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Boston history and timeline

Boston is one of the most iconic and historic cities in the United States. Situated on the natural harbor of Boston Bay, Boston is the largest city in Massachusetts. At times, Boston was the financial center of the United States and the epicenter of the American Revolution. Now, Boston continues to be the cultural hub of New England thanks to its world-class museums, art galleries, and historic monuments.

Let's delve into the history of Boston.

Pre-Colonial Boston

The land that would become Boston was located on the Shawmut Peninsula, nestled within the large network of natural harbors that formed Massachusetts Bay. The peninsula was dominated by three hills that would eventually form some of Boston's neighborhoods – Copps Hill, Fort Hill, and the Trimountain.

Before the arrival of European settlers, the land around Boston was occupied by the Massachusett tribe. However, the peninsula itself was sparsely populated due to its mud flats, which weren't good for growing crops. The Massachusett people were some of the first natives to make contact with European settlers. Unfortunately, this meant that the Massachusett people suffered terrible losses when they came into contact with European diseases like smallpox.

The Arrival of the Europeans and the Birth of Boston

In 1614, the English explorer Captain John Smith sailed up the coast of New England and Maine. Smith named the region 'New England', and his discoveries inspired other settlers to make the journey to the New World.

In 1623, an expedition led by Captain Robert Gorges landed in New England. Among the settlers was a chaplain named William Buxton. After just two years, every other member of the expedition returned to England apart from Buxton, who lived by himself on the Shawmut Peninsula for five years.

Over in England, a group of Puritans led by John Winthrop and Isaac Johnson bought out the bankrupt Massachusetts Bay Company and wanted to establish a self-governing colony to escape religious persecution. In 1629, they led an expedition to New England and landed near the settlement of Charlestown.

However, sickness and a lack of fresh water caused problems for the colonists. Buxton, who had gone to university with Johnson, invited them to move onto his land. The colonists accepted, taking advantage of a nearby natural spring. Before Johnson died, he named the settlement 'Boston' after his hometown in England.

Over the next few years, thousands of Puritans flocked to the settlement. In 1633, there were as many as 4000 settlers. They quickly began expanding the settlement and building a church, a tavern, and establishing a ferry service to nearby Charlestown. Harvard College was also established in 1636.

After arguing with the colonists about who had control of the 800 acres of the Shawmut Peninsula, William Buxton was granted 50 acres of land in 1633. The following year, a one-off tax on Boston's residents allow them to buy 44 acres from Buxton for a fee of approximately $5455 in today's money. This land was opened for public grazing and would eventually become the Boston Common.

Build Up to Revolution

In 1660, the Puritan protectorate established by Oliver Cromwell ended in England as the monarchy was restored under Charles II. Over the next 20 years, the Puritan leaders of Boston feared that the King would revoke their charter and take control of the colony. In 1684, their fears were realized.

Boston was incorporated into the short-lived and unpopular Dominion of New England, an administrative union that placed many of the colonies under the direct control of the King and revoked their charters. In 1689, colonists in Boston revolted against the Royal governor, Sir Edmund Andros.

Andros was arrested by the militia and eventually sent back to London. The Dominion of New England fractured and Massachusetts became part of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. It was given a new provincial charter.

Many of Boston's most famous buildings were built during this era, including the Old State House in 1713 and Old North Church in 1723. The Old South Meeting House was built in 1729 while Faneuil Hall was constructed in 1742.

From the 1630s to the 1760s, Boston suffered a series of tragedies. Six outbreaks of smallpox ravaged the city, with the worst outbreak coming in 1722. Nearly 850 people died and as many as 900 left the city.

In 1755, the Cape Ann earthquake struck the city, although miraculously no one was killed. The earthquake measured approximately 6.3 on the Richter scale, making it the largest earthquake to strike the Northeastern US.

In 1760, the settlement was decimated by the Great Boston fire. Although fires were nothing new, this blaze was particularly destructive – leveling almost 350 buildings and leaving over 1000 residents homeless.

