by Dr. Chris Parsons, Project Lead and Faculty, Northeastern University History Department
How can it be hard to find Boston’s history? Surely, when we walk the freedom trail, tour the common, or visit one of the many historic house museums in the Boston area, we are enjoying a city that celebrates its history as few others do? Yet the history of seventeenth-century Boston – or Puritan Boston, we could call it – is relatively invisible in a landscape that has changed dramatically since the city’s founding. The Birth of Boston project will join nearby sites such as Plimoth Plantation to highlight the history of Boston before the revolution; when Massachusetts was one colony among many clinging to the eastern shore of North America.
I didn’t know any of this when I began trying to integrate local history into an Atlantic history class that I teach here at Northeastern. History 1218, or “Pirates, Planters and Patriots: Making the Americas,” examines colonial encounters between indigenous peoples and European empires across North and South America in the centuries before the Haitian declaration of independence in 1804. These are frequently abstract and geographically removed from Boston, and so I began to look for resources in which students could see how accessible this history is. I proposed an assignment in which students would read John Winthrop’s account of the founding of Boston and go to several of the places that he mentioned; specifically, I highlighted the water spring that brought the Puritans to the area, the location of Winthrop’s house, and the site of the first church that these religious refugees founded in their new home. All of these are within a few hundred yards of the Old State House which has been, since the first moments of Boston’s history, the heart of the city. As important as these sites were, however, today they are memorialized by century-old plaques in the alleys behind skyscrapers; they are hidden almost entirely under the landscape of the modern city.
I imagined students getting on the Orange Line, traveling a few stops, noting with curiosity how close this history is, and appreciating how close Northeastern is to some of the major moments in the history that we would study over the term. Nonetheless, within a week I had student report their experiences traveling to Dorchester, Cambridge, and Charlestown. Others had emailed for help and I had provided clearer clues and told them what to google to find these places. What amazed me was two things:
- that students were certain they had to leave Boston to find older histories, and
- how hard it was for my students to find out information about Boston’s early history, even when I told them they could use Google and Wikipedia.
With this sort of assignment in mind, I turned – as I often do when I have a question about Boston’s history – to the Massachusetts Historical Society.<. I was particularly attracted to projects that the MHS had in their possession that had tried to map the early city. Samuel Chester Clough and Annie Haven Thwing both worked in the early decades of the twentieth century and were part of a broader project that sought to preserve the memory of Boston’s Puritan history. Clough and Thwing though were interested in the geography of this history; where did people live and where did they meet, eat, and pray? The products of their labors were maps and index cards with information about residents and their relationships. They provided a map to the sort of historical experience that I want my students to have.
Over the next few months, this began the Birth of Boston project. The information needed to experience Puritan Boston is there, but it’s in libraries and archives. This project will take the instincts of Clough and Thwing – that history ought to be public – and bring it into the twenty-first century. I’m teaching Making the Americas again soon, and this time I’m sure that my students will benefit from the ability to see the many faces of Boston in the decades after it’s founding.