Although Norsemen, the French explorer Champlain, and the Dutch all are said to have visited Boston harbor, and Captain John Smith left us a map of it, no actual settlement was made until the 1620’s. Boston’s first settler was William Blackstone, a recluse of scholarly and probably misanthropic mental cast, formerly a clergyman of the Church of England. He had built himself a hut on the western slope of what is now Beacon Hill, planting his orchard on what later became Boston Common. At that time, the wilderness occupied the peninsula, which was about one-third the size of today’s Boston peninsula. Almost an island, it jutted out into the bay, joined to the mainland by a long, narrow neck like the handle of a ladle. It was a mile wide at its widest, three miles long, and the neck was so narrow and so low that at times it was submerged by the ocean. Blackstone’s realm was bounded on the west by a mud flat (the Back Bay); on the north by a deep cove (later dammed off to make a mill pond); on the east by a small river which cut off the North End and made an island of it, and by a deep cove (later known as the ‘Town Cove’); and on the south by another deep cove. Here, the disillusioned clergyman read his books, farmed a little, traded a bit with the Indians, and breathed air uncontaminated by any other white man.
His idyllic solitude was rudely shattered after four or five years, however, by the arrival of John Winthrop with a company of some eight hundred persons who settled in what is now Charlestown. Their miseries were many. The water at Charlestown was brackish, and their settlement could not easily be defended against Indian raids. Blackstone visited them and was melted by the spectacle of their plight. He invited them to come across to his peninsula and the company eagerly accepted his hospitality. This occurred in 1630, the year of the birth of Boston.
Winthrop’s settlers called it ‘Trimountain,’ possibly because of three hills later known as Beacon Hill, Copp’s Hill, and Fort Hill. The first year familiarized the Englishmen and their families with the rigors of the New England climate. It was too late to plant crops and more than two hundred died of starvation and exposure. The following spring, a ship laden with provisions, long overdue, dropped anchor in the bay, and a famine was averted. Fisheries were established, and fir and lumber created an export market. Within four years, more than four thousand Englishmen had emigrated to Boston and its vicinity. Twenty villages developed out of the peninsula town to form a Puritan Commonwealth.
The settlement soon became the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, governed by a theocracy which rigidly dictated to citizens in matters of religious dogma and private conduct. Dissenters were persecuted. Roger Williams and his Quaker followers were driven out, as were Anabaptists and Antinomians (latter led by indomitable Anne Hutchinson”. When Quakers returned, they were severely punished. In 1659 and 1660, three men and one woman were executed on Boston Common for thus offending. Nevertheless, culture and education were valued by Puritans. In 1635, General Court established the first free school in Boston. About the same time, Harvard University was created in nearby Cambridge.
Never much of a farming community, the city prospered greatly as a port and trading center. In 1631, a Boston-built vessel, the tiny Blessing of the Bay, was launched, and from then on shipbuilding continued as an important industry until the American Civil War era. After the Stuart restoration in England in 1660, Boston, which had actively sympathized with the regime of Oliver Cromwell, became the scene of monarchical reprisals. In 1684, the Court of Chancery, sitting in the Town Hall, voided the original colonial charter. Governor Andros, sent by King James II, established a virtual dictatorship. He attempted to break down the religious and political monopoly of the Puritans by widening the franchise and establishing the right of free worship.
Boston put on a curtain-raiser to witchcraft hysteria in 1688, but suffered the ravages of the persecution less than neighboring towns. That was largely because, when an epidemic broke out in full force in 1692, sinister accusations were leveled at the wife of Governor Phipps. Phipps, naturally enough, thereupon bore down on witch baiters. By this time, Boston’s population had grown to 7,000. The city’s trade boomed mightily with the development of the Rum-Slave-Molasses traffic triangle. By 1666, 300 ships, mostly Boston-owned, piled out of port. In 1691, a royal governor was sent. In 1733, the Molasses Act was passed, but the Colonial merchants had virtually free trade until 1764. That year, Grenville began the vigorous enforcement of the mercantilist measures. From then on, friction increased rapidly and the Colonies developed a burning sense of grievance.
