United States of America
Boston, the capital city of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the seat
of Suffolk County. It is located in the eastern part of the state on Boston Harbor,
an inlet of Massachusetts Bay, at the mouth of the Charles River. Boston is the
largest and most influential city in the six-state New England region. It was one
of the earliest major U.S. cities to be settled by Europeans (1625) and the largest
city in the British American colonies. The American Revolution (1775-1783) began
in the Boston area.
At the end of the 20th century, Boston was the focus of economic activity, communications,
and transportation in New England and was one of the major centers of higher education
in the United States. The city is scenically located along the waters of the Charles
River and Boston Harbor. It has a compact, walkable city center, which is dotted
with sites of historic interest dating to colonial times.
Boston has humid summers and moderately cold winters. Temperatures in January average
a high of 2°C (36°F) and a low of -6°C (22°F); July temperatures average a high
of 28°C (82°F) and a low of 18°C (65°F). The city averages 1,100 mm (42 in) of precipitation
Boston and Its Metropolitan Area
The heart of the modern city is the compact downtown area, which serves as the city’s
commercial and financial district. This area contains a number of historical landmarks,
including the Old State House, Granary Burial Ground, and Old South Meeting House.
Old South Meeting House is where American revolutionary leaders Samuel Adams, James
Otis, and John Hancock conducted many of the protest meetings leading to the American
On the southern end of the district is Chinatown, with its concentration of Chinese
restaurants and food stores. To the north is an area known as Government Center,
developed in the 1960s. City Hall and the John F. Kennedy Federal Building are located
there. Not far from Government Center are two Boston landmarks: Faneuil Hall, built
in 1742 as a public market and a place for town meetings, and Quincy Market, a retail
and wholesale distribution center for meat and produce that was renovated in 1976
to form a festive food market.
To the west of the downtown is Boston Common, an open area originally reserved by
colonists for grazing cattle. The Common is the oldest public park in the United
States. The State House, which serves as the state capitol building, stands at the
north end of the Common. Built from 1795 to 1798 by U.S. architect Charles Bulfinch,
the gold-domed statehouse dominates Beacon Hill, a neighborhood that has been the
traditional home of wealthy Bostonians. The neighborhood remains a prime address
and contains many historical houses with handsome brick facades. Founded in 1807,
Boston Athenaeum moved to its present building on Beacon Street in 1847. Privately
operated and opened to members and their guests, the Athenaeum is one of the oldest
libraries in the United States. It has notable historical collections on the American
Civil War (1861-1865) and the works of 19th-century antislavery activists known
as abolitionists, as well as other 19th-century materials and a rare book collection
that includes 15th- and 16th-century materials.
The West End, which borders Beacon Hill north of Cambridge Street, changed radically
as a result of urban renewal projects. In the 1960s the city razed tenements in
the area. The Charles River apartment complex now dominates the neighborhood. One
survivor of the razing was Massachusetts General Hospital, incorporated in 1811
and one of the nation’s leading medical institutions. Northeast of the hospital,
in an old commercial district, is the FleetCenter, a sports and music arena opened
in 1995 to replace an aging facility, Boston Garden. The Boston Celtics of the National
Basketball Association (NBA) and the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League
(NHL) play at the FleetCenter. The Museum of Science is located north of the hospital
on the Charles River Dam.
Northeast of the downtown is the North End, the site of historic buildings such
as the house of American patriot Paul Revere, the Old North Church, and Copp’s Hill
Burying Ground. Paul Revere’s House is the oldest surviving house in Boston. It
is the place where he departed on his historic ride in 1775 to warn anti-British
forces in Lexington and Concord of the approach of British troops sent to seize
military supplies held by the colonists. Old North Church is the city’s oldest church.
The North End is separated from the downtown by the Fitzgerald Expressway (Boston’s
main north-south traffic artery). Known as Boston’s little Italy, the North End
is a district of Italian restaurants, groceries, and three-story brick apartment
buildings. During August, festivals and religious celebrations take place on the
North End’s narrow streets.
Water separates two of Boston’s neighborhoods from the rest of the city. Across
Boston’s Inner Harbor, East Boston straddles Logan Airport. It is predominately
an Italian neighborhood of one-, two-, and three-family homes. Charlestown, located
across the Charles River, has long been a tightly knit, middle-class Irish community,
although it began attracting professionals to its central area starting in the 1980s.
Bunker Hill Monument and Museum are found here as well as the Boston Navy Yard,
a National Park Service Historic Site. It is the site of the USS Constitution
the oldest commissioned warship in the United States.
