As one of the earliest European settlements in the New World and the birthplace of the American Revolution, Boston's ties to history are strong. A prosperous trading center, the city has long boasted fine educational and cultural institutions that are influential in philosophy and literature, art and technology. Industrialization brought significant changes, especially as immigrants diversified the population, leading to conflict, cooperation and growth – a trend that has continued into the 21st century.
The Shawmut Peninsula
In 1614 English explorer Captain John Smith, at the behest of the future King Charles I, set sail to assess the New World’s commercial opportunities. Braving the frigid North Atlantic, the plucky explorer reached the rocky coast of present-day Maine and made his way southward to Cape Cod, making contact with the native population, mapping the coastline and dubbing the region 'New England.'
Smith noted a tricapped hilly peninsula, connected to the mainland by a narrow neck across a shallow back bay, with an excellent harbor fed by three rivers. Valued for its freshwater spring, the region was known to local tribespeople as Shawmut.
Before the 17th century, there were as many as 100,000 native inhabitants of New England, mostly of the Algonquian nation, organized into small regional tribes that variously cooperated and quarreled with one another.
Before the Puritans, England’s religious outcasts, showed up, local tribespeople were already acquainted with Portuguese fishers, French fur traders, Dutch merchants and Jesuit missionaries. The Europeans were welcomed as a source of valued goods, but they were also feared. In the Great Sadness of 1616–17, a smallpox epidemic devastated the native population, reducing it by three-quarters.
English colonial coastal encampments quickly spread, as seemingly unoccupied lands were claimed for king and commodity. According to John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony, 'God hath hereby cleared our title to this place.'
In 1675 Chief Metacomet, son of the famed Massasoit who befriended the starving Pilgrims, organized a desperate last stand against the ever-encroaching English. Known as King Philip to the settlers, he terrorized the frontier for more than a year before he was finally ambushed and killed. The chief’s body was drawn and quartered and his heathen head perched on a pole, while his son was sold into slavery. In less than a hundred years, disease, war and forced migration had reduced the indigenous population by 90%.
Mission from God
England was torn by religious strife in the 17th century. The Puritans, austere Calvinists, wanted to purify the Anglican Church of all vestiges of pomp, pope and privilege. James I, annoyed by these nonconformists, threatened to 'harry them out of the country.'
As the fortunes of the faithful diminished, New England held out hope of renewal. The first trickle of Protestant immigrants came in 1620, when the Pilgrims established a small colony in Plymouth. Ten years later, the flagship Arbella led a flotilla of a thousand Puritans on the treacherous transatlantic crossing. In June 1630, their leader, country squire John Winthrop, gazed out on the Shawmut Peninsula and declared, 'we shall be as a City upon a Hill, with the eyes of all people upon us.'
They landed first near Salem and settled further south at present-day Charlestown. Across the river, the Shawmut Peninsula was at this time occupied by the Reverend William Blackstone, who had survived an earlier failed settlement. He invited Winthrop and his scurvy-ridden company to move closer to fresh water. They named their new home Boston, after the town in Lincolnshire where many of the Pilgrims had lived.
Piety, Power & Profits
The new settlement was governed by a spiritual elite – a Puritan theocracy. As such, the Church dominated early colonial life.
Divine Law was above all, and the state was put in service to the Church. The General Court, a select assembly of Church members, became the principal mechanism for lawmaking, while the governor was endowed with extensive powers to enforce the laws. Local affairs were settled at regular meetings, open to the freemen of each town. (Women were allowed to attend if they did not talk.) The tradition of town meetings became a cornerstone of American democracy.
Meanwhile, Boston became a boomtown. The first inhabitants were concentrated near the waterfront, behind the town dock. The back side of the hill served as 'common' lands. Newcomers fanned out along the rivers, looking for farmland and founding new settlements. Fortunes were made in the maritime trades – fishing, shipbuilding, and commerce with the Old World. Well into the 18th century, Boston was the richest city in the American colonies.
But population and prosperity put pressure on Puritan principles. Modesty gave way to display. Red-brick mansions appeared on Beacon Hill, tables were set with fine china and silk linens, and women’s shoulders were fashionably exposed.
The Church lost its monopoly on governing when the royal charter was revised to make property-holding the basis for political rights. Life in colonial Boston increasingly felt tension between community and individual, piety and profit.
