Back in 1630, the North End was also a little smaller than it is today. Atlantic Avenue, Commercial Street, and Fulton Street, as well as some of the smaller cross streets, were all once part of Boston Harbor. On the other side of the neighborhood, Endicott, Lynn, North Margin, Stillman, Thacher, and Cooper Streets, as well as some of the smaller alleys and courts, were also built on water. All of these areas were filled during the 1800s as Boston underwent enormous growth in population and land area.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that Native Americans did use the Shawmut Peninsula and the Boston Harbor Islands at various times of the year, primarily for fishing as well as extended vacations, if you will, to escape the summer heat on the mainland. However, there does not seem to have been a permanent indigenous settlement in what is now downtown Boston.
The English people who founded Boston are referred to as the Puritans. These were people with strongly held religious beliefs, rooted in the Protestant Reformation, and opposed to the older Catholic Church based in Rome as well as any corruption of the Church of England. They began to organize themselves in their country towns and parishes, and they altered the form (and the spirit, they hoped) of worship practiced in Anglican churches. The hierarchy of the Church, as well as the royal government, cracked down on these dissidents. Many of them fled to the New World, planting colonies from New England to the Caribbean.
The Puritans who settled Boston were led by John Winthrop (1578-1649), and they first set foot in Boston in the North End, after crossing the Charles River from Charlestown. The Massachusetts government established the first regular ferry in the colony along the same route between Charlestown and the North End, in 1631.
During the rest of Winthrop's life, the religious and political center of Boston was in the old South End. The government buildings of the town and the colony were located there, represented today by the Old State House and Faneuil Hall, as was the only church and school. The First Church in Boston and the Boston Latin School continue to this day, though in different parts of town.
John Winthrop died in 1649, and a few months later the people of the North End incorporated a second church in Boston. Their new house of worship opened in the summer of 1650, and a public space was created around the church. Known today as North Square, this was once the heart of the neighborhood, and it was also much closer to Boston Harbor than it is now. In colonial times, North Enders viewed North Square and North Street, in other words the waterfront along the harbor, as the front of the neighborhood. The higher and steeper parts of Copp’s Hill, around and beyond Salem Street, was considered the back of the district.
In 1664, Increase Mather (1639-1723) was ordained in the Second Church, and he was joined twenty years later by his son, Cotton (1663-1728). Much has been written about and by these two men, who were among the most famous Puritans of their time. Even people who are not history buffs will likely recognize their names, as well as some of the issues and events in which they were leaders, including: Harvard College, the Salem Witch Trials, the Half-Way Covenant, the Glorious Revolution, Yale College, smallpox inoculation, slavery, publishing, and astronomy. Both are interred in the burying ground at the top of Copp’s Hill, which is the second oldest burying ground in downtown Boston, established in 1659.