The Back Bay was created by landfill in the late 1800s to the west of Beacon Hill
and Boston Common. Today it is a residential area of brownstone townhouses laid
out on a grid pattern of streets dominated by the wide east-west boulevard of Commonwealth
Avenue. Commercial centers are located on Copley Square, Boylston and Newbury Streets,
and at the Prudential Center. Two important architectural sites at Copley Square
are the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church. Boston’s two tallest buildings,
the John Hancock Building and the Prudential Center, dominate the skyline of the
Separated by the Massachusetts turnpike (Interstate 90) from the Back Bay area,
the South End is a trendy and diversified neighborhood with many upscale restaurants,
art galleries, and renovated Victorian row houses. West of the South End is Fenway,
one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city. The population has
substantial numbers of African Americans and Hispanics and includes the largest
concentration of Asians in Boston. The Fenway area is notable for its educational,
cultural, and recreational facilities. Boston University, the New England Conservatory
of Music, Northeastern University, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart
Gardner Museum, and the world headquarters of the Christian Science Church are located
here. Fenway Park, one of the oldest baseball parks in Major League Baseball, was
built in 1912 for the Boston Red Sox.
East of the South End, across a narrow strip of water known as the Fort Point Channel,
is South Boston. Once called America’s Dublin, South Boston housed a host of immigrants
by 1900, many from Ireland. The area has maintained its ethnic and economic diversity
as well as its attractive Victorian architecture. Boston Children’s Museum and the
neighboring Computer Museum are located in the area.
The remaining neighborhoods lie west and south of the city center. Roxbury is a
largely black neighborhood and one of the poorest residential areas. Franklin Park,
the city’s largest park, is located here. Dorchester evolved from an upscale Victorian-era
suburb to a working-class community, first attracting Irish-Americans and Jews and
later a mixture of ethnic groups and blacks.
Jamaica Plain, one of the first U.S. suburbs connected to a major city by streetcars,
is a residential area with a mixture of Hispanic, black, and white populations.
Arnold Arboretum and Jamaica Pond are located here. Roslindale remains a quiet,
predominately white, working-class community full of families and three-story houses.
Roslindale borders West Roxbury, a predominately white, middle-class area, and Mattapan,
a predominantly black residential area. Hyde Park still resembles a suburban town.
The neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton occupy the northwest corner of the city
to the west of Fenway. The Allston-Brighton area is bordered to the east, north,
and west by the Charles River and to the south by the Massachusetts Turnpike and
the town of Brookline. It is an industrial and residential neighborhood that is
also the location of Boston College and Harvard University Business School. Boston
has been unsuccessful in annexing Brookline, the birthplace of U.S. president John
F. Kennedy and an affluent suburb only 6 km (4 mi) from the center of Boston.
Boston’s greater metropolitan area includes the 282 cities and towns that make up
the Boston Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA). The smaller Boston
Primary Metropolitan Statistical Area (PMSA)—with 129 cities and towns in 1990—encompasses
many suburban communities that are closely linked to Boston. Large communities in
the surrounding area include Revere, Everett, Somerville, Cambridge, Newton, Brookline,
Dedham, Milton, and Quincy. Suburbs fan out to the south and west, and extend north
to the New Hampshire border.
Boston offers several walking tours of historical locations. The Freedom Trail connects
16 locations that make up Boston National Historical Park, including major sites
of the American Revolution. The trail begins at Boston Common. It passes the site
of the Boston Massacre in front of the Old State House, where British troops opened
fire on a mob of citizens in 1770. The trail continues to the Granary Burying Ground
next to the Park Street Church, where the victims of the Boston Massacre and revolutionary
patriots Paul Revere and John Hancock are buried. Other stops include Old South
Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s House, Old North Church, and the Bunker
Hill Monument. The Freedom Trail ends in Charlestown at the Bunker Hill Monument,
the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major military confrontation of
the American Revolution. The name “Battle of Bunker Hill” is a misnomer, as the
actual battle site and the monument are located on Breed’s Hill, a short distance
from Bunker Hill.
Another important walking tour, the Black Heritage Trail, traces the history of
African Americans in Boston. It includes major sites such as the Abiel Smith School,
the first public school for black children; the African Meeting House on Beacon
Hill, the oldest black church building still standing in the United States; and
the Charles Street Meeting House, where 19th
-century abolitionists, such
as William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth, spoke in favor of abolishing slavery
in the United States.
Along the waterfront, a multi-billion-dollar effort has transformed Boston Harbor
from one of the most polluted harbors in the United States into one of the cleanest.
During the 1990s, people again began setting traps for lobsters, and harbor seals
have returned. In the nation’s first urban aquaculture project aimed at raising
fish for the commercial market, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) in the neighboring city of Cambridge have successfully raised edible fish
using untreated harbor water.
Boston’s population peaked in 1935 with 817,713 people. In 1950, from a population
of 801,444, the city began a slow decline in the number of inhabitants that was
to last for three decades. During the 1980s and 1990s the population of Boston slowly
increased again. By 2000 the city’s population was 589,141. The Boston Consolidated
Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) had a population of 5,819,100 in 2000. Physically,
Boston is quite small at about 126 sq km (about 49 sq mi), ranking 69th in physical
size among U.S. cities. However, Boston has one of the highest population densities
among cities nationally, with about 4,700 persons per sq km (about 12,000 per sq
mi) in 2000.
