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Chronicles of Old Boston: Exploring New England's Historic Capital

Chronicles of Old Boston: Exploring New England's Historic Capital

by Charles Bahne

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Discover one of America’s most historic cities through 30 dramatic true stories spanning Boston’s 400-year history, and then visit the places where history happened on walking tours of the city’s historic neighborhoods. Boston expert Charles Bahne reveals some of the city’s most shocking moments, from a murder mystery on the Harvard campus


Discover one of America’s most historic cities through 30 dramatic true stories spanning Boston’s 400-year history, and then visit the places where history happened on walking tours of the city’s historic neighborhoods. Boston expert Charles Bahne reveals some of the city’s most shocking moments, from a murder mystery on the Harvard campus to the mistake that sent two million gallons of molasses pouring down Commerce Street. Other essays explore major historic events including the Boston Tea Party and the ride of Paul Revere to the establishment of the Red Sox and Fenway Park. The book also contains stories about John Hancock, Charles Bulfinch, Fredrick Law Olmsted, Alexander Graham Bell, Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Kennedys, and more.

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Museyon Inc
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Chronicles Series
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Chronicles of Old Boston

Exploring new England's Historic Capital

By Charles Bahne

Museyon, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Charles Bahne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-938450-06-8



John Winthrop established the tone for Boston before his ship even left British waters. "For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill," Winthrop told his fellow émigrés aboard the Arbella, as they waited for fair winds to take them to America in the spring of 1630. "The eyes of all people are upon Us." Whether it succeeded or failed, the new settlement would prove an example for all the world to observe. "A Model of Christian Charity," he called it.

The men and women who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony were different from other European colonists of the early 17th century. Wealthier and better educated than settlers elsewhere, they were not adventurers, traders or planters. Despite positions of influence in a rising middle class, they faced religious and political persecution. Their opponents called them "Puritans" because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England. It was not a name they called themselves.

In the Puritans' eyes, the Church of England — also called the Anglican Church — was rife with corruption. The King appointed the Archbishop; the Archbishop named the bishops; and the bishops chose the parish clergy.

"Scandalous and dumb ministers" misinterpreted the Bible, or so the Puritans thought, while "learned" ministers were suspended by their superiors. Efforts at reform were rebuffed by the upper levels of the church hierarchy, who lived royally. In 1625 a new king, Charles, acceded to the throne; he soon began to suppress the dissenters even more harshly.

It took years for the self-proclaimed "saints" to plan their escape from "this sinfull lande." They received a land grant in March of 1628, and a charter a year later. Charles may have issued the charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company simply because he wanted the Puritans to leave the mother country.

Like other American settlements of the era, the Bay Company's charter was suited to a commercial enterprise, not to a government. It was assumed that the investors and top officials would remain in England. But that wasn't spelled out in the document. Six months after receiving the charter, the Company's members agreed to transfer "the whole Government," the charter included, to America.

John Winthrop didn't plan to join that first group to come to New England. At 41 years old, a successful lawyer and a justice of the peace with a manor at Groton, he was sympathetic to their beliefs but not yet convinced to depart his home. But the colony's "Chief undertakers" persuaded Winthrop that "the welfare of the Plantation depends upon his going," and they would not go without him. In October of 1629, Winthrop was unanimously elected Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company.

The next March, some 700 souls boarded 11 ships at Southampton, England. The first four vessels departed on March 22, carrying Governor Winthrop and the colony's other leaders. They arrived on the other side of the Atlantic on June 12. According to Winthrop, "Salem, where we landed, pleased us not," and within a week the company had moved to Charlestown. That too was unsuccessful, due to "the want of fresh water," and by the fall most of the early settlers were moving across the river.

On September 7, 1630, the Court of Assistants ordered: "Trimountaine shall be called Boston." The name refers to a town in Lincolnshire, England, from which several prominent members of the colony had come. ("Massachusetts" was a Native American term meaning "at the blue hills," a reference to the peaks south of Boston that are visible from Massachusetts Bay.) On November 29 Winthrop wrote back to England, "My dear wife, we are here in a paradise." Margaret Winthrop would follow him a year later.

The colony grew spectacularly, and it thrived under Winthrop. A thousand more arrived later that year; and within a decade over 20,000 Englishmen and women would settle in the Bay Colony. This was far more people than the colony's leaders had anticipated, and there were growing pains as new towns were established throughout the countryside.

At the beginning, John Winthrop and the other founders of the Bay Colony thought democracy to be incompatible with their goals. Sitting at the edge of the wilderness, they were keenly aware of potential enemies. Among those enemies, of course, were the church officials back in England. And there were internal enemies, too: In order to accomplish the works of God on earth, there could be no tolerance for heresy. Seeking freedom to worship in the way they saw fit, the Puritans didn't believe they could offer the same freedom to those who disagreed with them. The other New England colonies — Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire — were all founded by people driven out of Massachusetts for religious reasons.

Still, democracy arose naturally. Distance diminished the king's authority, and new structures formed to replace it. Without bishops, the churches of Massachusetts became congregational: each parish was a direct covenant between God and his parishioners. When a decision had to be made, the assembled parishioners relied on their collective wisdom to reach a just one. Yet church and state were distinct. God was concerned with men's souls, not with petty matters of local government.

Secular government soon followed the congregational model, evolving into the New England town meeting, a form of direct democracy. The town meetings, in turn, elected delegates to the General Court, or legislature. For half a century, the people of Massachusetts Bay governed themselves, without interference from the mother country — setting a precedent for their descendants' protests against the policies of George III and his Parliament.