Boston Sparks the American Revolution

During the 1760s, American colonists resented various taxation laws passed by the English Parliament. The colonists didn't have any representation during the passing of these laws. After the Stamp Act in 1765 and the Townshend Act in 1767, matters came to a head.

Many colonists began protesting these acts, and in 1768, British troops were sent to Boston to bring the colony under control. However, in 1770, nine British redcoats opened fire on a crowd of hundreds of protesters, killing five people.

American Patriots like Samuel Adams and Paul Revere began organizing more protests, branding the incident as the Boston Massacre. Although Parliament repealed some of the controversial acts, more would follow. In 1773, the Tea Act was passed, increasing taxes on tea and enabling the East India Company to ship tea directly to the colonies.

The colonists opposed the act, and in December 1773, protesters assembled outside the Old South Meeting House before boarding a tea ship and throwing the shipment into the sea. The demonstration became known as the Boston Tea Party and was viewed as an act of treason. The British responded by revoking Massachusetts's right to self-government and blockading Boston's port.

In defiance, the protesters garnered support from the other colonies, preaching the message of “No taxation without representation” and establishing the First Continental Congress. As British troops advanced, the colonists formed several militias in response. Boston had provided the spark that would ignite the American Revolution and define the emergence of an entire nation.

In April 1775, the British moved to attack the town of Concord, but the colonists were warned thanks to the midnight rides of Revere, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott. The Battle of Lexington and Concord was the first engagement of the American Revolution. The Americans prevailed and pursued the redcoats back to Boston.

The Second Continental Congress was formed to organize the war effort. Under the command of George Washington, the revolutionaries surrounded the city and besieged the British army, which was garrisoned in Boston.

Numerous engagements were fought around the city. Although the British were victorious at the Battle of Bunker Hill, more than 1000 of their troops and officers were killed. In March, the British retreated and the revolutionaries took control of Boston.

Boston Leads the Way

After the Americans won the War of Independence, Boston quickly became one of the leading cities of the young nation. By 1800, Boston was home to nearly 25,000 residents. By 1870, that number had increased tenfold to just over 250,000. During the 1840s, thousands of Irish Catholics migrated to Boston after being forced out of Ireland by the Irish Potato Famine.

Boston's high society was dominated by the 'Boston Brahmins'. This semi-aristocratic class took on the roles of community leaders and became patrons of the arts and philanthropists who funded the construction of hospitals and other social institutions. The city also staged the first Boston Marathon in 1897, organized by the Boston Athletic Association.

In 1872, the city was wracked by yet another Great Boston fire. The blaze raged for 12 hours, destroying approximately 775 buildings – up to 65 acres of downtown Boston – and killing at least 30 residents.

20th and 21st Century Boston

Once one of America's leading cities, Boston began to decline as the 20th Century dawned. The draw of cheaper labor further afield depleted Boston's industrial landscape. In January 1919, Boston experienced more disaster with the Great Molasses Flood. The disaster was caused by a burst molasses tank that sent 2.3 million gallons of molasses through the streets. 21 people died and 150 were injured.

Boston's decline continued despite the completion of infrastructure projects like the Sumner Tunnel and the Massachusetts Turnpike. In November 1942, the Cocoanut Grove Fire killed nearly 500 people as a blaze broke out in a nightclub. In April 2013, three people were killed in the Boston Marathon Bombing, which also injured hundreds of others.

Despite these challenges, Boston continues to be one of the most iconic cities in the United States, meshing its Revolutionary past with sporting success, cultural impact, and tourism.

Famous Landmarks

  • Boston Common – 1634
  • Harvard University – 1636
  • Paul Revere House – 1680
  • Old State House – 1713
  • Old North Church – 1723
  • Old South Meeting House – 1729
  • Faneuil Hall – 1742
  • USS Constitution – Launched in 1797
  • Massachusetts State House – 1798
  • Bunker Hill Monument – 1842
  • Trinity Church – 1877
  • Fenway Park – 1912


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