Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The 1600's

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.

1600WomanArchaeologists 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.

John Winthrop Public Domain Artwork

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.