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The history of Boston plays a central role in American history. In 1630, Puritan colonists from England founded the town, which quickly became the political, commercial, financial, religious and educational center of the New England region. The American Revolution erupted in Boston, as the British retaliated harshly for the Boston Tea Party and the patriots fought back. They besieged the British in the city, with a famous battle at Bunker Hill and won the Siege of Boston, forcing the British to retreat. However, the British blockade of the port seriously damaged the economy, and the population fell by two thirds in the 1770s. The city recovered after 1800, becoming the transportation hub for the New England region with its network of railroads, and even more important, the intellectual, educational and medical center of the nation. Along with New York, Boston was the financial center of the United States in the 19th century, and was especially important in funding railroads nationwide. In the Civil War era, it was the base for many anti-slavery activities. In the 19th century the city was dominated by an elite known as the Boston Brahmins. They faced the political challenge coming from Catholic immigrants. The Irish Catholics, typified by the Kennedy Family, took political control of the city by 1900. The industrial foundation of the region, financed by Boston, reached its peak around 1950; thereafter thousands of textile mills and other factories were closed down and the city went into decline. By the 21st century the city's economy had recovered and was centered on education, medicine, and high technology—notably biotechnology, while the many surrounding towns became residential suburbs.
The Shawmut Peninsula was originally connected to the mainland to its south by a narrow isthmus, Boston Neck, and surrounded by Boston Harbor and the Back Bay, an estuary of the Charles River. Several prehistoric Native American archaeological sites, including the Boylston Street Fishweir, excavated during construction of buildings and subways in the city, have shown that the peninsula was inhabited as early as 7,500 years before present.
In 1628, the Cambridge Agreement was signed in England among the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The agreement established the colony as a self-governing entity, answerable only to the king. John Winthrop was its leader, and would become governor of the settlement in the New World. In a famous sermon, "A Model of Christian Charity," Winthrop described the new colony as "a City upon a Hill."
The competing Plymouth Colony had been founded in 1620; it would later merge with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
In June 1630, the Winthrop Fleet arrived in what would later be called Salem, which on account of lack of food, "pleased them not." They proceeded to Charlestown, which pleased them less, for lack of fresh water. The Puritans settled around the spring in what would become Boston, acquiring the land from the first English settler, William Blaxton.
Trimountaine was the name given by the 1630 settlers to the peninsula that would later be incorporated as the City of Boston. The name was derived from a set of three prominent hills on the peninsula, two of which were leveled as the city was modernized. The middle one, Beacon Hill, shortened between 1807 and 1824, remains to this day as a prominent feature of the Boston cityscape. Tremont Street still carries an alternate form of the original name.
Governor Winthrop announced the foundation of the town of Boston on September 7, 1630 (old style), with the place named after the town of Boston, in the English county of Lincolnshire, from which several prominent colonists emigrated.
Early colonists believed that Boston was a community with a special covenant with God, as captured in Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" metaphor. This influenced every facet of Boston life, and made it imperative that colonists legislate morality as well as enforce marriage, church attendance, education in the Word of God, and the persecution of sinners. These values molded an extremely stable and well-structured society in Boston. Puritan values of hard work, moral uprightness, and education remain a part of Boston's culture. The first school in America, Boston Latin School (1635), and the first college in America, Harvard College (1636), were founded shortly after Boston's European settlement.
Town officials in colonial Boston were chosen annually; positions included selectman, assay master, culler of staves, fence viewer, hayward, hogreeve, measurer of boards, pounder, sealer of leather, tithingman, viewer of bricks, water bailiff, and woodcorder.
Boston's Puritans looked askance at unorthodox religious ideas, and exiled or punished dissenters. During the Antinomian Controversy of 1636 to 1638 religious dissident leader Anne Hutchinson and Puritan clergyman John Wheelwright were both banished from the colony. Baptist minister Obadiah Holmes was imprisoned and publicly whipped in 1651 because of his religion and Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College during the 1640s-50s, was persecuted for espousing Baptist beliefs. By 1679, Boston Baptists were bold enough to open their own meetinghouse, which was promptly closed by colonial authorities. Expansion and innovation in practice and worship characterized the early Baptists despite the restrictions on their religious liberty. On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer was hanged on Boston Common for repeatedly defying a law banning Quakers from being in the colony.