The Boston Massacre (1770) on King Street (now State) occurred in the shadow of the old State House. News of the British advance on Lexington and Concord was semaphored to Paul Revere by the glimmer of a lamp which swung from the belfry of the Old North Church. The rafters of Faneuil Hall rang with the impassioned oratory of champions of liberty. The Old South Meeting House was the point from which fifty men disguised as Indians rushed to Griffin’s Wharf where British merchantmen rocked idly in the harbor, their holds crammed with East Indian tea (1773). It was the Boston Tea Party which confronted the British cabinet with the choice of capitulation or force, replied to by the Port Act, which marked the beginning of a policy of coercion and led swiftly to open warfare. The battle of Bunker Hill in nearby Charlestown was one of the early engagements of the war. Boston was regarded by the British as a most important objective, and the failure of the siege and the evacuation of the city by the Redcoats was the first serious blow to Tory confidence.
The American Revolution left Boston with its population reduced from 25,000 to 10,000 and its commerce ruined. The discovery of new trading possibilities in the Orient offered an opportunity which enterprising Yankee merchants were quick to perceive. The development of the China trade and the exploitation of the Oregon coast rich in sea otters restored Boston to its former eminence. Wealth poured into the coffers of merchants, traders, and shipmasters. In 1780, 455 ships from every quarter of the globe docked in Boston Harbor, while 1200 vessels engaged in coastwise traffic out of Boston.
Boston’s maritime prosperity was stimulated by the wars between England and France which followed the accession of Napoleon. However, the Jefferson Embargo and the War of 1812 seriously crippled the city’s maritime development. Although she recovered, and the era of the clipper made Massachusetts famous throughout the world, the War of 1812 really marked the beginning of the end of Boston’s maritime supremacy. Thereafter, manufacturing and industry gradually supplanted commercial interests.
In 1822, Boston became a city. Railroads were built from 1830 and played an important part in urban development. The first horse car line, connecting Cambridge and Boston, was built in 1853. Between 1824 and 1858, the Boston peninsula was enlarged from 783 acres to 1801 acres by cutting down the hills and filling in the Back Bay and the great coves with the excavated gravel as a basis for reclamation. The Neck, which William Blackstone could not always cross on foot because of the tidewater, was raised and broadened, so that what was once the narrowest part of Boston proper is now the widest.
During the era between the American Revolution and the American Civil War, Boston ideas underwent a parallel transformation from the provincial to the urban. Stimulated by European currents of thought and the philosophy of the frontier, Boston began to revolt against the theology of Calvin, a revolt typical of the democratic spirit of the nineteenth century. Unitarianism threatened to dissolve the entire system of Puritan Congregationalism.
Nowhere was the reforming spirit more active than in the anti-slavery movement. William Lloyd Garrison had no respect for the interests of cotton, whether expounded by planters or manufacturers. He invaded Boston and founded the Liberator in 1831, and was rewarded in 1835 with physical violence at the hands of a mob partly composed of Boston gentility. Boston played a less important role in the Civil War than in events preceding it. Unable to meet the prescribed quota of soldiers by voluntary enlistment, the city fathers first employed the draft in 1863, precipitating the Boston Draft Riots. The poorer classes, irritated when their rich neighbors purchased immunity from compulsory service for the sum of three hundred dollars, objected so strenuously that the militia was called out to quell the disorders.
Although some Bostonians had indicated a reluctance to support the Northern cause during the war, the celebration of peace left little to be desired. A coliseum seating 30,000 people was erected near the site of the Copley Plaza Hotel housing an Angel of Peace, thirteen feet high, together with an extinguished torch of war, frescoes, doves, and angels, medallions, emblems and flags, as well as the largest bass drum in the world, constructed for the occasion. By the end of the nineteenth century, Bostonians could boast of other things in addition to a thriving industry and commerce. Boston had at least two much-touted claims to fame: John L. Sullivan, the greatest fighter of his time, and the first passenger-car subway in America, a two-mile stretch from Arlington and Boylston Streets to the North Station. The last horse car was discarded in 1910. An elevated railroad pushed into the suburb of Forest Hills in 1910.
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