Massachusetts: Freedom Trail, Boston Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Freedom Trail runs past more than a dozen landmarks in Boston, all related to the role of the city and its environs in colonial times, the American Revolution, and the early days of the United States. The area comprises several cemeteries, including the Granary Burying Ground in which Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other key figures of the revolution are interred and Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in which lie Puritan leaders Increase and Cotton Mather; the Park Street and Old North Churches, the Old South Meeting House, and King’s Chapel and Burying Ground; the Old Corner Bookstore; Faneuil Hall; the Paul Revere House; the Bunker Hill Monument; and the Charlestown Navy Yard, at which is anchored the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”). The route is marked, in most places, with a red line on the sidewalks of the city, though in a few places it is marked by gray stones on a red brick sidewalk.

Site Office

Boston National Historical Park

Charlestown Navy Yard

Boston, MA 02129-4543

ph.: (617) 242-5644

Web site: www.nps.gov/bost/ftrail.htm

Boston has been called the “Cradle of Liberty” and the “Birthplace of American Independence.” Its history is filled with images, names, and phrases graven in the American mind, from the earliest Puritan settlers through the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. Today, Boston is a history-conscious metropolis–the largest in New England–where three hundred-year old buildings stand surrounded by glass skyscrapers.

Early History

The first European settler in Boston, called Shawmut (living waters) by the Native Americans, was William Blackstone or Blaxton, who arrived in the New World in 1622 with a group of colonists who settled about fifteen miles to the south. He moved by himself to Shawmut in 1625, after the other colony failed.

Puritans, members of a sect started in the late 1500’s by dissenters within the Church of England, arrived in 1630, settling across the river from Blackstone’s cottage on a site called Mishawum by the Native Americans. They were the vanguard of more than ten thousand Puritans who would settle in the area over the next decade, driven from England by the major political struggle that developed from their efforts to purify the church of ritual trappings and return to the simplicity of the first Christian congregations. The newcomers renamed the site Charlestown and called the river the Charles, both for Great Britain’s King Charles I, who had granted them their colonial charter.

When the Puritans encountered problems with disease and an insufficient water supply, Blackstone invited them to use the springs at Shawmut. They moved across the river and, on September 17, 1630, renamed the area Boston after the English town from which many of them had come. Four years later, Blackstone sold his fifty acres of pasture to the town for thirty pounds and moved to Rhode Island. His pasture became Boston Common, the oldest public open space in the United States.

Puritan Theocracy

Once settled, the Puritans, who had fled religious intolerance, established a theocracy in which their worldview brooked little variance. They executed individuals with unorthodox religious views and drove out dissenters. Prominent among the leaders of the theocracy was the Mather family. The founder of the clan, Richard (1596-1669), arrived in Boston in 1636 after being suspended from the Anglican ministry. In 1640, he collaborated on the earliest surviving book published in America, The Bay Psalm Book, and in 1646 he drafted the Cambridge Platform, which became the basic organizing document of the New England Congregationalists.

Increase Mather

Richard’s son, Increase (1639-1723), was for almost three decades the leading clergyman in the theocracy. He was the colony’s chief diplomat in negotiations with London after Charles II revoked the colony’s charter in 1684, a year before his brother, James II, ascended the throne. The original charter had permitted colonists to elect their own governor, and in 1686 Increase Mather was sent to London to argue for the return of the charter and the dismissal of Edmund Andros, the autocratic governor appointed by the king. In 1691, after the overthrow of King James II, Massachusetts secured a new charter and, although the charter did not allow for elections, Queen Mary and her husband, Prince William of Orange, allowed Mather to choose the next governor, William Phips. Increase Mather’s son, Cotton, also became a prominent New England clergyman.

Insults visited on the colony by the British Crown did not end with the revocation of its charter. James II ordered the establishment of an Anglican parish in Boston. Since no Puritan would sell the Anglicans land for a church, Governor Andros had difficulty finding a site; finally, in 1687, he seized a corner of the city’s oldest burial ground, first used in 1630, the final resting place of many staunch Puritans and a repository of the ornate carvings and unusual epitaphs that are the art and literature in Boston’s graveyards.

The First King’s Chapel

On this site was built the first King’s Chapel, a wooden structure which quickly became a source of irritation to the colonists. They saw its elegant furnishings, including the first organ to be installed in any church in the British colonies, as symbolic of the churches their forebears had left. They saw its congregants–including royal governors, colonial officials, and military officers–as being too powerful. They saw its presence as a threat to their freedom.

