Fated for greatness, Boston was once a marshy swamp studded with small islands and 30,000 Indian inhabitants. Weaned on controversy, rebellion, and determination, its history has impacted nearly every facet of modern civilization, earning its reputation as the Hub of the Universe. Boston's distinctive systems of government, agriculture, education, transportation, trade, literature, and philosophy became the template for a colonized union of states, impacting the destiny of the largest and wealthiest industrial nation of the 21st century.
Pre-European Contact to the Early Explorers
Recent archeological finds have encouraged scientists to theorize that the first people to inhabit the Shawmut Peninsula, upon which Boston is located, arrived over 10,000 years ago. These Paleo-Indians eventually shifted from nomadic bands hunting large game into smaller tribes (among them a group known as the Massachuset) who relied on coastal fishing and cultivated the corn, beans, and squash that later ensured the survival of their European conquerors.
By the late 15th century, European mariners dreamed of finding a waterway linking Europe to Asia, hoping to capitalize on the burgeoning trade of spices and silk. John Cabot, backed by England's King Henry VII, and a firm believer in the controversial theory of a round earth, sailed the waters of Boston Bay in search of an intra-continental western passageway. His failure fueled the efforts of many successive European explorers, and by 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold explored the Boston coastline and became the first settler in the New World when he set up an outpost on Cuttyhunk Island, a 1.5-mile-long spit of land southeast of the Shawmut Peninsula.
In April of 1603, in an effort to retrace Gosnold's profitable voyage of the previous year, two ships sailed from England and landed in the Boston Bay. Dozens of "merchants from Bristol", under the authorization of Sir Walter Raleigh, began to trade and interact with local, Native Americans before returning home five months later with exotic treasures and tales.
When word got out that the coastline of Massachusetts was rife with fish and the land was full of timber and seemingly uncivilized primitives, frequent expeditions set sail to Boston Bay from England, Portugal, France and Spain. In 1614, Captain John Smith mapped the coastline for his benefactor King Charles I, dubbing the area "New England", thereby staking claim to the territory and foreshadowing the impending battles to ensue. During this year, 27 Indians were kidnapped by English explorers and brought back to England with the intent to teach them English and train them as interpreters for subsequent exhibitions. By 1616, a European-borne smallpox epidemic decimated the Indian population, killing an estimated 90% of the coastal native people within three years.
Pilgrims and Puritans to the Revolutionary War
On the heels of Christmas 1620, an exhausted and famished group of Mayflower Pilgrims (wanting to achieve religious reformation even if it meant separation from their church and their nation) and Puritans (wanting to remain part of the English establishment while working for biblical reform from within) set anchor in nearby Plymouth Harbor after an unsuccessful attempt to colonize Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. With food supplies dangerously low, Commander Miles Standish sent a contingency group of colonists to the Shawmut Peninsula to meet with Indian leader, Obatinewat, in an effort to trade for supplies so that they could survive the winter. By the autumn of 1621, only half the original 102 colonists survived to celebrate harvest with 91 Indians in what has become an annual Thanksgiving meal.
The Pilgrims were primarily Dutch working-class people without an ordained minister. The English Puritans, by contrast, were better educated, more economically and socially successful, and brought with them clergy to give leadership to both the church and the community. By 1626, the neighboring settlement of Salem became the nucleus of the Puritan Colony known as the Massachusetts Bay Company, sparking the immigration of 1,100 English settlers in 1629. Arriving with the immigrants was a royal charter from King Charles I, securing the colony as official property of the crown.
Fueled by the belief that Boston was engaged in a special covenant with God, leaders began to legislate morality, enforce marriage, church attendance, and the persecution of sinners. These values shaped a highly structured society in Boston whose remnants remain intact to this day. Eager to further the study of scripture, and "dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the Church," the Puritans zealously promoted the development of educational facilities and in 1636, Harvard established itself as the first university in the New World. Adding to Boston's educational legacy, a law was passed in 1647 requiring elementary schools in towns of 50 or more families, establishing a precedent for public education in the United States.