From Empire to Independence
The demands of empire kept England at war. Colonists were drawn into the fighting in the French–Indian War. Despite their victory, all the colonists gained was a tax bill from the king. Covetous of New England’s maritime wealth, the Crown pronounced a series of Navigation Acts, restricting colonial trade. Boston merchants conducted business as usual, except now it was on the sly.
The issue of taxation brought the clash between king and colony to a head. In the 1760s, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the Townsend Acts and the Tea Act – all of which placed greater financial burdens on the colonists. With each new tax and toll, colonial resentment intensified, as exhibited by vocal protests and violent mobs. The acts of defiance were defended by respectable lawyer John Adams, who cited the Magna Carta’s principle of 'no taxation without representation.'
To each act of rebellion, the British throne responded with increasingly severe measures, eventually dispatching Redcoat regiments known as 'regulars' to restore order and suspending all local political power.
Under siege on the street, unrepentant Bostonians went underground. The Sons of Liberty, a clandestine network of patriots, stirred up public resistance to British policy and harassed the king’s loyalists. They were led by some well-known townsmen, including esteemed surgeon Dr Joseph Warren, upper-class merchant John Hancock, skilled silversmith Paul Revere and bankrupt brewer Sam Adams. Branded as treasonous rebels by the king, the Sons of Liberty became more radical and popular as the imperial grip tightened.
The resented Redcoat presence did not extinguish, but rather inflamed, local passions. In March 1770 a motley street gang provoked British regulars with slurs and snowballs until the troops fired into the crowd, killing five and wounding six. John Adams successfully defended the British troops, who were found to be acting in self-defense. The Sons of Liberty, however, scored a propaganda coup with their depictions of the Boston Massacre, as the incident came to be called.
Shot Heard Round the World
Until now, all but the most pugnacious of patriots would have been satisfied with colonial economic autonomy and political representation. But the king’s coercive tactics aroused indignation and acrimony. Both sides were spoiling for a fight.
British General Gage was sent over with 4000 troops and a fleet of warships. Local townsfolk and yeoman farmers organized themselves into Minutemen groups, citizen militias that could mobilize in a minute. They drilled on town commons and stockpiled weapons in secret stores.
In April 1775 Gage saw the chance to break colonial resistance. Acting on a tip from a local informant, Gage dispatched 700 troops on the road west to arrest fugitives Sam Adams and John Hancock and to seize a hidden stash of gunpowder. Bostonians had their own informants, including Gage’s wife, who tipped off Joseph Warren on the troop movement.
Word was then passed to the Old North Church sexton to hang two signal lanterns in the steeple. Paul Revere got the signal and quietly slipped across the river into Charlestown, where he mounted Brown Beauty and galloped into the night to alert the Minutemen.
At daybreak, the confrontation finally occurred. 'Here once the embattled farmer stood,' Ralph Waldo Emerson later wrote, 'and fired the shot heard round the world.' Imperial troops skirmished with Minutemen on the Old North Bridge in Concord and the Lexington Green. By midmorning, more militia had arrived and chased the bloodied Redcoats back to Boston in ignominious defeat. The inevitable had arrived: the War for Independence.
Boston figured prominently in the early phase of the American Revolution. In June 1775 Bostonians inflicted a hurtful blow on British morale at the Battle of Bunker Hill. The British took the hill after three tries, but their losses were greater than expected. Fighting on the front line, Dr Warren was killed by a musket shot to the head in the final British charge. A few weeks later, George Washington assumed command of the ragged Continental Army on the Cambridge Common.
Britain’s military occupation of the city continued until March 1776, when Washington mounted captured British cannons on Dorchester Heights and trained them on the British fleet in Boston Harbor. Rather than see the king’s expensive warships sent to the bottom, the British evacuated the city, trashing and looting as they went; Boston was liberated.
Athens of America
In the early 19th century, Boston emerged as a center of enlightenment in the young republic. The city’s second mayor, Josiah Quincy, led an effort to remake the city’s underclass into a group of industrious and responsible citizens. He expanded public education and made the streets safer and cleaner. The 'Great Mayor' revitalized the decaying waterfront with a refurbished Faneuil Hall and the new Greek Revival marketplace, which bears his name.
Influenced by the idealistic legacy of Puritanism and revolution, Boston gave rise to the first uniquely American intellectual movement. Led by Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalists shocked and challenged the Christian establishment with their belief in the inherent goodness of human nature and an emphasis on individual self-reliance to achieve spiritual fulfillment. Transcendental influences are exemplified in the romantic literature of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. Besides philosophy, the city also became a vibrant cultural center for poetry, painting, architecture, science and scholarship, earning Boston a reputation as the 'Athens of America.'