At the time of the 2000 census whites made up 54.5 percent of Boston’s population,
blacks 25.3 percent, Asians 7.5 percent, Native Americans 0.4 percent, Native Hawaiians
and other Pacific Islanders 0.1 percent, and those of mixed heritage or not reporting
race 12.2 percent. Hispanics, who can be of any race, made up 14.4 percent. In contrast,
in the Boston Metropolitan region in 2000 whites made up 85.1 percent, Hispanics
(who may be of any race) 6.2 percent, blacks 5.1 percent, and Asians 4.0 percent.
In the city of Boston, the three largest ancestry groups in 2000 were African American,
Irish, and Italian. About one in four Bostonians was foreign-born. Two out of three
speak only English, while one in eight speaks Spanish. The next four most commonly
spoken languages are French, Chinese, Portuguese, and Vietnamese.
Boston was the largest city in the British colonies until 1760, when Philadelphia
surpassed it. Boston’s inhabitants exceeded 100,000 in the 1840s, reached 250,000
in 1870, and then more than doubled in size to 560,892 by 1900. Boston had 20 percent
of the population of Massachusetts at that time. With a nearly identical population
size in 2000, however, it had only 9 percent of the state’s inhabitants.
Boston’s population decline in the mid-20th century was due to several factors:
urban renewal, which removed high-occupancy tenements and replaced them with new
construction; the expansion of commercial office space into areas that had once
been residential; and freeway construction, which made the movement of people to
suburban communities easier.
Boston was undergoing a reduction in the number of family households during the
1990s. About 75 percent of new residents were single people from age 18 to 40. The
Boston Redevelopment Authority has reclassified neighborhoods into five demographic
groups: older family, younger family, mixed family and singles, young singles, and
In Suffolk County (Boston, Brookline, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop), the number
of people who do not adhere to any religion slightly surpasses the number who follow
Judaism or Christianity. Of those committed to a religion, Roman Catholics make
up more than half, followed by Protestants, who make up slightly less than one-third
of the population, and Jews, who account for a little more than one-tenth. Nearly
one-third of Protestants are Southern Baptists, many of whom are black. Other religions
practiced in Boston include Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.
Education and Culture
Boston was an educational forerunner, both as part of a British colony and as a
U.S. city. In the British colonies, the city established the first free public school
in 1635 and the first public library in 1653. As part of the United States, it founded
the first high school for girls in 1825 and the first kindergarten in 1860. Boston
has continued to be a leader in education with more than 65 colleges and universities
in the metropolitan area. Well-known institutions include Northeastern University,
Boston University, the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts, Boston
College, and the New England Conservatory of Music, all located in Boston; Harvard
University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; Brandeis University
in Waltham; Tufts University in Medford; and Wellesley College in Wellesley.
Boston’s cultural heritage also includes American literature. The Atlantic Monthly
the oldest general magazine published in the United States, was the voice of liberal
Boston when it was launched from the Old Corner Bookstore in 1857 under the editorship
of writer James Russell Lowell. Under the direction of writer and publisher James
Fields, who edited the Atlantic Monthly
and was the publisher of many of
the foremost American writers of the time, the bookstore became a gathering place
of 19th-century writers. These writers included essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and
Henry David Thoreau, writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, social reformer
Julia Ward Howe, and novelists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Boston and the surrounding area have been home to poets Phillis Wheatley (an 18th-century
African slave), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell. Among
the notable black leaders who attended universities in the Boston area are intellectual
W.E.B. Du Bois (Harvard University), Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West (Boston
University), and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (Boston University’s
School of Divinity).
Boston has a rich cultural life. The celebrated Museum of Fine Arts, established
in 1876, houses American, European, Egyptian, Chinese, and Japanese collections.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Fenway neighborhood holds a personal
collection of European and American paintings, sculpture, textiles, and furnishings.
The collection was willed to the city following the death of art collector Isabella
Stewart Gardner in 1924. The exhibits are housed in Gardner’s former home, Fenway
Court. Other museums of note include the Children’s Museum, the Boston Museum of
Science, and the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. A unique museum is located
in Charlestown aboard the USS Constitution
, the world’s oldest commissioned
warship afloat. The Boston Public Library, with one of the nation’s largest collections,
contains murals by U.S. painters John Singer Sargent and Edwin Austin Abbey.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881, and the Boston Pops, with its repertoire
of lighter music, provide world-class music to the city. The Boston Ballet Company,
the Boston Lyric Opera, and an active theater district are among the abundant cultural
offerings of the city.
Boston is a walkable city at the sea’s edge with a strong park tradition. Boston
Common is the oldest public park in the United States, set aside in 1634 as a pasture
and militia training ground. Today it is a welcome 18-hectare (44-acre) green space
in the heart of the city. In the summer, concerts are held in the Common. Across
from the Common is the Public Garden, the first botanical garden in the country
and a popular recreation area noted for the swan boats on the lake.
Nearly 100 years ago, U.S. landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted enhanced Boston’s
park system by designing an “Emerald Necklace” of open spaces throughout the city.
