Boston History

Founding of Boston

A Puritan community, bustling center of trade, and the birthplace of the revolution, the city of Boston, Massachusetts has a rich history. Boston was founded by the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630. John Winthrop, the first governor of the colony and devout Puritan, declared in a rousing sermon that the city was to be “A City on a Hill” –  a model community of religious purity, group discipline, and individual responsibility. This speech triggered a mass immigration of Puritans seeking a safe haven of religious purity in America. Only the wealthy could afford to immigrate to America, but some charitable ministers paved the way for the poor or they were brought as indentured servants. Over the years the colony faced food shortages, disease such as scurvy and typhus, and political and religious unrest, but by 1700 the colony was a well-established city and a center of trade.

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The Puritan worldview

Early Boston was characterized by the deeply held spiritual worldview of the puritans. Puritans believed that all of life was governed by divine will, morality was defined by an unchanging decree of God, and hardship was God’s chastening of man towards his purpose. One major tenet of the Puritan religion was a belief that God chose who would be saved (election) and that individuals need to have a spiritual awakening or conversion experience to know that they were saved. They valued frugality and simplicity, values that fit well with the industrious work ethic needed to succeed in the new land. All of life was focused on achieving salvation and God’s purpose.

This Puritan worldview saturated the life of the colony. Settlers were required to attend Puritan services and support the church financially. They held to strict moral standards, and sins such as drunkenness, murder, and adultery were punished by fines or, in severe cases, whipping or hanging. Puritan leaders traditionally supported an ordained monarchy, believing that God-given power to an enlightened few was necessary to preserve the purity of the commonwealth. In Massachusetts starting in 1631, only settlers that were approved members of the Puritan church could vote and hold office. Thus there was some resemblance of democracy, yet overall the colony used political authority to maintain the pure biblical commonwealth.

In 1691, the English government insisted on religious toleration, outlawing religious tests for voting so that all land-holding colonists could vote.  Quakers and Baptists were also granted exemption form taxes that went to support Puritan ministers. However, Puritans were largest body of property owners so they remained in control of elected offices. Even as the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Dutch and German Reformed, and Anglican churches were growing around them, Boston remained a primarily Puritan city.

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 By the 1720’s Boston was a bustling center of trade for the colonies. The city did not have luxuries such as paved streets, running water, or trash collection, but there was some level of wealth and sophistication. Massachusetts dominated the fishing industry and was also involved in shipbuilding, and goods from across the colonies poured in for trading. Boston also became a financial center since money flowed in from rural areas, and since they controlled the shipping industry, merchants were also able to sell exports on credit and earned interest. With colonial goods such as fish lumber, provisions, bacon, pork, beef, peas, and Indian corn going out, they also took in goods from the East such as rum and molasses from the Indies, wine from spain, sugar, indigo, and lime juice.


Although America offered promise of economic opportunity for all, distinct classes did develop and had a large impact on life in Boston. Titles of gentleman, master, and mister were reserved for upper-class, church pews were assigned by social status, and names on Harvard college student register were listed by family rank, not alphabetically.

The booming trade in Boston led to the development of a wealthy merchant class. This group made a significant portion of their money on money lending and investments Their houses, clothing, and furniture were modeled after English aristocracy, and one could judge the wealth of family based on how many of their goods were imported from Europe.

The middle class was made up of skilled artisans such as shoemakers, shipwrights, blacksmiths, and weavers. Their social status depended on their number of employees and wealth. Most lived well but not as extravagantly as the merchants. The largest population group in New England were farmers with small tracts of land. This group typically came to America as indentured servants and often had to borrow money, never really escaping some degree of servitude. This group could still vote since they owned property but had little intellectual interests beyond religion. The most common crops were rye, barley, and apples, but farmland in New England was of poor quality and hard to clear.

Some citizens lived in poverty, but the state did establish systems to care for them. For example doctors were paid by the state to help poor, and an almshouse was established in Boston in 1660 for “the honest poor.” An able-bodied poor class also existed in Boston, consisting of rogues, vagabonds, and beggars that were shipped to America by the English parliament from 1662-1717 and accounted for much of the crime in the city.


Domestic servants were common in Boston. Before 1690, most were indentured servants, people who willingly served a defined set of years in exchange for passage to America. Laws in Boston mandated proper care of these servants, but they still had a hard life of work and limited freedom. The Dutch West India Company began to bring African slaves to the colonies just before the 1700’s. Soon, African slaves made up about 1/10th of the colonies’ population, but were most common in the South where they were more well-adapted for the work. However, the Puritans did not oppose slavery on moral grounds, and in 1700 there were about 120 slaves in Massachusetts.


The colonists of Boston across classes valued education though to varying degrees and for different purposes. For Puritans, ministers needed to understand the Hebrew and Greek and the natural world in order to properly explain the ways of God, and children were taught to read in order to study the Bible. New England is known for setting up the first public schools so most colonists learned to read and write. Since the schools were controlled by the leaders of the colony, public education in Boston was closely tied with Puritan ideals.

The public schools emphasized useful rather than decorative education. Students learned reading, writing, arithmetic, and physical strength while developing obedience and industry. After 1700, more private schools were established for the upper class. These schools taught more intellectual disciplines such as Latin, Greek, mathematics, ethics, and law. Trade schools also formed that taught accounting, business, and medicine.


The major source of information was by newspaper and letters. By 1715, eight printing presses existed in the the colonies, and the first American newspaper was started in Boston. Newspapers primarily reprinted stories from Europe and included shipping notices, but they were also used as a way for the editors to promote opinions through essays and satire. For example, The New England Courant was started during the inoculation controversy by James Franklin and became the voice of the anti-inoculators.


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