In 1749 the wooden chapel was replaced by a granite structure with an elegant interior. The cornerstone-setting ceremony brought forth a shower of garbage, dead animals, and curses on the celebrants from angry Puritans.

Hostility toward the chapel remained high until the American Revolution, when nearly half its pew holders left with the British Army. In 1785, the remaining congregants of what had come to be called Stone Chapel made it the first Unitarian church in America, combining Unitarian beliefs with liturgy from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Friction with Great Britain

While the Mathers and other Boston-based theologians spoke out from the city’s pulpits, a prosperous merchant-shipping class was developing and increasingly voicing discontent with the king and Parliament. Men such as Samuel Adams, the organizer of the revolution, and John Hancock, the war’s banker, spearheaded a movement that would make Boston a center of rebellion. Such local groups as the Sons of Liberty and the Committee of Correspondence organized first resistance to and then open revolt against British-imposed taxes.

A major site of overt friction between Britain and the colonists was what is now called the Old State House. Built in 1713, it was the capitol of the colony, housing not only the royally appointed British officials but also the freely elected Massachusetts Assembly, the most radical of the colonial legislatures. Its ground floor was the site of the daily meetings of Boston’s first merchants’ exchange.

Moving Toward the Revolutionary War

From the Old State House balcony, the royal governors made their official proclamations; but on July 18, 1776, Colonel Thomas Crafts stood there and read a copy of the Declaration of Independence, newly arrived from Philadelphia. The reading marked the high point of many years of independence-minded activism at the State House.

In 1766 the room where the assembly met became the first governmental meeting place in which a gallery was installed so the public could watch the proceedings. The first proceedings so honored was a debate on the Stamp Act. Thereafter, the gallery provided a place from which crowds could heckle representatives who supported Britain. Because of the assembly’s outspokenness, the governor frequently blocked its meetings or forced it to meet away from Boston.

The Old State House ceased being used when the new one on Beacon Hill was completed in 1798. After the old structure deteriorated during the nineteenth century, a citizens’ group organized to preserve and restore it. It has been a museum since 1882.

Public opposition to British rule was first voiced in Boston’s town meeting hall. The building, completed in 1742, was a gift to the city by Peter Faneuil, a prominent merchant. It was intended as a public market, but the great meeting hall above the market stalls gave it its identity as the “Cradle of Liberty.”

Destroyed by fire in 1761, the hall was rebuilt in 1763 in time for a meeting in May, 1764, at which the citizens of Boston denounced the Sugar Act, declaring the principle of “no taxation without representation.”

In Faneuil Hall’s meeting room, citizens later rallied against the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the landing of British troops in the colonies. There they created the Committee of Correspondence to exchange news and ideas with other towns and colonies. And there, on November 5, 1773, led by John Hancock, they held the first of the meetings that led to the Boston Tea Party.

After the Boston Tea Party, the British banned town meetings and used Faneuil Hall to house troops. It was then used as a theater, but after the revolution the hall once more fulfilled its donor’s stipulation that it always be open for public use. The Marquis de Lafayette was honored there with a banquet after the revolution. Nearly every American war was debated at the hall, as were major issues such as slavery, women’s rights, and temperance. In keeping with its role as a bastion of free speech, it served both as the chief rallying place of Boston’s active abolitionists and the scene of defense of slavery by Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy.

Before Faneuil Hall was enlarged in 1806, crowds too large for its confines made their way to the Old South Meeting House, a Puritan church that was the largest meeting place in Boston. Many of the events that led to the revolution took place there.

The Boston Massacre

One of the earliest of these overflow meetings followed the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. What began as a confrontation over a fraudulent barber bill led to a British guard outside the Custom House, across from the Old State House, being surrounded by hundreds of irate citizens. Eight British soldiers and their commander, who went to restore order, were also trapped. The crowd yelled insults and threw snowballs and rocks at the soldiers. Finally, one of the frightened soldiers fired. After a brief flurry of shots, five men were dead or dying and several more were wounded. The first blood of the American Revolution was drawn.

The massacre was the culmination of a series of incidents that grew from the colonists’ reaction to the Quartering Acts of 1765 and 1766, under which British soldiers were housed in barracks, public houses, and unoccupied buildings around Boston, and from Bostonian workers’ anger over soldiers taking off-duty jobs in the city’s industry. In the aftermath of the killings and the meetings at Old South, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson removed the troops from their quarters in the city.

The day after the deaths, the soldiers were charged with murder. They were defended in their October trial by John Adams and Josiah Quincy. Both were anti-British but believed the charges unjustified. Seven of the accused, including the commander, were acquitted, and two were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, branded on the hand, and discharged. The public, however, continued to perceive the event as an attack by bloodthirsty soldiers on peaceful people, and “the massacre” became a crucial event on the road to revolution.