Olmsted transformed a marshland in the Back Bay into a park of pools and meadows
called The Fens. It has the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner
Museum at its edge. Olmsted also designed 200-hectare (500-acre) Franklin Park,
which is noted for its zoo. The zoo houses the African Tropical Forest Pavilion,
an enclosed tropical environment, and Bird’s World, a walk-through aviary. Nearby
in Jamaica Plain, the Arnold Arboretum maintains more than 14,000 trees, flowers,
and shrubs. Harvard University administers the arboretum as a research and educational
A number of recreational areas adjoin the shoreline of Boston. Charles River Esplanade
is a series of paths and open spaces along the Charles River. It is popular for
bicyclists, joggers, and for summer performances of the Boston Pops Orchestra at
the open-air Hatch Shell auditorium. In the 1990s the city drew up plans for the
Harborwalk project to connect and open to the public 49 miles of paths and parks
along the waters of Boston Harbor. The proposed system would extend from Dorchester
through the North End to Charlestown and across the bay to East Boston. This emerging
project included Christopher Columbus Park, which joins the waterfront on the edge
of the downtown area to Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
Professional sports teams in the city include the Boston Red Sox in baseball, the
Boston Celtics in basketball, and the Boston Bruins in ice hockey. The New England
Patriots in football and the New England Revolution in soccer are based in nearby
Sports in Boston and its immediate region have a rich history. Innovations and firsts
in a number of sports helped shape recreational pursuits nationally during the 20th
century. The first book on baseball was published in Boston in 1834. Charles C.
Waite, the first baseman for a Boston amateur team, introduced the first baseball
glove in 1875. Boston also hosted the first baseball World Series game on October
1, 1903. The first NBA all-star game was played in Boston Garden in 1951. The golf
tee was patented in Boston in 1899. In track, the Boston Marathon, starting in Hopkinton
and ending in Boston, became the first annual marathon race in the United States
in 1897. The 42-km (26-mi) marathon takes place each year on Patriot’s Day, the
third Monday in April.
The diverse ethnic populations of Boston celebrate many annual events, including
the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on March 17, the Italian street festivals held on
weekends in August, and the Chinese August Moon festival in Chinatown.
Boston has three important economic sectors. The first sector is financial services,
in which the Boston region is the largest center for banking and insurance in the
northeastern United States. The second is the health care industry, in which many
workers are employed in the 16 teaching hospitals and other medical research institutions
in Boston. The final sector is the high-technology industry, which includes firms
producing products in electronics, instruments, computers, office machinery, and
In the late 1990s printing and publishing were the city’s leading manufacturing
employers, continuing Boston’s long tradition as a major book publisher and magazine
and journal publishing center. Publishing in America began in Boston when Stephen
Daye, a locksmith who migrated from Cambridge, England, brought the nation’s first
printing press to the city. It went into operation in 1639.
In 1994 the U.S. Census estimated 42 percent of the personal income of the city’s
labor force came from service industries; 20 percent from finance, insurance, or
real estate; 15 percent from government; 6 percent from manufacturing; and 5 percent
from retail trade. Leading components of the service category are engineering and
research, legal services, business services, health services, and amusement services.
Boston is the hub of New England’s transportation system and helps to connect the
economy within the metropolitan region. It has a network of expressways that enter
the city from the north, west, and south, as well as a series of circular highways
that ring the city. Boston has the nation’s first subway system, which opened in
1895. It moves people within the city and between Boston and nearby suburbs such
as Cambridge, Chelsea, Revere, and Milton. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation
Authority runs rapid transit, commuter rail, and ferry routes. An intercity bus
system provides services to about two-thirds of the communities in the metropolitan
region. The port of Boston handles few commuters but is important for trade and
commerce. Logan International Airport in East Boston is one of the busiest in the
country, especially for transatlantic passengers.
Throughout the 1990s central Boston was the site of one of the nation’s largest
public works projects. The Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project, called “The
Big Dig,” will replace elevated highways built in the 1950s. It is estimated that
it will cost $14 billion and is scheduled to be completed by 2004. This project
is expected to transform the central city by reducing automobile congestion and
providing 20 acres of parks and open spaces. The first phase of the project, the
Ted Williams Tunnel, connected East Boston to South Boston under Boston Harbor.
The tunnel opened to traffic in December 1995. The project, in the heart of the
city, has meant traffic delays and congestion for commuters and residents. Construction
delays are expected to postpone the opening and increase the cost of the new underground
In the 1990s Boston’s government functioned under a mayor elected every four years.
Thomas M. Menino began his second term as mayor in January 1998.
The city’s legislative body, the Boston City Council, is composed of 13 elected
members (four at-large and nine by district), and they serve a two-year term commencing
in January of even-numbered years. Council members elect a president for a one-year
term. Boston has 71 neighborhoods within 15 planning districts. Politically, Boston
and a majority of the suburban cities and towns to its north and west have been
consistently liberal in political philosophy and supportive of the Democratic Party
since the election of U.S. president John F. Kennedy in 1960.
