Boston, Massachusetts



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, and political and religious unrest, but by 1700 the colony was a well-established city and a center of trade.

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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 as money flowed in through the merchants. The colonies exported goods such as fish, lumber, bacon, beef, peas, and Indian corn going out,  and they took in goods from the East such as molasses, wine, sugar, and indigo.


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. 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, and they took pride in dressing in distinctive high fashion. 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, but most lived well if 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. They could still vote since they owned property but often had little intellectual interests beyond religion. Farmers commonly grew rye, barley, and apples, but the poor quality of farmland in New England was of poor quality, making the farmer’s life a hard one.

For those who lived in poverty, 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 freedoms. The Dutch West India Company began to bring African slaves to the colonies just before the 1700’s. Soon, African slaves made up about a tenth 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, including Cotton Mather’s servant who told him about inoculation in Africa.


 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, 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 in the colonies was by newspaper and letters. In fact, the first American newspaper was started in Boston. Newspapers primarily printed shipping notices and reprinted stories from Europe, but they became 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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