Native Americans, resentful of the exploding Puritan presence and increased tensions against the Massachusetts Bay Colony, (which began to manufacture a local Indian currency known as wampum in an effort to devalue the Indian trade) resulted in the war of 1637 and instigated the first voluntary union of American colonies. This confederation of colonists broke the power and spirit of the native people during the course of the next 50 years as England, France, and their respective American Indian allies fought for territorial rights in the Boston area. During this time, church attendance became mandatory, and anyone who opposed the church was banished or threatened with death. Quaker Mary Dyer was hanged on the Boston Common in 1660 for defying a law that banned Quakers from preaching contrary to Puritan beliefs. An edict established in the mid-1650s imposed Quaker banishment from the colony underscored with the threat of death if they returned. She had purposely returned to her home in an act of martyrdom against the "unrighteous and unjust law" and became the first American civil rights protester for religious freedom, inspiring a new tolerance that was enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution, the eventual model for the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.
In 1691, the royal charter of 1629 was replaced with a single royal colony extending from Boston to Maine. This charter abolished church membership as a prerequisite for voting but bred anxiety over loss of the original charter that had given the colonists more autonomy from England. Clergymen, in particular, were concerned that the Crown's enlarged governance would usurp their authority, and this paranoid climate might have contributed to the witch-hunting panic that climaxed in Salem in the summer of 1692. Punishment for practicing witchcraft was not unique to colonial Massachusetts; witchcraft was taken very seriously in 15th century Europe, and may have influenced the Puritans in America who sought to impose mandatory adherence to their brand of spiritual salvation.
By 1763, after making peace with France, England began to focus on structuring the government in the colonies surrounding Boston. Parliament decided to tax the colonists and enforce trade restrictions in an effort to pay for England's swollen war debt and to defray the cost of providing soldiers to the colonies. Boston became a hotbed of confrontation and protest against the tightening grip of Parliament in the form of the Sugar Act in 1764, a tax levied on sugar; the Stamp Act in 1765, requiring all paper documents (including letters and playing cards) to bear a government stamp as proof of paid taxes; and the Townshend Acts of 1767, which taxed common items like glass, lead, paint, and tea. A call to arms against this taxation without representation culminated when British troops fired into a crowd of protesting Boston citizens, killing five and wounding eleven. This 1770 incident became known as the Boston Massacre and is reenacted annually by the Bostonian Society at the exact location in front of the Old State House. By 1773, the Boston harbor was stage to the Boston Tea Party, led by colonists who believed that their elected representatives, and not the King of England, should levy taxes on the colonies.
Solidifying colonial resentment against King George II and his continuous taxes and regulations, the next five years served to mount tensions and incubate what was to become a bloody American Revolutionary War. Rallying cries were heard from as far as Virginia where Patrick Henry delivered an impassioned speech against British rule declaring, "Give me liberty or give me death." By late winter, George II banned fishing in the North Atlantic, requiring the Boston colonists to trade exclusively with England and inciting greater discontent among citizens.
In April 1775, 700 British soldiers marched to Concord to destroy an ever-growing store of colonial weaponry. That night, Paul Revere and William Dawes were sent from Boston to warn colonists. At dawn the next day, 70 militiamen stood face to face with the British and an unordered "shot heard around the world" began the American Revolution. British forces, eventually retreating back to Boston, were harassed and shot at by farmers and rebels, suffering hundreds of casualties. News of the event spread like wildfire throughout the colonies.
Two months later, 2,000 British soldiers attacked a small troop of colonial fighters who lay hidden in a shallow bunker dug into Boston's Breed Hill. The Battle of Bunker Hill claimed 1,000 British lives and 400 Bostonian patriots in the first official battle between the forces. British troops continued to occupy Boston until March of 1776 when troops, led by George Washington, forced them out.
A New Nation to Industrialization and the Labor Movement
Independence from England closed the door on trade routes within the British Empire, but China's trade in and out of Boston Harbor became extremely lucrative for the newly independent city. Unfortunately, European wars led to interference with American shipping. In response, Congress resorted to an Embargo Act of 1807 in an attempt to force warring England and France to stop restricting American trade, but the Act backfired, dealing a serious blow to Boston's economy by halting international trade into its port. When the War of 1812 with England began, there was talk of secession in the public houses of Boston. Serendipitously, and because the war and embargo shut out the import of foreign made goods, local entrepreneurs began manufacturing on their own, birthing industries throughout the city. These industries, financed by shipping magnates and shielded from foreign competition by the protective tariffs of 1816, grew rapidly and transformed the character of the commonwealth and Bostonians.
