Boston, the largest city in New England, is located on a hilly peninsula in Massachusetts Bay. The region had been inhabited since at least 2400 B.C. by the Massachusetts tribe of Native Americans, who called the peninsula Shawmut.
Captain John Smith in 1614 explored the coastline of what he christened “New England” (to make the area sound more attractive to settlers). Within a few years, more than half the Native Americans in the region had died of smallpox introduced by European explorers.
A fleet of ships helmed by Puritans left England in 1630, settling in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Led by John Winthrop, the group soon merged with the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, located about 40 miles to the south in Cape Cod Bay.
Originally called Tremontaine for the three hills in the area, the Puritans later changed the settlement’s name to Boston, after the town in Lincolnshire, England, from which many Puritans originated. In the 1630s, Boston Latin School—where Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Samuel Adams studied—and Harvard University were founded.
Despite the premium placed on education and religion, Boston’s Puritans weren’t keen on tolerance: The “crime” of being a Quaker was punishable by imprisonment or death, celebrating Christmas was banned, and in 1643 the city welcomed the first slave ship into Boston Harbor.
As Boston grew and prospered, tensions between colonists and English governors increased, especially after the British Parliament passed the Molasses Act of 1733, which levied a tax on molasses, a critical import for Boston rum makers. Soon, the city’s politicians and clergymen were crying out for, “No taxation without representation!”
After the 1770 Boston Massacre, during which British troops fired upon a mob of colonists, killing five, anti-British sentiment reached a fever pitch. When the 1773 Tea Act levied taxes on imported tea, the Sons of Liberty staged the Boston Tea Party, dumping some 45 tons of tea into Boston Harbor.
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Many of the key events of the Revolutionary War occurred in or near Boston, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Paul Revere’s ride and the Battle of Bunker Hill. The city celebrated when the British evacuated the city in 1776, ending the Siege of Boston.
Boston continued to grow in the 1800s, and Massachusetts—home of William Lloyd Garrison and a longtime center of the abolitionist movement—was the first state in the Union to abolish slavery. Fleeing the Potato Famine, Irish immigrants flooded into Boston, and were later joined by Italian, Eastern European, Chinese and other nationalities. In 1897, the first Boston Marathon was held.
Boston entered a period of decline in the 20th century, as older factories were abandoned for modern manufacturing facilities and cheaper labor elsewhere. The “Curse of the Bambino”—occurring after Babe Ruth was traded to the New York Yankees in 1918, and the Boston Red Sox failed to win the World Series for 86 years—seemed to haunt the city.
One year later, 21 people died in the Great Molasses Flood, when a giant tank of the sweet sticky stuff exploded in Boston’s North End. In 1942, the Cocoanut Grove Fire killed 492 people, in one of the deadliest nightclub fires in world history.
READ MORE: Why the Great Molasses Flood Was So Deadly
In the Great Brinks Robbery of 1950, thieves made off with more than $2 million from Boston’s Brinks Armored Car depot. In 1974, racial violence erupted citywide over court-ordered school busing. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was robbed in 1990 of some its most priceless artworks (the crime remains unsolved to this day).
And in 2013, the Boston Marathon Bombing resulted in the deaths of three spectators. Despite these challenges, the city has emerged in the 21st century as a prosperous and cosmopolitan center of technology, education and medical research, with a population of about 4.7 million in the greater Boston area.
Boston, World Atlas
History of Boston, VisitBoston.com
Boston History Timeline, Boston Discovery Guide
History of Early Boston, History of Massachusetts
The History of Boston, Massachusetts, 1630-1795, Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum