Permanently settled in 1630, Boston was named for the hometown of some of the Puritans who left England to seek religious freedom in the New World. They met with little of the usual strife with the natives, members of the small, Algonquian-speaking Massachuset tribe that roamed the area. The natives grew corn on some harbor islands but made their homes farther inland.
In 1632, the little peninsula known to the Indians as Shawmut became the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the population soon increased rapidly because of the great Puritan migration. Thanks to its excellent location on a deep, sheltered harbor, Boston quickly became a center of shipbuilding, fishing, and trading.
The only thing more important than commerce was religion, and the Puritans exerted such a strong influence that their legacy survives to this day. A concrete reminder is Harvard College's original (1636) mission: preparing young men to be ministers. In 1659, Boston's town fathers officially banned Christmas (the town children apparently had second thoughts -- records show that the holiday was back in favor by the 1680s). Another early example of Puritanical stuffiness was recorded in 1673. One Captain Kemble was sentenced to confinement in the stocks for 2 hours because he kissed his wife on their front steps -- on a Sunday. He had been away for 3 years.
The Road to Revolution
England began exerting tighter control over its colonies as early as the 1680s. Over the years, laws increasing taxes and restricting trading activities led to trouble. The situation came to a head after the French and Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years' War) ended in 1763.
Having helped fight for the British, the colonists were outraged when the Crown expected them to help pay off the war debt. The Sugar Act of 1764 imposed tariffs on sugar, wine, and coffee, mostly affecting those engaged in trade; the 1765 Stamp Act taxed everything printed, from legal documents to playing cards, affecting virtually everyone. Boycotts, demonstrations, and riots ensued. The repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 was no solution -- the revolutionary slogan "No taxation without representation" had already helped rouse the colonists.
The Townshend Acts of 1767 imposed taxes on paper, glass, and tea, sparking more unrest. The following year, British troops occupied Boston, and rising tension led to violence. In the Boston Massacre of 1770, five colonists were killed in a scuffle with the redcoats. The first to die was a former slave named Crispus Attucks. The site, represented by a circle of cobblestones, sits on what is now State Street, and the colonists' graves are nearby, in the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street.
Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts but kept the tea tax and, in 1773, granted the East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade with the colonies. The idea was to undercut the price of smuggled tea, but the colonists weren't swayed. In December, three British ships laden with tea sat at anchor in Boston Harbor (roughly where present-day Atlantic Ave. meets the Evelyn Moakley Bridge), waiting for their cargo to be unloaded. Before that could happen, the rabble-rousing Sons of Liberty, stirred up after a spirited public meeting at what's now the Old South Meeting House, boarded the ships and dumped 342 chests of tea into the harbor. The "Boston Tea Party" became a rallying point for both sides; the meetinghouse stages a re-creation of the inflammatory rally every December.
The British responded by closing the port until the tea was paid for and forcing Bostonians to house the soldiers who began to flood the community. They soon numbered 4,000 in a town of 16,000. Mutual distrust ran high -- Paul Revere wrote of helping form "a committee for the purpose of watching the movements of the British troops." When the royal commander in Boston, Gen. Thomas Gage, learned that the colonists were accumulating arms and ammunition, he dispatched men to destroy the stockpiles. They departed from what's now Charles Street, between Boston Common and the Public Garden, to cross the Charles River. A lantern signal soon illuminated the steeple of the Old North Church, alerting Revere to their route -- the "two if by sea" made famous nearly a century later by Cambridge resident Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
A New World Order
Troops marched from Boston toward Lexington and Concord late on April 18, 1775. On their "midnight ride," William Dawes and Revere alerted the colonists that the British soldiers were on the march. Just north of Harvard Square, horseshoes embedded in the sidewalk show part of Dawes's route. The riders mobilized the local militia companies, or minutemen. The next day, some 700 British soldiers under Maj. John Pitcairn emerged victorious from a skirmish in Lexington. The troops and militia clashed on the town common, a public area that's still known as the "Battle Green." Later that day, the colonists routed the soldiers at Concord near the North Bridge (a replica now stands in its place), forcing them to retreat to Charlestown.
The redcoats took almost an entire day to make the trip, along the route now marked BATTLE ROAD. You can cover it in a car in about a half-hour. Thanks in no small part to Longfellow's 1861 poem "Paul Revere's Ride" ("Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere"), Lexington and Concord are closely associated with the beginning of the Revolution. In the early stages, military activity left its mark all over eastern Massachusetts, particularly in Cambridge. Royalist sympathizers, or Tories, were concentrated so heavily along one stretch of Brattle Street that it was called "Tory Row." When the tide began to turn, George Washington made his headquarters on the same street (in a house later occupied by Longfellow, which is now a National Park Service site). On nearby Cambridge Common is the spot where Washington took command of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775.
The British won the Battle of Bunker Hill in Charlestown on June 17, 1775, but at the cost of half their forces. (Win a trivia contest by knowing that the battle actually took place on Breed's Hill.) The redcoats abandoned Boston the following March 17. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Although many Bostonians fought in the 6-year war that followed, Boston itself saw no more battles.
Commerce & Culture
After the war, Boston again became a center of business. Fishing, whaling, and trade with the Far East dominated the economy. Exotic spices and fruits, textiles, and porcelain from the other side of the world were familiar luxuries in Boston and nearby Salem. The influential merchant families who became known as Boston Brahmins spearheaded a cultural renaissance that flourished even after the War of 1812 ravaged international shipping, ending Boston's commercial heyday. As banking and manufacturing rose in importance, Boston took a back seat to New York and Philadelphia in size and influence. But the "Athens of America" became known for its intellectual community and its fine art and architecture, including the luxurious homes you see today on Beacon Hill.
