" Fitzgerald was the town's first Irish mayor. He was elected to two terms, in 1906 and again in 1910. He established a political dynasty that included U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy among his descendants. Fishing, food processing, shoe making, and wool products were viable Boston industries at the turn of the century, by which time the demand for ship building had diminished. Like many of the nation's industrialized cities, Boston suffered economically between the world wars. First Prohibition, which made the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal, destroyed the rum trade, then the Great Depression of the 1930s undermined Boston's financial market and, finally, New England's textile industry moved South in search of less expensive labor. At this time, Boston began to acquire a dual reputation for corrupt machine politics and racial segregation. The city did a great deal to end corruption when council seats were declared open in 1951. Racial tension, however, continues to be a problem in Boston. Tempers flared over court-ordered pupil busing intended to desegregate the city's schools, and some Boston neighborhoods have yet to be integrated.

Following World War II, Boston's population grew to a peak of 801,000 in 1950, then began to level off and eventually declined. Its industries were mature and its infrastructure aging. The diminishing tax base led to an increase in taxes levied and a subsequent loss of the white middle class population to the suburbs. This trend, however, was countered in 1957 with the establishment of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, formed to revitalize the city. Through the efforts of this group, the Prudential Tower, a major office complex, was built in downtown Boston, along with a public auditorium, apartments, and office-retail structures. A new government center was constructed adjacent to historic Faneuil Hall, and other projects included shopping areas, neighborhood renewal, and development of water-front and historic districts. Boston also benefitted from the electronics research industry that emerged in the region in the 1950s.

Boston grew rapidly on the strength of its high-tech and defense-related research industries until the late 1980s. A combination of factors including high taxes, wages, office lease rates, and housing costs began to drive businesses to surrounding communities and states. Boston has, however, received high marks from analysts for its responsible handling of these and other fiscal problems. A strong economic turnaround which began around 1993 is continuing into the new century. As host to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Boston promotes tourism (always a staple of its economy) to boost its national image.

At the beginning of the new century, Boston's Mayor Tom Menino said of his city: "The major challenge facing Boston in the twenty-first century is that of new prosperity; how to renew Boston in a way that honors the beautiful historic city left in our care. We are fortunate to be living in one of those rare times in our City's life, a time when we have a chance to reinvent Boston and preserve the best of it for many years to come." Today's Boston remains a mecca for education and culture, and is a forward-looking city steeped in tradition and history.

Historical Information: The Bostonian Society, 15 State Street, Boston, MA 02109; telephone (617)720-1713