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Anyone who’s spent St. Patrick’s Day in Boston—a raucous, celebration in which Bostonians merrily drink to that faraway saint, paint their faces green, and quickly dash off an email to a cousin in Galway thanking him for giftwrapping the enormous shipment of Smethwyck's— may be surprised to learn the city had very different beginnings not at all rooted in tolerance. Church of England Reverend William Blackstone arrived in 1629 back when Native Americans called the peninsula Shawmut. A year later, he invited Puritans looking for a tolerant home. Conflict in England between Puritans and Anglicans was heating up in a major way and like the Pilgrims, who were just a short boat ride away to the south in Plymouth Colony-many were aiming to leave and set up in the New World.
But they weren’t very tolerant themselves. In fact, the inhabitants of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted religious toleration...but only so long as one accepted everything Calvinism and Puritanism had to offer without question, and one was willing to have it rammed down one's throat for hours while sitting in rigid pews on the Sabbath. Christmas, Halloween, and St. Patrick's Day, three holidays that modern Boston adores and celebrates with glee, were outlawed in the city's formative years, because they were seen as too papist-Christmas was seen as a holiday of heathenship and hedonism, and even before Cromwell was active in England, Massachusetts Bay Colony had a grinch like attitude towards the birth of Christ not shared with colonists in Virginia or Maryland. Halloween's original name was ”All Hallow's Even”, and since the Puritans did not celebrate a feast day involving saints, nor recognize the older practice of Hallowmas, it was verboten. The celebration of an Irish saint would have been completely foreign, and would not be popular for another two hundred years; Catholics themselves were hated and would have been hunted down and harassed endlessly as they had been back in England, where they were stripped of their rights in 1603. Work and prayer were the order of the day, no exceptions. Women were subordinate to both their husbands and to the theocratic council that ruled Boston like it's own person fiefdom. Public humiliation for what modern eyes would see as small infractions was common.
Boston Common, a public square still around today, started as a site that had two purposes: to graze livestock, and to hang traitors and ”criminals”. Both Wiiliam Blackstone and the first president of Harvard College (founded 1636) had to leave Boston because of religious disagreements; in the first case this is significant because Harvard was originally founded as a place to train ministers. Other famous names that were often pushed out of Boston and Massachusetts Bay Colony were Anne Hutchinson and Mary Dyer: the first of these was a preacher's daughter who emigrated to Boston with her family in its earliest years. She challenged the theology of the judges, many of which were also her accusers-she claimed that one had to have an innate inner grace to achieve heaven rather than work for it. For her troubles, she had to flee with her husband and children first to Rhode Island and later, when rumors reached her that Massachusetts would try to take over there, she fled for an area that is now just north of New York City, where she and all but one of her family were slaughtered by angry Native Americans who were none too happy to find white settlers in their territory. When news of her death reached Boston, the inhabitants cheered. Mary Dyer, a Quaker, was hanged on Boston Common simply because she refused to go to church with the Puritans. The Puritanical and priggish streak lasted in Boston into the early 1700s, when it was realized that religious fervor and doctrines could easily go too far and (infamously like what happened to so many people in neighboring Salem) it cost innocent lives in place of reason.
Boston became a popular and important trading port beginning in the late 17th century: like its cousins to the south, New York City, Savannah, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, it was (and still is) blessed with a large navigable harbor. The surrounding area in New England had an excellent mix of hardwood and pine forests ideal for lumber (something Great Britain had run out of by the reign of James II) and Britain increasingly had an eye towards ruling the waves with its Royal Navy. The area was not ideal for farming, but it did have excellent fishing grounds for oysters, scallops, clams, and crucially cod, which would be salted and put into barrels to be put out to London, Southampton, Dublin, and Bristol to feed the hungry and growing cities there. Very rapidly it developed from a sleepy outpost into a port that rivaled Dublin in size, and indeed the colonists soon found they could make a handsome profit dealing with Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, the Bahamas, and St. Maarten and St. Vincent. These ports dealt heavily in spices, sugarcane, and (sadly) slaves. Boston during the 17th century was sadly also a trading port for black slaves, and like New York, Baltimore, and Savannah, was part of the triangular trade: slaves would be bought in West Africa (likely near Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, and Benin) be taken to the Caribbean where they would be traded for sugarcane, and the sugarcane would be turned into molasses or rum for buying slaves in Boston. This equally made the crown in London very rich, and throughout the period London often turned a blind eye to the practice since slaves being bought off the market in San Juan, Port au Prince, or Havana meant enrichment in the colonies at the expense of Spanish and French rivals.
