United States

John Winthrop’s 17th century Boston: encountering the Puritan ‘City Upon a Hill’

“His situation is very pleasant, being a Peninsula, hemmed in on the South-side with the Bay of Roxberry, on the north side with Charles-River, the Marshes on the back side being not a quarter of a mile over; so that a little fencing will secure their cattle from the wolves,” noted a 17th century brochure titled New England’s Prospect.

This was the “City Upon a Hill” that John Winthrop had declared for his Puritan followers in June 1630. Boston, as it became known, grew quickly, with the first inhabitants settling around the waterfront areas. The town’s fortunes were made in fishing, shipbuilding and trans-Atlantic trade.

North Square in Boston’s North End

Like Plymouth Colony from a decade before and which I visited for last week’s blog, the founders of Boston had fled to America as they were fearful of the Catholic ambitions of the Stuart monarchy. Yes, many settlers came from areas in England which had suffered a devastating economic downturn in the the once-thriving wool, but the prime reason for their emigration was religious.

Winthrop, wrote a pamphlet – Reasons for the Plantation in New England – in which he described English as a “sinful land” which was “growing weary of her inhabitants, so as man which is the most precious of all Creatures, is here more vile and base, than the earthe they tread upon.”

“Had Charles and his advisers grasped what was happening in Massachusetts, they would have intervened, but the Puritan leaders proceeded by stealth,” wrote historian David Reynolds in his book, America: Empire of Liberty. “The king had granted a charter for a joint-stock company to colonize Massachusetts as a commercial venture. Winthrop and the other gentlemen and other merchants who invested in the company hijacked it for their own ends, exploiting a loophole in the charter which did not require them, unlike the Virginia Company, to keep the headquarters in London.”

What was established in Boston was not a democracy, but what has become known as a Christian Commonwealth. The government was distinct from the church, but ruled by strict Puritan principals.

Settling in New England

John Winthrop set off from England with a thousand Puritans in a flotilla of ships, led by the Arbella, in April 1630. They reached land at Salem in the June and searched foe a suitable place for establishing a new colony. Winthrop and his followers first went to present-day Charlestown, but a lack of good water persuaded them to carry on. Across the river at Shawmut Peninsula Reverend William Blackstone invited the Puritans to join his settlement and Boston was born.

By 1633 colonists outnumbered Indians in the Massachusetts Bay area and in the years that followed the settlers kept arriving. Some 17 emigrant ships docked in Boston in 1634, 32 in 1635 and another 20 in 1638, and the city – surrounded by water – that many know and love today started to take shape. Roads, docks, meeting houses, shops and homes were all quickly built.

North End – where Boston’s Little Italy can be found today – became a crowded area of narrow streets and was home to merchants, middle-class artisans and government officials. The social and economic heart of this district was North Square, where Paul Revere’s (more on him in my next Boston blog on the American Revolution) house can be visited today. Built in the 1680s, it was originally home to a wealthy merchant who kept a slave, and the building is today the sole surviving 17th century house in the city.

Those living in North End were never far away from the waterfront, with its taverns, shipyards, warehouses and shops. Contemporary accounts of the busy wharfs record the “the masts of ships here” as “a kind of Wood of Trees like that we see Upon the River of Thames about Wapping and Limehouse”. Boston was a city that depended on the sea, with cod fishing particularly important.

Thriving colony

In contrast to the packed streets of the North End, at Boston’s South End, wealthier merchants had grander homes on larger plots of land, with one contemporary visitor admired the “gardens and orchards”. Boston Common – the country’s oldest public park and recorded in a treaty as the land being sold for £30 in 1634 – became a popular place for an evening promenade. It was here that “the Gallants a little before sunset walk with their Marmalet Madams, as we do in Moorfield etc.”

Boston Common

Boston became a shoppers’ paradise with some 500 shops, which were filled with many imported goods ranging from musical instruments and books to jewellery and toys. The presence of printing presses and bookstores made it a very intellectual city. There were some 150 taverns, as well as numerous coffee houses where patrons could debate the issues of the day with each other.

One contemporary observer noted that “a Gentleman from London would almost think of himself at home at Boston, when he observes the Numbers of people, their Houses, their Furniture, their Tables, their Dress and Conversation, which perhaps is as splendid and showy as that of the most considerable Tradesmen in London”. “The buildings in Boston are in general good,” said a visiting clergyman in 1759. “The streets are open and spacious, and well-paved; and the whole has much the air of some of our best country towns in England.”

Boston may have been a fun place to live, but there was also a serious side to the town. As colony established by the Puritans, it became compulsory to go to church and a number of rules were imposed, such as tobacco taking being banned in taverns (although as the place grew, it was harder to maintain the purity imposed at the outset). Most of the 18th century churches that can and should be visited in the city have their origins in simpler meeting halls which were first erected in the 17th century. Indeed, Harvard University’s founding purpose was to supply Massachusetts with ministers for the colony’s churches.

Site of Boston’s first meeting house

Starting as a small village in the 1630s, by the 1770s – the time of the American Revolution – Boston had become an important seaport and commercial centre with a population of 15,000 people. Its economy was closely related to that of Britain, but in a matter of a few years its ties with the motherland would be severed.

Next week on Pastinthepresent.net: Exploring Boston in the age of Revolution

Categories: United States, World

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