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Anyone who’s spent St. Patrick’s Day—a raucous, beer-guzzling celebration—in Boston may be surprised to learn the city's had very pious beginnings. Church of England Reverend William Blackstone arrived in 1629 back when Native Americans called the peninsula Shawmet. A year later, he invited Puritans looking for a tolerant home. But they weren’t very tolerant themselves. Boston Common, a public square still around today, started as a site for public hangings. Both Blackstone and the first president of Harvard College (founded 1636) had to leave Boston because of religious disagreements.
Boston became a popular trading city in the 1700s. Its reputation for toughness has its roots in the American Revolution. After a decade of England taxing everything from stamps to sugar to tea and a “massacre” involving British soldiers shooting protesters, revolutionaries snuck onto the Boston Harbor to chuck 45 tons of British tea into the sea. England responded to the infamous Boston Tea Party by closing Boston’s port and sending in more troops. In one of America’s first big victories, George Washington’s Revolutionary War troops beat the British to retake the city in 1776. Bostonians celebrate this victory as Evacuation Day on March 17 (which also happens to be St. Patrick's Day).
Boston’s economy and population took a big hit when the port was blocked by British naval ships during the war. But after America won its freedom, Boston grew into an economic powerhouse. As the closest American harbor to Europe, it was an internationally renowned trading center. Bostonian Robert Lowell started the first textile mill—helping turn Boston from a trading center to a manufacturing center. Factories churned out garments, machines and leather goods.
The promise of industrial jobs attracted tens of thousands of Irish immigrants escaping famine in the mid-1800s. Today, almost 1 in 5 Bostonians claims Irish ancestry. Early Irish immigrants struggled in poverty, menial jobs and discrimination. One author estimated the average Irish immigrant lived only 14 years in America. Yet as the population grew, they climbed up the social ladder. Boston elected its first Irish mayor in 1885, and soon the Irish took control of the political system, empowering their people and churning out national figures like the Kennedys and long time Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
The first half of the 20th century was a rough time for the city. The government had been getting corrupt, violence was rising and factory growth slowed. The city was rocked by calamitous events like a nightclub fire that killed almost 500 and the infamous serial killer, the Boston Strangler. The oddest disaster happened in 1919 when 14,000 tons of molasses exploded from a tank, killing 21 people and injuring 150 in a sticky disaster. It took 6 months to clean the mess, and some claim you can still smell the remnants on a hot day.
But toward the century’s end, the city recovered to become a center of the financial industry with world-renowned hospitals and universities, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University.
Boston’s only the 20th largest city in America, but its rich cultural history and patriotic heritage to draw millions every year who walk the Freedom Trail and learn about America's earliest years.