Its reputation for toughness has its roots in the American Revolution. As has been said, Boston was a major trading port, not all of it legal. It had also been one of the hubs the British used during the French and Indian War, since what is now Quebec and the Maritimes in Canada were well within a few weeks march of the city: raw materials for gunpowder, for weapons, for housing soldiers, and above all for intelligence regarding the terrrain would have been crucial to successs in the endeavor if the French were to be beaten. Unfortunately, from the colonial point of view, they were not very well rewarded as George II spent an inordinate amount of money that bled the royal coffers just to make that final victory on the Plains of Abraham. His grandson, George III, decided to tax the colonists into oblivion as repayment for their loyalty. After a decade of England taxing everything from stamps to sugar to tea, and increasing anger at the crown, in March of 1770, a rather nasty incident occurred where British soldiers fired into a mob of ragtag boys and men that were throwing icy snowballs at them. At least seven died, and the only person in all of Massachusetts that would defend them was a thirty-five year old lawyer named John Adams. Publicly this was a very big risk for John Adams as the whole city was up in arms and his own family, namely his cousin Sam, an older man Adams had known since he was a boy, was staging parades and using the affair as a publicity stunt. Adams had a wife and four young children at home, and his youngest was just an infant, a son-his unpopularity jeopardized them, and most certainly Adams received threats at his place of business and jeers from the Sons of Liberty for going rogue on his own cousin. The Boston Massacre was a significant point in the history of the city because it inspired a man who in time would become the second President of the United States-Adams was alive during a very turbulent period in American history where every symbol of British rule over her colonies could provoke violence and bloodshed: even today, the lion and the unicorn symbols on the old Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston's business district are reproductions, as the old ones were destroyed by angry colonists. When Adams was president, the French Revolution was underway and Adams chose not to go to war nor help the French, as unlike his vice president he recognized certain chilling reminders of the past, and (though not appreciated during his lifetime) he proved correct: very soon after he retired from public life, Napoleon Bonaparte became dictator.
In 1773, the Boston Tea Party took place: revolutionaries snuck onto the wharf to dump 45 tons of British tea into the sea. Losses were substantial: in 21st century money the amount would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. responded to the infamous Boston Tea Party by closing Boston’s port and declaring martial law. This became one of the rallying cries of the Declaration of Independence: "He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: for Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: for protecting them, by mock Trial, from punishment from any Murders which they should commit on inhabitants of these States.." Jefferson's indictment is not without cause, as indeed in Massachusetts soldiers were often quartered in homes without any kind of redress for their host if the soldier took liberties with his wife or daughters, or even killed someone, and as Boston was under martial law the opportunity for such to occur was very high (in fact, with the rough copy of the Declaration of Independence in the present day hands of the Library of Congress, it is notable that John Adams, a member of the Committee of Five and one of the two principal editors alongside Ben Franklin, makes no effort to correct the language of this portion of the document as his handwriting is visible elsewhere.) Naturally the first three battles of the Revolution took place near or in Boston: Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill.
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 beginning in the 1820s, and in the 1840s Boston was one of the most common destinations of ships heading out of Dublin, Cork, and Galway for America: the Potato Famine left many Irish destitute and homeless, and desparate to just survive; when many arrived in Boston they came skeletally thin and often sick with typhus; whole ships filled with hundreds were left out in the harbor because letting them make berth could spread the lice and the disease, and doctors from local hospitals found themselves digging as many graves as desparately trying to save the sick. Emigration continued after the famine to the point where today almost 1 in 5 Bostonians claims Irish ancestry, and ties with Ireland remain through business and family. Unlike today where they often hold jobs in medicine and banking, unfortunately the earliest emigrants from Ireland had to begin at the bottom of society, with children often not surviving past the age of seven. The local stock, very Protestant and derived from centuries older English and Welsh origin, hated and feared the new immigrants and were often very cruel. The Irish were (and despite its past the city of Boston still is) heavily Catholic, and immediately after arrival would set about to found religious orders of nuns and priests, who back in Ireland were often leaders of their communities and amongst the few who could read and write. The Yankee stock already running and living in Boston were deeply mistrustful of this because they mistakenly believed that the Irish were trying to subvert democracy and separation of church and state since they had a Pope at the head of their church. Discrimination in schooling was rife, as was the problem that many emigrants were farmers with low skills-many of these wound up working the docks. One author estimated the average Irish immigrant lived only 14 years in America. In spite of all the hardship, many Irish were the first to bring their traditions overseas, including forcing the issue of celebrating Christmas (Puritans and their descendants did not celebrate this holiday) and importing Halloween, a holiday that in Boston today is a favorite where bakeries will make cupcakes with orange and black frosting and where people have dress up parties, often as witches and scary things.
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. Other emigrant groups soon followed, like Italians, Jews, French Canadians and Poles, and today many come from Latin America, China, Vietnam, Haiti, and Brazil.
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.