From Sail to Steam
Boston thrived during the Age of Sail. In the 17th century the infamous 'triangular trade' route was developed, involving sugar, rum and slaves. Merchants who chose not to traffic in human cargo could still make large profits by illicitly undercutting European trade monopolies in the West Indies. In his East Boston shipyard, Donald McKay perfected the design of the clipper ship. The advent of the steam engine in the second half of the 19th century marked the decline of Boston seafaring prominence.
Early on, Boston's industry was related to overseas trading: shipbuilding, fishing and rum. Besides this, the city had small-scale artisan shops. During the war, the disruption of commerce caused acute shortages of manufactured goods. In response, some merchants shifted their investments into industry, with revolutionary results.
By the middle of the 19th century, steam power and metal machines were changing the city. Boston became the railroad hub of New England. Leather works and shoemaking factories appeared on the edge of the city. Even Paul Revere abandoned his silversmith shop and set up a rolling copper mill and foundry.
Industrial wealth transformed the landscape. The tops of hills were cropped and used for landfill to expand its size. Back Bay became a French-style neighborhood of elegant boulevards, and the South End, an English-style quarter of intimate courtyards.
Boston's Melting Pot
For nearly two centuries, the city was ruled by a select group of leading families, collectively known as the Boston Brahmins. A reference to the exclusive ruling class in India, the self-deprecating term was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, but was readily adopted by the caste-conscious. Their elite status was claimed through lineage to the colonial founders or through wealth from the merchant heyday. They dominated city politics and business, mimicked the style and manners of the European aristocracy, and created exclusive clubs for themselves and cultural institutions for the city.
The rapid rise of industry led to social change. The industrial workforce was initially drawn from the region’s young farm women, who lived in dormitories under paternalistic supervision. The 'mill girls' were replaced by cheaper immigrant Irish labor in the 1820s. Although their numbers were still modest, the effect of immigration on local attitudes was great. The world of English-descended Whig Protestants was thrown into turmoil.
Disparaged by 'proper' Bostonians, the Irish were considered an inferior race of moral delinquents, whose spoken brogue was not endearing, but rather suggested a shoe in one’s mouth. They undercut workers in the job market; worse yet, the Irish brought the dreaded religion of pomp and popery that the Puritans so detested.
A potato famine spurred an upsurge in Irish immigration. Between 1846 and 1856 more than 1000 new immigrants stepped off the boat every month. It was a human flood that the city was not prepared to absorb. Anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments were shrill. The Know Nothing Party sprang up as a political expression of this rabid nativist reaction.
Subsequent groups of Italian, Portuguese and East European Jewish immigrants suffered similar indignities. By the end of the 19th century, the urban landscape resembled a mosaic of clannish ethnic enclaves.
All Politics is Local
With social change, Brahmin dominance of Boston politics slipped away. By the end of the 19th century, ethnic-based political machines wrested control of local government from the old elite.
While the Democratic Party was initially associated with rural and radical interests, it became the political instrument of the working poor. Irish immigrant neighborhoods provided ready-made voting blocs, which empowered a new type of political boss. These flamboyant populists took an activist approach to government and traded in patronage and graft.
No other Boston boss outshone James Michael Curley. He was conniving, corrupt and beloved. The Rascal King had a seemingly endless supply of holiday turkeys and city jobs for constituents, who between 1914 and 1949 elected him mayor four times and governor and congressman once.
After more than 125 years, Massachusetts once again took center stage in national politics with John F Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960. The youthful JFK was the pride of Boston’s Irish Catholics for being the one who finally made it. Kennedy’s brief Camelot inspired a new generation of Americans into public service and founded a political family dynasty that rivaled the Adams'.
In 1952, Thomas ‘Tip’ O'Neill inherited Kennedy's recently vacated congressional seat. O'Neill climbed to the top of the legislative ladder, becoming Speaker of the House in 1977, all the while sticking to the adage that 'All Politics is Local.' Meanwhile, in 1962, JFK's brother Ted was elected to represent Massachusetts in the US Senate – a post he held for 47 years. Irish Americans continue to dominate Boston politics today.
Reform & Racism
The legacy of race relations in Boston is marred by contradictions. Abolitionists and segregationists, reformers and racists have all left their mark. Massachusetts was the first colony to recognize slavery as a legal institution in 1641, and the first to abolish slavery in 1783.