The Boston Tea Party

The next major incident to fan passions came almost four years later, in response to the Tea Act. The tax on tea was the lone duty Britain left in force when it responded to increasingly violent colonial reaction to its authority by repealing other duties imposed in 1765 and 1767. Late in 1773, some half a million pounds of surplus tea were sent to the colonies. In New York and Philadelphia, merchants refused to accept it. In Charleston, it was stored in warehouses. In Boston, the captains of three tea-filled ships agreed not to unload, but Governor Hutchinson refused to let them leave without paying duty. By law, they had to unload and pay the tax within twenty days of arrival.

Midnight on December 16 was the deadline for the first ship that had anchored. On that day, seven thousand citizens gathered at Old South for a meeting presided over by Samuel Adams. A delegation was sent to make a final plea to Hutchinson, who would not change his mind. After the delegates’ report back to the meeting was acknowledged, nearly one hundred members of the Sons of Liberty, dressed as Mohawk Indians, appeared outside the meeting room. Followed by two thousand spectators, they went to the harbor, boarded the ships, and dumped 342 chests of tea weighing a total of sixty tons into the water. Nothing else was damaged.

In retaliation, Parliament closed Boston Harbor, abolished the colony’s elected government, and ordered soldiers quartered in civilians’ homes. These acts further united the colonies against British rule.

On April 18, 1775, British troops departed from their camp on Boston Common to seize rebel supplies at Concord. Their plans, devised by General Thomas Gage, Massachusetts’s last royal governor, in the Province House, his official residence, were among the worst-kept military secrets ever. When a groom who overheard the plans told Paul Revere, Revere said he was the third person to bring the information.

Paul Revere

Revere lived in the North End, Boston’s oldest neighborhood, then the Island of North Boston, separated from the rest of the city by the Mill Creek. The middle-aged silversmith, who founded the Revere Copper and Brass Company after the Revolution, was an accomplished propagandist and was also an express rider who carried messages for the Committee of Correspondence. He was one of six riders who had warned other ports not to allow tea ships to land their cargoes and also brought the news of the Tea Party to New York and Philadelphia after he spent the night dumping tea into the harbor.

Early in 1775, Revere helped form a committee of patriots to watch the movements of the British troops. On April 16, they noted that the British appeared to be making plans, and Revere made his first ride to Lexington to warn John Hancock and Samuel Adams. After he returned to Boston, Revere and other revolutionary leaders agreed they would hang lanterns in the Old North Church, near his home and possessed of the tallest steeple in the city, to signal the route of the troops if they started to move, just in case he was unable to leave the island. When the soldiers started their anticipated move off the common, the patriots thought, incorrectly, that they were going to arrest Hancock and Adams. Revere asked the church sexton, Robert Newman, to light the lanterns in the steeple. Then Revere set out, as did William Dawes, who traveled by another road to ensure that the message would get through. A third rider, sent from Charlestown, did not reach Lexington.

Revere went by way of Medford, where he awakened the captain of the Minutemen–armed colonists who vowed to show up at any conflict at a minute’s notice–and gave a warning at almost every house from there to Lexington, which he reached just after midnight and a half hour before Dawes. After warning Hancock and Adams, the two riders and Dr. Samuel Prescott, whom they had encountered on the way, continued on to Concord. Prescott completed their warning mission after a British patrol stopped the three. Dawes also escaped but did not reach Concord, and Revere was arrested and sent back toward Boston. Outside Lexington, however, a practice volley fired by the militia scared the patrollers and they released Revere, although they kept his horse as the first prisoner of the war.

When the troops from Boston reached Lexington, they kept their rendezvous with history and the Minutemen. The “shot heard round the world” punctuated the confrontation between the British and the colonial forces and marked the formal start of the American Revolution.

After his ride to Lexington, it was almost a year before Revere could return home. It was even longer before his name became famous for the ride rather than his silversmithing. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard the story of the ride from a guide when he visited the Old North Church (officially Christ Church in Boston) in 1860 and, a year later, his famous, though not completely accurate, poem was published.

Within days of the fighting at Lexington, colonists were streaming into Cambridge while British reinforcements arrived in Boston. The colonists laid siege to the city but, except for one skirmish and some posturing, little happened until mid-June.

War Begins

On June 17, two days after George Washington was named commander of the newly designated Continental Army and while he was marching north to take his command, the situation came to a head.