A major contemporary issue in Boston is whether or not ethnic groups will share
political power as the city moves into the 21st century. The city, once dominated
by ethnically Irish politicians, became more politically diverse toward the end
of the 20th century. The election of Mayor Thomas Menino in 1993 ended 60 years
of unbroken rule by mayors of Irish ancestry. Ethnic groups have continued to vie
for power, but as of the late 1990s none had formed a coalition strong enough to
dominate city politics.
Among major U.S. cities, Boston has a long tradition of elective local government.
Puritan settlers, members of a Protestant religious group that dissented from England’s
official church, established Boston’s earliest government. Colonists pledged allegiance
to the king of England, but exercised majority rule as the form of local government.
The town was the earliest self-governing unit in Massachusetts. Boston and seven
other nearby towns incorporated in 1630. Eligible adult males passed laws and approved
expenditures during open forums known as town meetings.
After 1660 the English government tightened control over the colonies, but citizens
in Boston and other towns zealously protected their right to control taxation and
legislation at the local level. Conflict over these issues contributed to the outbreak
of the American Revolution (1775-1783), in which 13 British American colonies achieved
independence as the United States of America. A growing Boston discarded the town
meeting forum in 1822 and became a city governed by council committees and a mayor.
Boston, as well as the other cities and towns of Massachusetts, govern under the
provisions of the state constitution, the only original state constitution still
in effect in the nation. Statesman and future U.S. president John Adams drew up
the constitution at the state convention of 1779. The document established the principle
of separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches
of government, and assured the protection of specifically stated rights to individual
citizens. Many of its features were later incorporated into the Constitution of
the United States.
In the Boston area, numerous Native American archaeological sites exist dating from
6000 to 4000 BC. By the time of contact with Europeans around AD 1600, the major
Native American group in the area was the Massachuset group, made up of the Nonatum,
Wessagunset, and Neponset peoples. These Native Americans survived by hunting, fishing,
collecting shellfish, and growing crops on a small scale. They lived in villages
and spoke a form of the Algonquian language.
The first recorded voyage from Europe to the area was an exploration of the New
England coast by Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. In 1605 and 1606 French explorer
Samuel de Champlain charted the waters along the coast. In 1614 English captain
John Smith explored Massachusetts Bay and noted the well-populated Native American
villages. Europeans who came to the area introduced diseases that decimated the
Native American population. In 1616 and 1617 the tribes in the Boston area were
devastated by an epidemic with mortality rates as high as 80 or 90 percent. The
dramatic loss of population crippled indigenous society and contributed to the destruction
of the native culture of New England.
In 1625 William Blackstone, a former clergyman in the Church of England, became
the first European to settle the narrow, irregular peninsula known to the Native
Americans as Shawmut. Blackstone placed an orchard on the site that would later
become Boston Common.
In 1629 the king of England granted a charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company,
a group of businessmen interested in trade in the colony. Puritans soon dominated
the company. In 1630 John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arrived
in the area with about 700 Puritans. Winthrop’s group established a settlement in
Charlestown, but later that year they moved and joined Blackstone on the Shawmut
peninsula. The community was first known as Trimountaine because of the three large
hills that dominated the peninsula. The colonists later renamed it Boston after
the English town in Lincolnshire from which some of the settlers came.
The charter empowering the Massachusetts Bay Company to trade and colonize the area
omitted a usual clause requiring the company to hold its business meetings in England.
The Puritan stockholders therefore were able to transfer control of the colony to
America. They established a government under the control of Puritan leaders, who
were members of the Congregationalist Church. Only church members could vote, and
biblical law functioned as the primary law in church and state.
Puritan leaders were intolerant of any public criticism of their basic program.
When religious reformer Anne Hutchinson questioned the authority of the clergy,
she was banished from Boston in 1638. Others whose beliefs differed, such as clergyman
Roger Williams, were also banished from the colony. Mary Dyer and other Quakers
(members of the Society of Friends religious group) who returned again and again
after being banished for their beliefs were hanged.
In the first years of the colony’s existence, Bostonians made a living providing
food and services for the large number of immigrants coming to the area from England.
After the heavy migration from England sharply declined in the 1640s, the colonists
turned to the sea for new sources of income in fishing, shipbuilding, and overseas
trade. The Shawmut Peninsula offered an ideal setting for a seaport. To aid their
shipbuilding, colonists used the surrounding forests, which they also relied on
to build furniture and wagons. Boston had limited agricultural lands, but it served
as the commercial capital for agricultural expansion to the west, especially in
the Connecticut River valley.
When the Puritans gained political power in England in the mid-17th century, trade
and migration between Boston and London flourished. In the 1640s Boston ships carried
dried cod to feed the African slaves who worked on the plantations in the British
West Indies. By the 1670s Boston dominated the West Indian shipping business. By
1700 it was the third busiest port of the British Empire and the leading seaport
for trade with the British American colonies.