The Boston Post Road connected the city to New York and the major settlements in Central and Western Massachusetts. The lower route ran near present-day U.S. 1 via Providence, Rhode Island. The upper route, laid out in 1673, left via Boston Neck and followed present-day U.S. Route 20 until around Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. It continued through Worcester, Springfield, and New Haven, Connecticut.
From 1686 until 1689, Massachusetts and surrounding colonies were united. This larger province, known as the Dominion of New England, was governed by an appointee of the king James II, Sir Edmund Andros. Andros, who supported the Church of England in a largely-Puritan city, grew increasingly unpopular. On April 18, 1689, he was overthrown due to a brief revolt. The Dominion was not reestablished.
The first "Great Fire" of Boston destroyed 349 buildings on March 20, 1760. It was one of many significant fires fought by the Boston Fire Department.
By the 1770s Americans focused on their rights as Englishmen, especially the principle of "No Taxation without Representation," as articulated by James Otis, Samuel Adams and other Boston firebrands. Boston played the primary role in sparking both the American Revolution and the ensuing American Revolutionary War. The Boston Massacre came on March 5, 1770, when British soldiers stationed fired into a rioting mob on King Street outside the British custom house, resulting in the deaths of five civilians and dramatically escalating tensions. Parliament, meanwhile, insisted on its right to tax the Americans and finally came up with a small tax on tea. Up and down the 13 colonies, Americans prevented merchants from selling the tea, but a shipment arrived in Boston Harbor. Local Sons of Liberty, disguised as Indians, dumped the tea in the harbor in the Boston Tea Party. The British government retaliated with a series of very harsh laws, they closed down the Port of Boston and stripped Massachusetts of its self-government. The other colonies rallied in solidarity behind Massachusetts, setting up the First Continental Congress, and arming and training their militia units. The British sent more troops to Boston, and made its commander General Thomas Gage the governor. When Gage discovered the Patriots had set up a shadow government based in the town of Concord, he sent troops to break it up. Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott made their famous midnight rides to alert the Minutemen in the surrounding towns, who fought the resulting Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. It was the first battle of the American Revolution. Militia units across New England rallied to the defense of Boston, and Congress sent in General George Washington to take command. The British were trapped in the city, and suffered very heavy losses in their victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Washington brought in artillery and forced the British out as the patriots took full control of Boston. The American victory on March 17, 1776, is celebrated as Evacuation Day. The city has preserved and celebrated its revolutionary past, from the harboring of the USS Constitution to the many famous sites along the Freedom Trail.
Boston was transformed from a relatively small and economically stagnant town in 1780 to a bustling seaport and cosmopolitan center with a large and highly mobile population by 1800. It had become one of the world's wealthiest international trading ports, exporting products like rum, fish, salt and tobacco. The upheaval of the American Revolution, and the British naval blockade that shut down its economy, had caused a majority of the population to flee the city. From a base of 10,000 in 1780, the population approached 25,000 by 1800. The abolition of slavery in the state in 1783 gave blacks greater physical mobility, but their social mobility was slow.
Boston had the status of a town; it was chartered as a city in 1822. The second mayor was Josiah Quincy III, who undertook infrastructure improvements in roads and sewers, and organized the city's dock area around the newly erected Faneuil Hall Marketplace, popularly known as Quincy Market. By the mid-19th century Boston was one of the largest manufacturing centers in the nation, noted for its garment production, leather goods, and machinery industries. Manufacturing overtook international trade to dominate the local economy. A network of small rivers bordering the city and connecting it to the surrounding region made for easy shipment of goods and allowed for a proliferation of mills and factories. The building of the Middlesex Canal extended this small river network to the larger Merrimack River and its mills, including the Lowell mills and mills on the Nashua River in New Hampshire. By the 1850s, an even denser network of railroads (see also List of railroad lines in Massachusetts) facilitated the region's industry and commerce. For example, in 1851, Eben Jordan and Benjamin L. Marsh opened the Jordan Marsh Department store in downtown Boston. Thirty years later William Filene opened his own department store across the street, called Filene's.