British General Thomas Gage decided that on June 18, his army would land on Dorchester Neck, south of Boston, and sweep around the city. As at Lexington, the colonists learned of the plans in time to circumvent them. They planned to build fortifications on Bunker Hill north of the city and, on June 16, a thousand soldiers advanced, in the end deciding to fortify Breed’s Hill instead of its taller neighbor and in so doing creating lasting confusion about the site of the first great battle of the revolution.

The Battle of Bunker Hill

When June 17 dawned, the unexpected sight of fortifications confronted the British, but Gage decided it would be easy to take the hill and then continue his planned sweep. The royal troops prepared, perhaps too carefully, spending the morning gathering supplies and loading their packs for the anticipated march while the colonists dug in more securely.

The British rowed across the harbor, set Charlestown ablaze, and then made three assaults on the fortifications. In the first two attacks, they advanced in orderly rows, carrying full packs for the march to come, and lost hundreds of men when the defenders effectively followed their orders not to fire until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” Some British units lost 75 to 90 percent of their men, with casualties among the officers, singled out as targets, especially high.

For the third attack, the British troops left their packs behind and were joined by artillery and reinforcements. The colonists, who were almost out of gunpowder, held off the British with rocks and their rifle butts as they made an orderly retreat and left the royal troops in control of the hill. Yet the victory cost the British 1,054 casualties, including 226 deaths, and cost Gage his command. The larger force of the colonists suffered 441 casualties. As one of them said, “I wish I could sell them another hill at the same price.”

Fifty years later, the cornerstone for a monument commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill was laid on the battlefield by the Marquis de Lafayette. Daniel Webster spoke then, as he did when the monument itself, an obelisk, was dedicated in 1843.

On July 3, 1775, Washington took command of seventeen thousand men in Cambridge. He spent the next months training them and awaiting the arrival of cannon. In January, 1776, artillery arrived, and on March 4 it was put in position above Boston. William Howe, who had replaced Gage, did not want to risk defeat, so he loaded his men and weapons and hundreds of supporters on ships for Nova Scotia. They abandoned the city on March 17.

The next day, Washington marched down the main road into the city, marking the colonists’ first victory of the war. Thirteen years later, as president, he returned for a parade down the same road in the day it was renamed in his honor.

“Old Ironsides”

The USS Constitution, better known as “Old Ironsides,” was built in Hartt’s Shipyard in the North End. It was one of six frigates authorized in 1794 when Congress established a navy. They were built at separate seaports; in 1797 the Constitution was the third of the frigates to be launched.

The six were built of live oak, an unusually durable wood found on the sea islands of Georgia. The Constitution received its nickname during the War of 1812 after its victorious battle with HMS Guerriere when a British seaman observed cannon balls bouncing off its hull and cried, “Her sides are made of iron.” The Constitution and its crew of 450 amassed an impressive collection of victories during the war and the Constitution remained active until 1830, when plans to dismantle the ship were averted by popular sentiment.

In 1800, three years after the Constitution was launched, the federal government bought for its first navy yard the land on which Gage’s troops had landed to burn down Charlestown and attack Breed’s Hill. By that time, Charlestown was largely rebuilt. The community of Charlestown developed into a prosperous suburb and eventually was annexed by Boston.

The Charlestown Navy Yard became one of the two most productive naval facilities in the United States, the other one being the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia. It saw its greatest activity during World War II, with as many as fifty thousand workers employed at the yard. In 1943 it built sixty ships, more than it had in all the previous one hundred forty years of its history.

The yard was closed in 1974 and became a historical museum. Two of its most popular attractions are the Constitution and a World War II-era ship, the USS Cassin Young. The shipyard marks the end of the Freedom Trail.

For Further Information
  • Bahne, Charles. The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Newtowne, 1993. Provides a wealth of anecdotes about early Boston, arranged to follow the sequence of landmarks along the trail.
  • Cooper, Jason. Historic Boston. Vero Beach, Fla.: Rourke, 1999. Descriptions of the places where Boston’s patriots lived, worked, battled, and argued against British rule. Includes the Massachusetts State House, Faneuil Hall, and the Old North Church.
  • Frost, Jack, and Robert Booth. Boston’s Freedom Trail: A Souvenir Guide. Revised by Shirley Blotnick Moskow. 5th ed. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2000. An illustrated guide to legendary landmarks including Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market, the Old North Church, Bunker Hill, and the USS Constitution.
  • Schofield, William G. Freedom by the Bay: The Boston Freedom Trail. 2d ed. Boston: Branden, 1988. A guidebook to important sites in colonial Boston. This edition offers a new prologue and epilogue. Includes an index.
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