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A Brief History of Boston to 1775       

Native Americans were present in what is now the Boston area as early as 6000 BC. By the time of European contact around AD 1600, the major Native American group in the area was the Massachuset group, made up of peoples who spoke a form of the Algonquian language. European explorers to the area included Verrazzano in 1524, Champlain in 1605 and 1606, and John Smith in 1614. A few years thereafter, the tribes in the Boston area were devastated by European diseases, with mortality rates as high as 80 percent, which contributed to the destruction of the native culture of New England.

In 1625, the first European settled the narrow, irregular peninsula known to the Native Americans as Shawmut. In 1629, the king of England granted a charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company, and in 1630, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, arrived in the area with about 700 Puritans. They established a government under the control of Puritan leaders. Only church members could vote, and biblical law functioned as the primary law in church and state. Puritan leaders were intolerant of any public criticism of their basic program.

When migration from England declined sharply in the 1640s, the colonists turned to fishing, shipbuilding, and overseas trade. The Shawmut Peninsula offered an ideal setting for a seaport. By the 1670s, Boston had three triangular foreign trade routes that were important sources of wealth. The first route took rum from Massachusetts to trade for slaves on the west coast of Africa, who were carried to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar and molasses, which went back to the colony to be made into rum. The second route took fish, lumber, and horses to the West Indies for sugar, which was taken to England to be traded for manufactured goods to be sold in the colonies. The third route took fish, food, timber, and fur to southern Europe to be traded for wine, spices, silk, and fruit, which was traded to England for manufactured goods for the colonies. By 1700 Boston had more than 6,000 residents, and it was the third busiest port of the British Empire and the leading seaport for trade with the British American colonies.

The colony’s political relationship with England became tense during this period. The royal government tried to establish greater control over Massachusetts by annulling the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter. In 1686 Sir Edmund Andros arrived as the first royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. His arrival established the authority of the crown in Boston and ended the political domination of the Puritan church. But Andros was an unpopular autocrat. He abolished the representative assembly, limited town meetings, and taxed citizens without their consent. In 1689, colonists arrested Andros and sent him back to England. Under a new royal charter, the right to vote went to citizens who owned property, rather than only to those who belonged to the Congregational Church.

Popular discontent continued into the 18th century. Anti-British sentiment grew after the British government approved a series of taxes on colonists to pay the cost of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Boston merchants and workers staunchly resisted the Stamp Act of 1765, which required the purchase of a government stamp for all legal documents and newspapers. The colonists viewed the act as “taxation without representation.” The British government ordered a military occupation of Boston in 1768. In 1770, nervous British sentries fired on a threatening mob and killed five colonists. Propagandists seized on the incident, which forever after became known as the Boston Massacre. Aggravating the situation further, patriots in 1773 protested a tax on tea by boarding a vessel and tossing chestloads of the valuable import into the harbor in what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party. The British retaliated by closing the port in 1774 and sending more troops to Boston, further ratcheting up tensions. The stage was set for the events of April.

Boston on the eve of the Revolution was by today’s standards a small city. It had grown from just 150 or so souls in 1638 to around 15,000 in 1765, though many families had already evacuated to the countryside before 1775, fearing the outbreak of hostilities. The William Dawes family was living in the center of town at 64 Ann St., nearly across the street from that of William’s father. The home was surely similar to one of that era located in the North End, which has been preserved. The Dawes house was at the time just a few steps from the docks, but after years of landfill, the site is now far from the water. The family lived in the shadow of Faneuil Hall, which would have looked much as it does today. Nothing remains of the William Dawes house, save a commemorative plaque on the side of a modern building. The building now accommodates a coffee shop.

Those who are interested in the development of Boston since 1775 may consult the USAOnline Web site, from which much of the above information has been derived.