Several turnpikes were constructed between cities to aid transportation, especially of cattle and sheep to markets. A major east-west route, the Worcester Turnpike (now Massachusetts Route 9), was constructed in 1810. Others included the Newburyport Turnpike (now Route 1) and the Salem Lawrence Turnpike (now Route 114).
Boston's "Brahmin elite" developed a particular semi-aristocratic value system by the 1840s—cultivated, urbane, and dignified, the ideal Brahmin was the very essence of enlightened aristocracy. He was not only wealthy, but displayed suitable personal virtues and character traits. The term was coined in 1861 by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. The Brahmin had high expectations to meet: to cultivate the arts, support charities such as hospitals and colleges, and assume the role of community leader. Although the ideal called on him to transcend commonplace business values, in practice many found the thrill of economic success quite attractive. The Brahmins warned each other against "avarice" and insisted upon "personal responsibility." Scandal and divorce were unacceptable. The total system was buttressed by the strong extended family ties present in Boston society. Young men attended the same prep schools and colleges, and had their own way of talking. Heirs married heiresses. Family not only served as an economic asset, but also as a means of moral restraint. Most belonged to the Unitarian or Episcopal churches, although some were Congregationalists or Methodists. Politically, they were successively Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans.
A poem about Boston, attributed to various people, describes the city thus: "And here's to good old Boston / The land of the bean and the cod / Where Lowells talk only to Cabots / and Cabots talk only to God." While wealthy colonial families like the Lowells and Cabots (often called the Boston Brahmins) ruled the city, the 1840s brought waves of new immigrants from Europe. These included large numbers of Irish and Italians, giving the city a large Roman Catholic population.
In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison founded The Liberator, an abolitionist newsletter, in Boston. It advocated "immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves" in the United States, and established Boston as the center of the abolitionist movement. After the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Boston became a bastion of abolitionist thought. Attempts by slave-catchers to arrest fugitive slaves often proved futile, which included the notable case of Anthony Burns and Kevin McLaughlin. After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Boston also became the hub of efforts to send anti-slavery New Englanders to settle in Kansas Territory through the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.
Throughout the 19th century, Boston became a haven for Irish Catholic immigrants, especially following the potato famine of 1845-49. Even to the present day, Boston still commands the largest percentage of Irish-descended people of any city in the United States. Thanks to growing numbers, intense group loyalty, and block by block political organization, the Irish took political control of the city, leaving the Yankees in charge of finance, business and higher education. The Irish left their mark on the region in a number of ways: in still heavily Irish neighborhoods such as Charlestown and South Boston; in the name of the local basketball team, the Boston Celtics; in the dominant Irish-American political family, the Kennedys; in a large number of prominent local politicians, such as James Michael Curley; in the establishment of Catholic Boston College as a rival to Harvard; and in underworld figures such as James "Whitey" Bulger.
The Great Boston Fire of 1872 started at the corner of Summer Street and Kingston Street on November 9. In two days the conflagration destroyed about 65 acres (260,000 m²) of the city, including 776 buildings in the financial district, totaling $60 million in damage.
From the mid-to-late-19th century, Boston flourished culturally — it became renowned for its rarefied literary culture and lavish artistic patronage. Literary residents included, among many others, writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., James Russell Lowell, and Julia Ward Howe, as well as historians John Lothrop Motley, John Gorham Palfrey, George Bancroft, William Hickling Prescott, Francis Parkman, Henry Adams, James Ford Rhodes, Edward Channing and Samuel Eliot Morison. Also there were theologians and philosophers such as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mary Baker Eddy. When Bret Harte visited Howells, he remarked that in Boston "it was impossible to fire a revolver without bringing down the author of a two-volume work." Boston had many great publishers and magazines, such as The Atlantic Monthly (founded 1857) and the publishers Little, Brown and Company, Houghton Mifflin, and Harvard University Press.
