When an American strolls along the historic and hectic
streets of Massachusetts’ capital city for the first time,
a sense of déjà vu may well arise. Boston Harbor, the
Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of
Bunker Hill, and the revelry of Irish-Americans on
St Patrick’s Day are so ingrained in the national identity
that New England’s largest and most influential
city may well feel familiar.
There is evidence of Native American habitation
as far back as 8,000 years. When the first Europeans,
led by former Church of England cleric William Blackstone,
settled the narrow Shawmut Peninsula at the
mouth of the Charles River in 1625, the dominant
native group was the Massachuset people. After
the British Crown granted the Massachusetts Bay
Company a charter to colonize the area in 1629, the
company dispatched about 800 Puritans, led by John
Winthrop, to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In 1630 the group settled in today’s Charlestown,
between the Mystic and Charles Rivers, but soon joined
Blackstone across the river. The settlement was first
named Trimountaine, after the three large hills that
later residents excavated away for landfill. The theocratic
Pilgrims later named their new home Boston.
Boston’s early economy was based on providing
English immigrants with food and supplies. In the
1640s, they turned to fishing, shipbuilding, and
maritime trade, and the autonomous Massachusetts
Bay Colony was on its way to becoming
the most important city in British America.
Boston was the third-busiest British port by
1700, and the largest city in the colonies until
it was surpassed by Philadelphia in 1760.
When the Crown reestablished control over the
colony, its charter was annulled, and the colony’s first
royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros, arrived in 1686
replacing the intolerant Puritan clergy. He abolished
the colony’s representative assembly, and imposed
taxes without the colonials’ consent. After King
James II was deposed and Andros was sent back
to England, a new royal charter took effect in
1691 that extended the colony’s authority to
Plymouth and Maine. Importantly, it established
an elected popular assembly and extended voting
rights to property-owning non-Puritans.
Bostonians’ opposition to taxation without
representation reached fever pitch when Britain
imposed a series of taxes to help pay the cost of
the French and Indian War (1754–63). After
opposition to the Stamp Act erupted into riots
in 1765, the British government ordered the
military occupation of Boston in 1768. Two
years later British soldiers fired on a mob
and killed five protestors.
In 1773 a group of Bostonians protested
against a tax on tea by tossing almost
45 tons of it into Boston Harbor. (Visitors
can reenact the moment at the Boston Tea Party Ship
& Museum, at the Congress Street Bridge.) In 1775
British troops marched to Concord, launching the
Revolutionary War. The Redcoats suffered terrible
losses at the Battle of Bunker Hill, but won the fight.
They later evacuated the city by sea on March 17,
1776, after General Washington positioned captured
British cannon on Dorchester Heights, overlooking
the city and harbor.
Boston Harbor, the center of maritime commerce
after the Revolutionary War, saw its fortunes decline
during the wars, embargoes, and blockades of the
early nineteenth century. Boston’s businessmen then
turned to textile manufacturing, launching the Industrial
Revolution in America with huge water-powered
mills. As immigrants, particularly Irish fleeing the
potato famine of the 1840s and 1850s, poured into
Boston, cheap labor became readily available. As
the city became dominant in banking, insurance,
and the manufacture of inexpensive clothing, the
grip of the upper-class Yankee (English-descendant)
Republicans on city government began to give way to
Irish Democrats, who saw control of government as a
road to advancement. The city elected the first of many
Irish-American mayors, Hugh O’Brien, in 1885.
Boston’s economy peaked in 1920, but as the
Great Depression deepened in the 1930s, it began a
long and steep decline. Revival began in 1960, but
the 1970s were marred by interracial strife over forced
busing to desegregate public schools. Still, Boston’s
resurrection continued. Boston Harbor, once among
the country’s most polluted, has been cleaned up. The
city is the largest center for banking and insurance in
the northeast, and about 700 high-technology and
electronics companies are in the Boston area. The
$10.8 billion Central Artery/Tunnel Project—The
Big Dig, as it’s called—is being touted as the largest
and most complex highway construction project in
American history. Scheduled to be completed in
2004, it is expected to dramatically reduce the city’s
notorious traffic congestion.
It’s easy to wander through the centuries
in Boston, where history and modernity stand juxtaposed.
High above buildings that were the foundry
of the American nation—such as Faneuil Hall, where
many rousing revolutionary meetings were held—
stand modern edifices like the 60-story John Hancock
Tower, New England’s tallest structure.
The Boston National Historical Park links a
variety of sites (including the 16 sites of the Freedom
Trail) that help visitors gain a coherent view of the
city’s role in American history. The park visitor center
is located at 15 State Street. The park includes South
Boston’s Dorchester Heights, where the colonial army,
led by newly appointed General George Washington,
installed a battery of cannon during the siege of
Boston, thereby forcing the British to evacuate on
March 17, 1776.
In the three-mile Freedom Trail Walking
Tour, visitors can stroll to 16 of Boston’s—and the
nation’s—most important historic sites. Boston Common
is a large green originally set aside in 1634 as a
military training ground and public pasture. It also
served for public hangings. From there the Freedom
Trail zigzags past sites such as the Granary Burying
Ground (1660), where lie the bones of three signatories
of the Declaration of Independence, patriot
Paul Revere, Boston Massacre victims, and Benjamin
Franklin’s parents. It passes the Old South Meeting
House (1729); the Old State House, Boston’s oldest
public building (1713) and the site of the Boston
Massacre (1770); Faneuil Hall (1740) and Quincy
Market; the Paul Revere House (circa 1680); and
the Old North Church (1723), from which a sexton
signaled with two lanterns that British troops were
leaving Boston to seize the militia’s arms cache at
Concord. From there, it crosses the Charles River to
the Charlestown Navy Yard, where the oldest commissioned
US Navy ship, the USS Constitution, is anchored;
then, finally, to the Bunker Hill Monument.
Located in the heart of Boston’s historically
upscale Beacon Hill neighborhood is the Boston
African-American National Historic Site, which
includes 15 pre–Civil War structures related to the
history of the city’s nineteenthcentury
community and Boston’s ardent
opposition to slavery. It includes
the African Meeting House, built
in 1806, the oldest standing
African-American church in
Highlighting the contribution
of women is the Boston Women’s
Heritage Trail, comprising four
interesting walks that each require
about 1 to 1½ hours to complete.
For those with aquatic inclinations
there is the New England
Aquarium, which features more than 12,000 fish
and aquatic animals. The Charles River and Boston
Harbor both offer sailing, canoeing, and kayaking.
The Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation
Area provides a range of outdoor recreation opportunities,
from hiking and camping to picnicking.
Sweeping views of the region can also be gained
from the John Hancock Observatory, atop the
Hancock Tower, where elevators take visitors 740
feet above Boston’s streets.
Art lovers can take in Boston’s Museum of Fine
Arts, while technophobes and technophiles alike will
enjoy the Computer Museum or the Museum of
Science. Sports fans may want to see a Boston Red
Sox baseball game at Fenway Park (built in 1912), a
Celtics basketball game, or Bruins ice hockey match
at the FleetCenter. The annual Boston Marathon is
held on the same day as the Patriots Day celebration,
the third Monday in April. St Patrick’s Day (March 17)
is one of the largest annual celebrations. The week
preceding July 4 is marked by the waterfront Harborfest.
On the Fourth itself, Bostonians bring picnic
lunches to the banks of the Charles River to hear
the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Logan International Airport provides commercial
air service to Boston. The easiest and most affordable
way to get around is the “T,” the system of subways,
buses, trolleys, boats, and commuter trains.