A long-beloved trading port, Boston has an incredibly rich history. As one of America’s oldest cities, the Massachusetts capital has experienced the idealism of revolution, some innovations and some disasters, not to mention the relief of a lifted curse. Take a tour of some of the city’s most significant moments.
BCE: Indigenous peoples inhabited the region for over two millennia
Long before the area was named Boston, people circulated through the area for over 2,400 years. Generally grouped together as the Massachusett people, the native peoples of modern-day Boston belonged to many tribes, all sharing the Algonquin language.
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Visitors to the Boston Harbor Islands Park will learn that the native peoples who lived in modern-day Boston benefited from ample offerings of mollusks and fish as well as the rich soil characteristic to the area, and used the area’s waterways to conduct trade, bartering for food, jewelry and fabrics.
1630: The city was named ‘Boston’
European settlers from the nearby Plymouth Colony established the Massachusetts Bay Colony to take advantage of the area’s agricultural bounty and accessible trade routes.
Through a combination of aggressive land-grabs and the rapid spread of diseases like smallpox and yellow fever, European settlers eventually decimated the people who had used the harbor for millennia.
On September 7, 1630, Governor John Winthrop named the city ‘Boston’, after an English town. At this time, many of the colonists followed a Puritan lifestyle which relied on a strict moral code. Those who questioned the rigidity of the Puritan Church often faced harsh consequences, like expulsion, and sometimes execution.
1770s: Boston was a hub of revolutionary activity
Over the course of the 18th century, the relationship between colonists and their British government became increasingly tense. When British soldiers fired on a crowd of colonists on March 5 1770, the locals were outraged – the event has been immortalized as the Boston Massacre. With trust in the British government at an all-time low, high tariffs on staple goods like sugar and tea led to the famous Boston Tea Party in 1773. The protest was led by the Sons of Liberty, who dumped imported tea into the Boston Harbor so that it could not be sold. Groups like the Sons of Liberty became populist heroes, and by 1776 the American Revolution was underway.
You can visit Boston’s Freedom Trail or join walking tours to learn about the city’s revolutionary history. A trip to the Green Dragon Tavern also offers a brush with the revolution. The tavern features in memoirs written by Paul Revere, who famously rode into the night to warn Bostonians of incoming British troops. In 1984, the Boston Brewing Company drew on the area’s revolutionary history when they named their first beer after founding father Samuel Adams.
1857: Construction begins on the Back Bay
Today, the affluent neighborhood of Back Bay is known for its gorgeous Victorian brownstones and Haussmann-inspired design, but prior to the 19th century it was literally a bay. After a poorly planned toll road was built to connect Boston to Watertown, it was soon revealed that the road’s construction blocked the bay’s natural tides. As a result, sewage that once washed out to sea was left to stagnate, creating sanitation issues and a more than unpleasant smell. A solution was proposed to cover the water, and it also helped to facilitate Boston’s expansion.
In 1857, the Back Bay was built atop the festering cesspit, eliminating the waste and transforming the city’s embarrassment into one of its most sought-after neighborhoods. Today, visitors to Back Bay enjoy the picturesque atmosphere while making stops at the Boston Public Library and the city’s Old North Church.
1897: Boston conducts its first marathon and opens the nation’s first subway system
This was a banner year for Boston: the city started the Boston Marathon and opened the nation’s first subway system. In 1980, the two were entwined in a strange scandal. Marathon runner Rosie Ruiz nearly snatched the winning title with a record time, until it was discovered that she only ran one mile of the race. She was found out after other runners mentioned not seeing her for the first 25 miles of the race, and a photographer mentioned that they had seen Ruiz riding the subway towards the finish line.
In 2013, tragedy struck with the Boston Marathon bombing. The following year, attendance to the marathon more than doubled and the number of registered runners was the second-highest in history. The outpouring of support in 2014 was a demonstration of how resilient Bostonians are and how important the event is to the city.
1919: The Great Molasses Flood
In the early days of industry, there weren’t many regulations. While some might argue that a lack of regulation begets a freer and more productive marketplace, the disaster of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood proves otherwise. A large storage tank containing millions of gallons of the viscous sweetener rapidly rose in temperature, leading to increased tank pressure and causing it to burst. At its highest point, the wave of molasses that swept through Boston was 25 feet (7.62 meters) high and the thickness of the liquid made it nearly impossible to escape from. The flood took the lives of 21 people and injured 150. North Boston became enveloped in a waist-deep sea of brown, sticky goo.
After this disaster, the Boston Building Department began to require that calculations by architects and engineers undergo inspection; this was the precursor to modern-day laws surrounding building and construction permits. Some Bostonians maintain that the acrid scent of molasses still wafts in the air in the North End on hot days.
1947: Boston native John F Kennedy is elected to Congress for Massachusetts
President John F Kennedy was born in Boston in 1917, which is where his famous lilt comes from. Prior to his run for the highest seat in the country, America’s first Catholic president served as a congressman and senator representing Massachusetts throughout the ’50s (overlapping with the years when Martin Luther King, Jr lived in Boston as well, attending Boston University). After winning the presidential election in 1960, Kennedy became the fourth Bostonian to hold the title. His tragic assassination in 1963 plunged the nation into grief.
In 1969, Kennedy’s mother donated the family home to be turned into a museum, now known as the JFK Historic Site. And the construction of the JFK Presidential Library in Boston 1979 really brought his legacy as a politician home. A trip to Boston’s Union Oyster House – the oldest restaurant in America – also offers a brush with presidential history: diners can enjoy New England’s signature seafood dishes in the restaurant’s Kennedy Booth.
1974: Boston Busing Crisis
Following the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act, Boston schools were mandated to desegregate; this was the first law of its kind in the whole country. A busing system was devised to integrate black and white students. Through desegregating the student population, the intent was to decrease racial bias and ensure that all public schools received equal funding and resources – on average, schools serving black students received two-thirds of the funding per student that white schools were granted. Unfortunately, the plan was met with mass protests that sometimes resulted in violence.
While students from largely black neighborhoods were eager to receive better education funding, some white residents began calling the desegregation system a ‘crisis’. These parents began taking their students out of Boston’s public schools, and in some cases moving out of the city all together. This phenomena, called ‘white flight’, saw further segregation of Boston’s neighborhoods, with the highest proportion of the city’s white population moving to the suburbs. Today Boston is working to continue its busing program to help desegregate the various neighborhoods in the city.
2004: The Curse of the Bambino is lifted
Bostonians have loved their baseball team, the Red Sox, since they first started playing in 1901. Their home field at Fenway Park has been a major Boston destination since it was built in 1912. But after the fateful trade of fan favorite Babe ‘the Bambino’ Ruth to the New York Yankees – the Red Sox’s rival – in 1919, the team that had won five World Series titles was suddenly hit with a trophy drought that some have deemed the ‘Curse of the Bambino’.
The Yankees (who hadn’t won any titles previously) went on to win 26 World Series titles after Ruth was traded to the team, prompting the belief that Ruth’s trade had cursed the Red Sox. It would take 86 years from the Red Sox’s 1918 World Series win for them to earn the title again, in 2004, breaking the curse and resulting in city-wide riotous celebrations. The Red Sox have since won the World Series in 2007, 2013 and 2018.
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