Higher education became increasingly important, not only at Harvard (based across the river in Cambridge) but at other institutions. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) opened in the city in 1865. The first medical school for women, The Boston Female Medical School (which later merged with the Boston University School of Medicine), opened in Boston on November 1, 1848. The Jesuits opened Boston College in 1863; Emerson College opened in 1880, and Simmons College for women in 1899.
To please a different audience, the first vaudeville theater opened on February 28, 1883, in Boston. The last one, the Old Howard in Scollay Square, which had evolved from opera to vaudeville to burlesque, closed in 1953.
The public Boston Museum of Natural History (founded in 1830 and renamed the New England Museum of Natural History in 1864, and the Boston Museum of Science in the mid-twentieth century), was run by the Boston Society of Natural History. It served the function of public and professional education in natural history, including ocean life, geology and mineralogy. Around the end of the 19th century a scientific library and children's rooms were added. It is not to be confused with the private Warren Museum of Natural History at Boston (1858-1906, at 82 Chestnut Street), which was acquired by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1906.
As the population increased rapidly, Boston-area streetcar lines facilitated the creation of a profusion of streetcar suburbs. Downtown congestion worsened, prompting the opening of the first subway in North America on September 1, 1897, the Tremont Street Subway. Between 1897 and 1912, subterranean rail links were built to Cambridge and East Boston, and elevated and underground lines expanded into other neighborhoods from downtown. Today, the regional passenger rail and bus network has been consolidated into the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Two union stations, North Station and South Station were constructed to consolidate downtown railroad terminals.
From the late 19th century until the mid-20th century, the phrase "Banned in Boston" was used to describe a literary work, motion picture, or play prohibited from distribution or exhibition. During this time, Boston city officials took it upon themselves to "ban" anything that they found to be salacious, immoral, or offensive: theatrical shows were run out of town, books confiscated, and motion pictures were prevented from being shown—sometimes stopped in mid-showing after an official had "seen enough". The phrase "banned in Boston" came to suggest something sexy and lurid; some distributors advertised that their products had been banned in Boston, when in fact they had not.
In 1900 Julia Harrington Duff (1850–1932) became the first woman from the Irish Catholic community to be elected to the Boston School Committee. Extending her role as teacher and mother she became an ethnic spokesperson as she confronted the power of the Yankee Protestant men of the Public School Association. She worked to replace 37-year-old textbooks, to protect the claims of local Boston women for career opportunities in the school system, and to propose a degree-granting teachers college. In 1905, the 25 member committee was reduced to five, which blocked women's opportunities for direct participation in school policies.
On January 15, 1919, the Boston Molasses Disaster occurred in the North End. Twenty-one people were killed and 150 injured as an immense wave of molasses, which rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 miles per hour (56 km/h), crushed and asphyxiated many of the victims to death. It took over six months to remove the molasses from the cobblestone streets, theaters, businesses, automobiles, and homes. Boston Harbor ran brown until summer.
During the summer of 1919, over 1100 members of the Boston Police Department went on strike. Boston fell prey to several riots as there were minimal law officers to maintain order in the city. Calvin Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, garnered national fame for quelling violence by almost entirely replacing the police force. The 1919 Boston Police Strike would ultimately set precedent for police unionization across the country.
On August 23, 1927, Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were sent to the electric chair after a seven-year trial in Boston. Their execution sparked riots in London, Paris and Germany, and helped to reinforce the image of Boston as a hotbed of intolerance and discipline.
The I-695 Inner Belt shown on this map was never built. I-95 is shown here approaching the urban core from the southwest, but it was never built beyond the outer loop shown on this map (which was built as Route 128 and which I-95 was later re-routed over).