In the 19th century, Boston emerged as a nucleus of the abolition movement. Newspaper publisher William Lloyd Garrison, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and aristocratic lawyer Wendell Phillips launched the American Anti-Slavery Society to agitate public sentiment. The city provided safe houses for runaway slaves who took the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada.
After the Civil War, many blacks rose to prominent positions in Boston society, including John S Rock, who became the first African American to practice in the US Supreme Court; John J Smith, who was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives; Lewis Hayden, who was elected to the Massachusetts General Court; and William DuBois, who was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard.
In the early 20th century, manufacturing jobs attracted southern blacks as part of the Great Migration, and Boston's African American population swelled to about 20,000 strong. For newcomers, the north promised refuge from racism and poverty, though that promise was rarely delivered on. Boston did not have Jim Crow laws per se, but it had its own informal patterns of racial segregation. African Americans were not integrated into the city, but instead established black enclaves in neighborhoods such as Roxbury and the South End, where a thriving jazz and dance scene emerged. At one point, the city was home to both Martin Luther King Jr, a Boston University divinity student, and Malcolm X, a pool-hall-hustling teenager.
As the city’s economy declined, racial antagonism increased. In the 1970s, a judge determined that separate was not equal in the Boston public school system. The 1974 court order to integrate the schools through redistricting and busing exposed underlying racial tensions, and resulted in the same protests and violence as desegregation efforts in the South. Busing was eventually abandoned and old wounds remain.
Racial inequality in the US is a persistent issue, but Boston stands out among major cities, especially given its liberal reputation. The city's power base (in business and politics alike) is almost exclusively white, and its reputation as inhospitable – even hostile – to black people in particular provides an additional barrier to recruitment of achieving people of color, according to a 2017 series by the Boston Globe's Spotlight team. Despite a black population of 28%, Boston is one of only two cities among the 25 most populous in the US to have exclusively elected white, male mayors.
Making Boston Modern
In the mid-20th century, the city underwent a remarkable physical transformation. Two of the city’s oldest neighborhoods were targeted: Scollay Sq, which was once an area bustling with theaters and music halls, but had since become a rundown red-light district; and the West End, where poor immigrants eked out an existence amid a grubby labyrinth of row houses and alleyways. Urban renewal came in the form of the grim bulldozer, which sent both neighborhoods into oblivion.
Next came the cement mixers that filled the modernist moldings of a new Government Center for Boston’s sizable civil-servant sector. The centerpiece was an inverted pyramid, the monumental and cavernous City Hall, which has since become prime evidence in the architectural case against 1960s modernism.
The city’s skyline reached upward with luxury condominiums and office buildings. The old customs tower on the waterfront, long the tallest building in town, was overtaken by the proud Prudential Tower and Henry Cobb’s elegant John Hancock Tower. Boston was on the rebound.
Boston would not be Boston without a major redevelopment project. The Central Artery Tunnel Project (aka the Big Dig) was an unmatched marvel of civil engineering, urban planning and pork-barrel politics. The project employed the most advanced techniques of urban engineering and environmental science, in order to reroute the Central Artery underground through the center of the city. The project fell far behind schedule and went way over budget. When it finally opened in 2004, the walls leaked and a falling ceiling panel killed a motorist. This bane of Bostonian existence finally materialized as a boon for the city, as residents and visitors alike are now enjoying quicker commutes, easier access to the airport and delightful dallying along the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
In the 21st century, Boston and Massachusetts initiated cutting-edge reforms that would eventually be adopted elsewhere in the country. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the union to recognize same-sex marriages, and the first gay marriage took place in Cambridge. In 2006, a health-care reform was enacted, resulting in near universal coverage for Massachusetts residents – years before this legislation passed at a federal level. In 2007, Massachusetts elected Deval Patrick, the state’s first African American governor (and the country’s second), foreshadowing Barack Obama's arrival in the White House. However, barriers to black representation remain deeply entrenched here: as of 2019, the state has an all-white slate of representatives in Congress.
In the new millennium, nothing has inspired Bostonians' passion and pride more than the local sports teams. After more than eight decades of heartbreaking near misses, the Boston Red Sox finally won baseball’s World Series in 2004, with four more World Series victories since.
The Red Sox shared the sports spotlight with local gridiron gladiators, the New England Patriots, who have won an amazing 15 AFC East championships and six Super Bowl victories since 2001, ensuring the team's dynastic claim. The Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins piled on with their own championships in 2008 and 2011, completing the city's 'Grand Slam of American Sports.'