Boston had three triangular foreign trade routes that were important sources of
wealth. The first triangular route took rum from Massachusetts to trade for slaves
on the west coast of Africa, who were carried to the West Indies and exchanged for
sugar and molasses, which went back to the colony to be made into rum. The second
route took fish, lumber, and horses to the West Indies for sugar, which was taken
to England to be traded for manufactured goods to be sold in the colonies. The third
route took fish, food, timber, and fur to southern Europe to be traded for wine,
spices, silk, and fruit, which was traded to England for manufactured goods for
the colonies. By the end of the 17th century Boston’s fleet of ships was exceeded
in the British Empire only by those of London and Bristol.
While the economy prospered during this period, the colony’s political relationship
with England became tense. The royal government tried to establish greater control
over Massachusetts by annulling the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter. In 1686
Sir Edmund Andros arrived as the first royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts
Bay. His arrival established the authority of the crown in Boston and ended the
political domination of the Puritan church. Although the Congregational clergy remained
influential, the lines of authority had altered.
Andros was not a popular governor. He ruled as a virtual dictator, abolishing the
representative assembly, limiting town meetings to once a year, and taxing citizens
without their consent. In 1689, when word reached the colonies that a revolution
had deposed James II of England, colonists arrested Andros and returned him to England.
Towns throughout the region successfully demanded a new royal charter, which went
into effect in 1691. Under the new charter, an elected popular assembly assisted
the governor. The charter also extended the right to vote to citizens who owned
a minimum amount of property, rather than merely to those who belonged to the Congregational
Boston became the cradle of American independence from Britain in the late 18th
century. Protestors stirred up anti-British sentiment after the British government
approved a series of taxes on colonists to pay the cost of the French and Indian
War (1754-1763). Boston merchants and workers staunchly resisted the Stamp Act of
1765, which required the purchase of a government stamp for all legal documents
and newspapers. The colonists viewed the act as “taxation without representation.”
To counter opposition to the Stamp Act, the British government ordered a military
occupation of Boston in 1768. In 1770 British soldiers fired on a mob and killed
five citizens in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Aggravating the situation
further, patriots protested a tax on tea by tossing shiploads of tea into the harbor
in 1773 in what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. The British retaliated
by closing the port in 1774 and sending more troops to Boston, virtually ensuring
a military confrontation.
The American Revolution began near Boston soon after Britain closed the port. In
April 1775 British troops marched from Boston to nearby Concord to seize the weapons
hidden by colonists. Local militia members, known as minutemen, fired the first
shots of the American Revolution at nearby Lexington and Concord on April 19. The
British retreated to Boston but an American army soon took up positions on the hills
surrounding the city.
At the Battle of Bunker Hill, on June 17, 1775, the British attacked rebel fortifications
in Charlestown. Although the British forced an American retreat, they suffered substantial
losses. Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts
and the political revolutionary leader who held the colonial army together in the
period between the battles at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill,
was killed near the end of the battle. British control of the city ended after General
George Washington, the newly appointed commander of the American colonial army,
installed a battery of artillery cannons on Dorchester Heights. This position gave
the rebels the ability to shell the city and to control access to Boston Harbor.
The British evacuated the city by sea on March 17, 1776 and the fighting never again
Following the American Revolution, Boston became the maritime center of the new
country. However, maritime activities were soon dampened by military conflicts between
Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). Both Britain and France
threatened to seize ships trading with the opposing side. In 1807 U.S. president
Thomas Jefferson declared a trade embargo, or economic boycott, against European
nations. He declared the embargo in an effort to avoid conflict and to assert the
rights of neutral nations to trade freely without interference. When the United
States went to war against Britain during the War of 1812, a British blockade of
U.S. ports further damaged Boston’s trading economy.
To overcome the loss of the trading, Boston entrepreneurs began to invest in textile
manufacturing, a profitable and more secure commercial venture. Boston merchants,
shippers, shipowners, and traders started the new industry on a large scale, launching
the U.S. industrial revolution. They developed new techniques of manufacturing and
distributing their products to markets; recruited, trained, and housed a labor force;
and contributed to the construction of transportation systems. By 1850 Boston’s
wealthy industrialists controlled virtually all of New England’s cotton textile
mills, 40 percent of Boston’s banks, and 38 percent of the state’s insurance industry.
Boston industrialized with a high proportion of workers involved in manufacturing
and nonagricultural activities.
As the economy shifted from trade to manufacturing, the physical appearance of the
city also changed under the direction of the nation’s first major architect, Charles
Bulfinch (1763-1844). Politically active, Bullfinch served as chairman of the board
of selectmen of Boston for 19 years. He also developed a new style of architecture,
known as the Federal style, which transformed the city. His work was characterized
by the extensive use of brick, trimmed with white painted timber or occasionally
Bulfinch’s early work included a number of West End mansions, which helped stimulate
the movement of prosperous merchants into the neighborhood. He also designed the
Tontine Crescent of sixteen connected houses on Franklin Street, which brought elegance
to the South End. His work also included the central portion of the present-day
State House above the Common on Beacon Hill. The new State House helped convert
nearby Beacon Hill into an elegant residential district.