By 1950, Boston was slumping. Few major buildings were being built anywhere in the city. Factories were closing and moving their operations south, where labor was cheaper. The assets Boston had—excellent banks, hospitals, universities and technical know-how—were minimal parts of the U.S. economy. To combat this downturn, Boston's politicians enacted urban renewal policies, which resulted in the demolition of several neighborhoods, including the New York Streets district in the South End, the old West End, a largely Jewish and Italian neighborhood, and Scollay Square. In their places went a new headquarters for the Boston Herald, the Charles River Park apartment complex, additions to Massachusetts General Hospital, and Government Center. These projects displaced thousands, closed hundreds of businesses, and provoked a furious backlash, which in turn ensured the survival of many historic neighborhoods.
In 1948, William F. Callahan had published the Master Highway Plan for Metropolitan Boston. Parts of the financial district, Chinatown, and the North End were demolished to make way for construction. By 1956, the northern part of the Central Artery had been constructed, but strong local opposition resulted in the southern downtown portion being built underground. The Dewey Square Tunnel connected downtown to the Southeast Expressway. In 1961, the Callahan Tunnel opened, paralleling the older Sumner Tunnel.
By 1965, the first Massachusetts Turnpike Extension was completed from Route 128 to near South Station. The proposed Inner Belt in Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Somerville was canceled due to public outcry. In 1971, public protest canceled the routing of I-95 into downtown Boston. Demolition had already begun along the Southwest Corridor, which was instead used to re-route the Orange Line and Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
During the war years, antisemitic violence escalated in Boston. Gangs largely composed of Irish Catholic youths desecrated Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, vandalized Jewish stores and homes, and physically assaulted Jews in the streets. The Boston police force, which was made up largely of Irish Catholics, seldom intervened.
In 1953, the Columbia Point public housing projects were completed on the Dorchester peninsula. There were 1,502 units in the development on 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land. In 1966, the Columbia Point Health Center opened and was the first community health center in the country.
Between June 14, 1962, and January 4, 1964, as many as thirteen single women between the ages of 19 and 85 were murdered in Boston by the infamous Boston Strangler. (The actual number remains in dispute.)
In the 1970s, after years of economic downturn, Boston boomed again. Financial institutions were granted more latitude, more people began to play the market, and Boston became a leader in the mutual fund industry. Health care became more extensive and expensive, and hospitals such as Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Brigham and Women's Hospital led the nation in medical innovation and patient care. Higher education also became more expensive, and universities such as Harvard, MIT, Boston College, BU and Tufts attracted hordes of students to the Boston area; many stayed and became permanent residents. MIT graduates, in particular, founded many successful high-tech companies, which made Boston second only to Silicon Valley as a high-tech center.
In 1974, the city dealt with a crisis when a federal district court judge, W. Arthur Garrity, ordered desegregation busing to integrate the city's public schools. Racially-motivated violence erupted in several neighborhoods (many white parents resisted the busing plan). Public schools—particularly public high schools—became scenes of unrest and violence. Tension continued throughout the mid-1970s, reinforcing Boston's reputation for discrimination. A famous photograph, The Soiling of Old Glory, was taken in front of Boston City Hall, viscerally depicting the conflict.
The Columbia Point housing complex deteriorated until only 350 families remained living there in 1988. In 1984, the city of Boston gave control of the complex to a private developer, Corcoran-Mullins-Jennison, who re-developed and re-vitalised the property into a residential mixed-income community called Harbor Point Apartments. It is a very significant example of revitalisation and re-development and was the first federal housing project to be converted to private, mixed-income housing in the USA. Harbor Point has won much acclaim for this transformation, including awards from the Urban Land Institute, the FIABCI Award for International Excellence, and the Rudy Bruner Award. It was used as a model for the federal HUD HOPE VI public housing program begun in 1992.
On March 18, 1990, the largest art theft in modern history occurred in Boston. Twelve paintings, collectively worth over $100 million, were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum by two thieves posing as police officers. As of 2010 these paintings have not been recovered.