The 1800s catapulted the city into another, less violent, revolution. The invention of the power loom and the abundance of waterpower harnessed from the Merrimack River in neighboring Lowell established Boston as a center for the nation's emerging textile industry. Religious and social reform movements in the 1830s and 40s birthed the voices of native sons and daughters Ralph Waldo Emerson; Henry David Thoreau; women's rights advocate Margaret Fuller; Nathaniel Hawthorne; education reformer and senator, Horace Mann; Emily Dickinson; and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The Boston Public Library opened as the first in the nation in 1848. Bostonian abolitionists devoted energy to the anti-slavery campaign and Massachusetts became the first state to answer President Lincoln's rally for troops in Fort Sumter, igniting America's Civil War.
A massive land reclamation, beginning in 1830 and continuing intermittingly until 1900, tripled the size of the Shawmut Peninsula by filling in swamps, marshes and gaps along the city's waterfront. Hilltops were shaved and their soil replanted to create the neighborhoods of the South End, the West End, the Fenway-Kenmore area, and the Financial District. A catastrophic Boston fire in 1872 provided rubble that was used, along with gravel transported via railroad, to create the chic and pricey Back Bay district of 21st century Boston.
With more usable land came a steady stream of European immigrants. The Irish, oppressed by both a famine and the English, began arriving by the thousands and were to later shape the political (Democratic) and religious (Roman Catholic) landscape of a once purely Puritanical strain of Yankee. John F. Fitzgerald was elected mayor in 1905, clinching a political dynasty that would seduce Boston for nearly a century. Virtually every landed immigrant sought work in the factories and with their increased numbers, the tide of industrialism rose. Labor unions emerged in response to horrific work conditions and subpar wages, organizing strikes as a bargaining tactic for factory workers, policemen, and telephone operators. The police strike of 1919 fueled talk of communist and Bolshevik sympathizers within the rank and file, and for the first time since pre-colonial days, the city was divided into citizens who followed the edicts of a wealthy ruling class, and those who rebelled against it.
America's first subway system opened beneath the streets of Boston at South Station in 1897, succeeding, in part, to shuttle the increasing population to the city's new crop of cultural centers: Symphony Hall, Fenway Park, Horticultural Hall, and the behemoth-sized Christian Science Church, all joined the commonwealth at the start of the 20th century.
Crimes of the Twentieth Century to Present day
The 1927 trials and executions of Sacco-Vanzetti in Boston's courts galvanized local and international rage against a seemingly blatant disregard for civil liberties, and succeeded in portraying Bostonians as perpetrators of severity, echoing a century's old stigma of puritanical intolerance.
In 1950, the largest robbery in the history of the United States, the Great Brink's Robbery, took place in Boston and was declared the crime of the century, only to be upstaged 14 years later by the villainous Boston Strangler. Grabbing the spotlight in 1961, President John F. Kennedy embodied everything positive about his hometown: he earned an esteemed education from Harvard, he served as a brave soldier for democracy, he was a stalwart supporter of the arts, and he envisioned a peaceful future for the world beyond the frightening landscape of the Cold War.
The city's skyline was revamped in the latter half of the century with the sky scraping Prudential and John Hancock buildings. Boston City Hall raised eyebrows in 1969 with its controversial architecture (an eyesore is one popular description of the complex), fitting for a city whose character has been shaped by the passionate clashing of ideas. By the 1970s, students flocked to Boston to study, teach and practice at the highly regarded hospitals and universities in the area, revitalizing the district with population and innovation. In an attempt to untangle roadways that were laid long before the advent to automobiles, the Big Dig of 2007 rerouted an elevated interstate that bisected the city into a streamlined tunnel. It was an undertaking never attempted before in the history of U.S. highway engineering and one that many argued would never work because of political and financial obstacles.
Apparently, the naysayers of the Big Dig weren't privy to the idea of securing hold of an environment and taming it to do your bidding—no matter what or who stood in the way. It's the same Yankee ingenuity, the same inventive improvisation used by the original settlers of the Shawmut Peninsula, and which constitutes a pride in the collective heart of Bostonians throughout the city.