Boston was a center for social reform movements during the 1800s. The city was an
early meeting ground for the 19th-century Transcendental movement led by essayist
and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, with followers such as writer and philosopher Henry
David Thoreau, social reformer Margaret Fuller, and novelists Louisa May Alcott
and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the 1830s Boston became a center of opposition to slavery
when William Garrison, a leader of the abolitionist movement, began publication
of the antislavery newspaper The Liberator
Throughout the 19th century Boston needed more land because its population and industrial
and commercial businesses had increased. As the demand for land grew, hills were
leveled to fill in the coves, and the landscape of the city changed radically. As
a result the original physical landscape of the Shawmut peninsula was unrecognizable
by the end of the 19th century.
Originally a thin bridge of land at its south end connected Boston to the mainland.
The Charles River divided the peninsula from the mainland on the west and to the
north. Along the riverbank stretched the Back Bay, a series of mud flats and salt
marshes covered by water at high tide. On the east, an extension of the harbor known
as Town Cove divided Boston into the North End and the South End. Through the center
of the peninsula rose the Trimountain, three hills known as Mount Vernon, Beacon
Hill, and Pemberton Hill (more commonly called Cotton Hill).
By 1867 Boston had expanded from the original settlement of 318 hectares (786 acres)
to more than 1,600 hectares (4,000 acres) as a result of numerous landfill projects
beginning as early as 1803. Mount Vernon and Pemberton Hill were leveled, as was
much of Beacon Hill, which is now only a fraction of its former height. Much of
the earth removed from those sites went into filling the coves along Boston’s coast.
By the mid-1800s, most of the coves had disappeared. Fill on both sides of the narrow
neck that connected the peninsula and the mainland created a new South End, and
two new neighborhoods—the Back Bay and South Boston—emerged on land reclaimed from
the Charles River and Boston Harbor. As a result, central Boston was no longer a
peninsula, but was joined by land to the communities on its south and west.
The city also grew by annexing nearby towns and villages, beginning with Roxbury
in 1867. Other communities followed: Dorchester in 1869; Roslindale, Allston, and
Brighton in 1873; Jamaica Plain and Charlestown in 1874. The last community to be
annexed was Hyde Park in 1912. By 1900 the central city was part of an enormous
industrial metropolis of more than a million people, about a third of whom were
The social character of the city also changed greatly in the second half of the
19th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, Boston’s population was made
up almost entirely of Yankees—descendants of English settlers. In the 1840s and
1850s an influx of Irish immigrants poured into Boston because of a catastrophic
potato blight in Ireland that led to widespread famine. By 1855 about 50,000 Irish
constituted almost one-third of Boston’s population. Boston offered few economic
opportunities to the largely unskilled Irish immigrants. Irish women working as
domestic servants provided the main economic support for many families. The poor
conditions in which they lived, their Roman Catholic religious affiliation, and
cultural differences, resulted in a great deal of discrimination against the Irish.
During the American Civil War, families from rural areas moved to Boston because
laborers were needed to replace people who had gone to war. This influx helped make
Boston the nation’s fourth largest manufacturing city by 1865. After the war, French
Canadians and later Italians, Russian Jews, and Scandinavians arrived in the city.
By 1870 Boston became a major center for the manufacture of inexpensive, ready-made
clothing because of a surplus of cheap immigrant labor and the availability of locally
manufactured textiles. Various other industries, such as piano factories, ironworks,
and distilleries followed. In addition, Boston became a key center for banking and
The large immigration into Boston altered the city’s political structure as well.
Irish, Catholic, working-class immigrants became the muscle of the Democratic Party
after the Civil War. In 1885 the first Irish mayor Hugh O’Brien was elected. This
election started to tip the balance of power away from the predominantly English,
upper-class Yankees and the Republican Party to the growing ethnic groups and the
The Irish took to politics with a remarkable flair and efficiency. They worked to
achieve a measure of security and ethnic solidarity in Boston because they had been
denied access to power in Britain and were often despised as aliens in their adopted
land. With most ways to economic advancement closed to them, politics provided a
road to power and influence as well as a way to assist their own people. One of
Boston’s most colorful politicians was James Michael Curley, an Irish-American who
served 15 years as mayor off and on between 1914 and 1950. Curley also served as
governor of Massachusetts from 1935 to 1937 and as U.S. representative for one of
Boston’s congressional districts from 1943 to 1947. Curley showed that the combined
votes of the city’s ethnic groups could be a powerful force in Boston. Solid majorities
in the Irish, Italian, Jewish, and African American wards were sufficient for a
candidate to gain election over a Yankee contender who held the Beacon Hill and
Back Bay wards and the middle-class neighborhoods to the south and west.