In 2007, the Central Artery/Tunnel project was completed. Nicknamed the Big Dig, it had been planned and approved in the 1980s under Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. With construction beginning in 1991, the Big Dig moved the remainder of the Central Artery underground, widened the north-south highway, and created local bypasses to prevent east-west traffic from contributing to congestion. The Ted Williams Tunnel became the third highway tunnel to East Boston and Logan International Airport as part of the project. The Big Dig also produced the landmark Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, and will create over 70 acres (280,000 m²) of public parks in the heart of the city. The project as a whole has eased (but not eliminated) Boston's notorious traffic congestion; however, it is the most expensive construction project in United States history and the most expensive construction project in the world.
The city also saw other transportation projects, including improvement and expansion to its mass transit system, notably to its commuter rail system to southeastern Massachusetts and the development of a bus rapid transit (BRT) system dubbed "The Silver Line." The maritime Port of Boston and Logan International Airport were also developed.
Recently, Boston has experienced a loss of regional institutions and traditions, which once gave it a very distinct social character, as it has become part of the northeastern megalopolis. Examples include: the acquisition of the Boston Globe by The New York Times; the loss of Boston-headquartered publishing houses (noted above); the acquisition of the century-old Jordan Marsh department store by Macy's; the increasing rarity of ice-cream shops using cone-shaped scoops; and the loss to mergers, failures, and acquisitions of once-prominent financial institutions such as Shawmut Bank, BayBank, Bank of New England, and Bank of Boston. In 2004, this trend continued as Charlotte-based Bank of America acquired FleetBoston Financial, and P&G has announced plans to acquire Gillette.
Despite these losses, Boston's ambiance remains unique among world cities and, in many ways, has improved in recent years—racial tensions have eased dramatically, city streets bustle with a vitality not seen since the 1920s, and once again Boston has become a hub of intellectual, technological, and political ideas. Nevertheless, the city had to tackle gentrification issues and rising living expenses. According to Money Magazine, Boston is one of the world's 100 most expensive cities.
Boston was the host city of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The city also found itself at the center of national attention in early 2004 during the controversy over same-sex marriages. After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that such marriages cannot be banned under the state's constitution, opponents and supporters of such marriages converged on the Massachusetts State House as the state legislature voted on a state constitutional amendment that would define marriage as only between a man and a woman. Much attention was focused on the city and the rest of Massachusetts when marriage licenses for same-sex couples were issued.
The City of Boston has expanded in two ways - through landfill and through annexation of neighboring municipalities.
Between 1630 and 1890, the city tripled its physical size by land reclamation, specifically by filling in marshes and mud flats and by filling gaps between wharves along the waterfront, a process Walter Muir Whitehill called "cutting down the hills to fill the coves." The most intense reclamation efforts were in the 19th century. Beginning in 1807, the crown of Beacon Hill was used to fill in a 50-acre (20 ha) mill pond that later became the Bulfinch Triangle (just south of today's North Station area). The present-day State House sits atop this shortened Beacon Hill. Reclamation projects in the middle of the century created significant parts of the areas now known as the South End, West End, Financial District, and Chinatown. After The Great Boston Fire of 1872, building rubble was used as landfill along the downtown waterfront.
The most dramatic reclamation project was the filling in of the Back Bay in the mid to late 19th century. Almost six hundred acres (240 hectares) of brackish Charles River marshlands west of the Boston Common were filled in with gravel brought in by rail from the hills of Needham Heights. Boston also grew by annexing the adjacent communities of East Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, West Roxbury (including Jamaica Plain and Roslindale), South Boston, Brighton, Allston, Hyde Park, and Charlestown, some of which were also augmented by landfill reclamation.
Several proposals to regionalize municipal government failed due to concerns about loss of local control, corruption, and Irish immigration, including:
The state government has regionalized some functions in Eastern Massachusetts, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (public transit), the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (water and sewer), and the Metropolitan District Commission (parks, later folded into the state-wide Department of Conservation and Recreation).
Timeline of annexations, secessions, and related developments (incomplete):
Timeline of land reclamation (incomplete):