In 1822, Boston became a city. From 1824 to 1826, Mayor Josiah Quincy oversaw the landfill project that moved the waterfront away from Faneuil Hall. The market building constructed at that time, which still stands, was named in his honor. It's at Dock Square, one of many locations, all over the city, where hilltops were lopped off and deposited in the water, transforming the coastline and skyline. Projects included the filling of the Mill Pond, now the area around North Station, which began in 1807 and in 25 years consumed the summits of Copp's and Beacon hills.
In the 19th century, landfill work tripled the city's area, creating badly needed space. The largest of the projects, started in 1835 and completed in 1882, was the transformation of the Back Bay from mud flats and marshes into the elegant neighborhood you see today.
By the mid-1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Louisa May Alcott, John Greenleaf Whittier, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and even Charles Dickens (briefly) and Mark Twain (more briefly) had appeared on the local literary scene. William Lloyd Garrison published the weekly Liberator newspaper, a powerful voice in the antislavery movement. Boston became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, the secret network the abolitionists developed to smuggle runaway slaves into Canada.
During the Civil War (1861-65), abolitionist sentiment was the order of the day in Boston -- to such a degree that only names of members of the Union Army appear on the rolls listing the war dead in Harvard's Memorial Hall, which is open to the public. Massachusetts's contributions to the war effort included enormous quantities of firearms, shoes, blankets, tents, and men.
Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a former member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, helped recruit the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Colored Regiments. The movie Glory tells the story of the 54th, the first army unit made up of free black soldiers, and its white commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. The regiment's memorial, a gorgeous bas-relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, stands on Boston Common opposite the State House.
A Capital City
The railroad boom of the 1820s and 1830s and the flood of immigration that began soon after made New England an industrial center. Then as now, Boston was the region's unofficial capital. Before and after the Civil War, immigrants from Ireland poured into the city, the first ethnic group to do so in great numbers since the French Huguenots in the early 18th century. Signs reading NO IRISH NEED APPLY became scarce as the new arrivals gained political power, and the first Irish mayor was elected in 1885.
By that time, Boston's class split was a chasm, with the influx of immigrants adding to the social tension. The Irish led the way and were followed by Italian, Portuguese, and eastern European Jewish immigrants. Each group had its own neighborhoods, houses of worship, schools, newspapers, and livelihoods that intersected only occasionally with "proper" society. A small but concrete example: The birthplace of Rose Fitzgerald -- later Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the political dynasty -- is in the North End, an Irish stronghold at her birth in 1890 that soon became a predominantly Italian neighborhood.
Even as the upper crust was sowing cultural seeds that would wind up enriching everyone -- the Boston Symphony, the Boston Public Library, and the Museum of Fine Arts were established in the second half of the 19th century -- its prudish behavior gained Boston a reputation for making snobbery an art form. In 1878 the censorious Watch and Ward Society was founded (as the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice), and the phrase "banned in Boston" soon became well known. In 1889, the private St. Botolph Club removed John Singer Sargent's portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner from public view because her dress was too tight. (It's now at the museum that bears her name.)
The Boston Brahmins could keep their new neighbors out of many areas of their lives, but not politics. The forebears of the Kennedy clan had appeared on the scene -- John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, Rose's father, was elected mayor in 1910 -- and the city slowly transformed yet again as WASPs and Catholics struck an uneasy truce.
World War II bolstered Boston's Depression-ravaged industrial economy, and the war's end touched off an economic transformation. Shipping declined, along with New England's textile, shoe, and glass industries, at the same time that students on the GI Bill poured into area colleges and universities. The rise of the local high-technology industry led to new construction, changing the look of the city. The 1960s saw the beginning of a building boom that continues to this day.
The Turn of the Century
Still reeling from the international social upheaval of the 1960s, Boston was the center of a school-busing crisis in the mid-1970s. Sparked by a court-ordered school desegregation plan enacted in 1974, it touched off riots, violence, and a white boycott (a fair number of Bostonians who were then in high school have GEDs rather than diplomas because their parents held them out of class). In the years since, the city has battled its reputation for racism with varying degrees of success. The school system has yet to fully recover from the traumatic experience of busing, but every year it sends thousands of students on to the institutions of higher learning that continue to be Boston's greatest claim to fame.
Those colleges are also magnets for international students, just one element of the city's profound transformation in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Boston has largely shed its reputation for insularity and become known as one of the "most European" American cities. High-tech businesses helped create a worthy rival for Silicon Valley, and the gentrification that emerged as early as the 1960s continues -- the rapidly changing South End is just one indicator of the trend.
It's not all restaurants and shopping, of course -- for instance, the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal came to light in the Boston Archdiocese, a major presence in this predominantly Catholic area. But social divisions are fading. In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that not allowing same-sex couples to marry violated the state constitution, institutionalizing an attitude that had already taken hold outside the courtroom. The typical reaction to legal gay marriage was, more or less, "What's the big deal?" The election of Deval Patrick, who in 2006 became the second African American since Reconstruction (after Virginia's Douglas Wilder) elected governor, inspired similar sentiments.
Thanks in no small part to the college students who clog rapid transit and drive property values out of sight -- and who stick around after graduation, keeping the cutting edge nice and sharp -- Boston continues to grow and change. A time traveler from the 18th or even 17th century would recognize some parts of the physical city. Its attitude and spirit might be unfamiliar to a visitor from as recently as 20 years ago.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.