Curley was a superb politician. His colorful speeches and appeals to ethnic pride
gained him widespread support. As mayor, he opened City Hall to the people of the
city and dispensed jobs and favors directly to his constituency. Thus he stripped
political power from neighborhood politicians and built a direct base of support
among voters who benefited from his assistance. Using the power of his office, Curley
turned his attention to the low-income, ethnic neighborhoods that fringed the Yankee-dominated
central city. He increased social, medical, and recreational facilities in the city,
expanded the subway, paved streets, widened roads, and tore down tenements. He used
these construction projects to provide the jobs he dispensed through his system
of personal patronage.
Between 1900 and the early 1920s Boston’s economy was strong and expanding, peaking
in 1920 with nearly 90,000 industrial workers. By 1930, however, Boston lost nearly
15,000 manufacturing jobs, many to the U.S. South. The city lost another 17,000
jobs during the Great Depression, the worldwide economic slump of the 1930s. As
the remaining jobs moved to the suburbs, the population of Boston and the corresponding
tax base declined after 1935. During World War II (1939-1945), the city had an upturn
in manufacturing as a result of increased wartime production. Despite this surge,
Boston manufacturing declined steadily over the last half of the 20th century.
After the 1940s, a new breed of Democratic politicians emerged who recognized the
need to work closely with the business community. The patronage system became obsolete
as the federal legislation that emerged following the Great Depression provided
social security, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and other services
that patronage had formerly delivered.
Mayors John Hynes (1950-1960), John Collins (1960-1967), and Kevin White (1968-1983)
aligned with influential business service groups to revitalize Boston’s economy
by approving publicly funded construction of major downtown commercial projects.
The downtown area changed as the West End was demolished and other urban renewal
programs were implemented in the 1960s and 1970s. A new government center replaced
the seedy Scollay Square district; the Prudential Center project added shops, apartments,
and office towers to the downtown area; and renovation revitalized the Fanueil Hall
Although urban renewal brought jobs into the city, not all Boston residents supported
its programs. The West End Development Plan sacrificed the closely packed neighborhoods
of one of the oldest sections of the city, displacing many residents to make way
for new construction. The plan engendered bitter feelings about urban renewal. Residents
of other center city neighborhoods became determined not to allow developers to
destroy their communities. As a result, urban renewal projects that followed in
Boston gave greater consideration to the needs of the residents, and they were more
responsive to the voices of the community.
U.S. architect I. M. Pei played a leading role in Boston’s later renewal projects,
designing the Government Center (1968), the John Hancock Tower (1973), the John
F. Kennedy Memorial Library (1979), and the West Wing of the Museum of Fine Arts
(1981). In the 1980s the Financial District expanded toward South Station with the
office towers of the Federal Reserve Bank and One Financial Center. The construction
of high-rent housing in the central city and additional office space in the central
business district contributed to the return of financial service companies to the
Urban renewal, however, had destroyed a viable, working-class community in the West
End and had substantially diminished the availability of low-cost residences in
the Boston housing market. This increased the loss of the middle class to the suburbs,
weakening Boston’s once powerful political base. Manufacturing jobs in the city
shrank dramatically after 1960, while low-paying clerical and service jobs increased.
The poverty rate was high: 20 percent in 1979.
Tensions between social groups grew as the city declined in economic, political,
and social importance. Beginning in the 1950s the black population increased nearly
fourfold. By 1980 African Americans were the largest ethnic group in the city, constituting
22.5 percent of the population. This growth caused racial tension. In addition,
an economic recession in the early 1970s increased unemployment rates and raised
racial antagonism between low-income blacks and whites competing for the same jobs.
Some members of white ethnic groups saw the growing number of low-income black migrants
as threatening their jobs, property values, and the standards of their neighborhood
Racial tensions also increased as school busing became mandatory to eliminate segregation
in the city’s schools. Boston’s neighborhoods had long been sharply divided along
ethnic and racial lines, and many of the city’s poorer school districts were located
in predominantly black neighborhoods. Despite pressure by the State Department of
Education, the Boston School Committee refused to design any comprehensive plan
for the integration of the city’s schools. In 1974 federal district court judge
W. Arthur Garrity ruled that the Boston School Committee had deliberately maintained
racial segregation in the city’s public schools. When Garrity ordered a new integration
program in 1975 that called for busing 21,000 public school students, violent protest
Despite these problems, the Boston metropolitan area economy was revitalized with
the help of the rapidly expanding high technology and electronic industries located
along roads ringing Boston. Unemployment in Boston decreased from 18.8 percent in
1979 to 8.2 percent in 1989 and to 5.4 percent in 1995. The percentage of the population
below poverty fell from 26.1 percent in 1979 to 18.7 percent in 1989.
Ray Flynn served as mayor from 1983 until 1993, focusing on social issues at the
neighborhood level. The mayoral election of 1993 turned out to be a watershed, when
the election of Italian American politician Thomas Menino ended 60 years of unbroken
Irish mayoral rule. Menino entered his second four-year term in 1998, vowing to
improve the city’s school system and protect Boston against overdevelopment.