A key belief for the Puritans was the concept of "commonwealth," the idea that a community is interdependent: all its members share responsibility for their overall well-being, and for each other. As Winthrop said aboard the Arbella, "We must bear one another's burthens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren ... For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man." This idea was still important to the leaders of Massachusetts a century and a half later, when John Adams drafted the Constitution that still governs the Commonwealth — not the State — of Massachusetts.

John Winthrop was the guiding light of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He helped establish principles of government that Americans now take for granted, such as the two-house legislature and the absence of hereditary titles. Twelve times he was re-elected as Governor; three times he was chosen Deputy Governor. But the people of Massachusetts did not follow his light blindly; in some elections he was defeated. When he died in 1649, he had been Governor for 12 of the Colony's 19 years.

Winthrop's words onboard the Arbella continue to inspire generations of Americans. Three centuries after that ship sailed across the ocean, as John F. Kennedy prepared to assume the Presidency, he recalled John Winthrop's famous words: "We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill — the eyes of all people are upon us."



The Puritans who settled Massachusetts in 1630 carried their love of learning across the Atlantic with them. Wealthier and better educated than most other 17th-century emigrants, they'd grown tired of English pastors who weren't knowledgeable about the Holy Scripture. So, less than a decade after they'd carved out settlements in the wilderness, they created an institution of learning that has become one of the greatest universities in the world.

As one of their members wrote in 1643, "After God had carried us safe to New England ... One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust."

Yet, for such an illustrious institution, the establishment of Harvard College was marked by mishaps and scandals. Perhaps no one in history has achieved so much fame from such a small monetary donation as John Harvard got from his bequest.

We do know this: John Harvard was not the founder of the college. In fact, he was still in England when it was created.

Truth be told, there was no single "founder" of Harvard College. It was created by an act of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's legislature, the Great and General Court. Colonial records say that, on October 28, 1636, the Court agreed to give £400 towards a school or college. It's not recorded who proposed the measure, and the ayes and nays are similarly lost to history.

The promised £400, almost a quarter of the colony's annual budget (and about $70,000 in today's money), was to be given in installments. In the end, the "country's gift" wasn't fully paid until 14 years later, and some of that in agricultural produce instead of cash.

In agreeing to fund the college, the General Court decided "to appoint where and what building" at its following session, but the Court was preoccupied with the heresy trial of Anne Hutchinson, a matter that kept officials busy for a full year. It wasn't until November 15, 1637, that the Court ordered the college to be at "Newetowne," the community now known as Cambridge.

Five miles upstream from Boston, Newetowne had initially been planned as the colony's capital. But things hadn't worked out that way, and many of the town's first residents relocated to Connecticut, perhaps because of religious differences with other colonists. A new group of settlers came to Newetowne in 1636; the "enlightening and powerful ministry" of their leader, the Reverend Thomas Shepard, was one reason why the town was chosen for the college over Marblehead, another suggested site for "that happy seminary."

Once picked as the college's home, it was only natural that Newetowne be renamed in honor of an English university town. Many of the colony's leaders had studied at Cambridge; so in May of 1638, the General Court "ordered, that Newetowne shall henceforward be called Cambrige."

After choosing the site for the college, the Court picked a committee of overseers to operate it. The overseers bought an acre of land from a Mr. Peyntree and began construction of a college building upon his cow yard. Until that first building was completed, Peyntree's former house served as the school's temporary headquarters.

For the college's first professor, the overseers selected Nathaniel Eaton. Sometime in the summer of 1638 — the exact date is lost to history — Professor Eaton began instructing nine students, the first freshman class.

As far as can be discovered, John Harvard had no connection with the college while he was living. He likely knew Nathaniel Eaton, perhaps even called him a friend; they might have met during their college years. No one is sure of the reason for his gift; we only know that, when he died on September 14, 1638, Harvard bequeathed half his estate and his entire library to the still-unnamed college in Cambridge.

Born in London in 1607, the son of a butcher, John Harvard had trained for the ministry at the University of Cambridge; but with his Puritan beliefs, he could not hope to be a clergyman in his home country. His parents and his siblings had all died young, many of them perishing of the plague; his combined inheritances made John a well-to-do member of the middle class. At his death he was described as "a Scholler and pious in his life."

John Harvard and his wife Ann arrived in Massachusetts in summer of 1637, possibly on the same ship with Nathaniel Eaton. Both families settled in Charlestown, where Harvard was named assistant minister of the church. Scarcely a year after his arrival, Harvard succumbed to "a consumption" (tuberculosis). Childless and just 30 years old, he left no written will, just a deathbed request that his estate be divided between his widow and the new college.

Sources vary greatly in their assessment of John Harvard's estate; an early college treasurer put the college's share at exactly £779 17s. 2d., the equivalent of about $140,000 in today's currency. Of this total, it's unclear how much the school actually received. Some of the bequest was in the form of uncollected debts; as late as 1650 the college was still suing John Harvard's debtors in efforts to recover the money. And chief among his assets was a tavern in a busy section of London, later sold for an undisclosed price.

Based on this legacy, and on his extensive library of 329 titles (more than 400 volumes), the General Court voted the next March that the school "shalbee called Harvard Colledge," thus granting immortality to a young minister who probably would otherwise be forgotten.

Alas, Nathaniel Eaton proved to be an unfortunate choice as the college's first professor. In August 1639, he was accused of giving an assistant teacher some 200 blows with a cudgel "big enough to have killed a horse." Investigation showed that Eaton regularly whipped his students, and his wife furnished an "ill and scant diet" to them, "ordinarily nothing but porridge and pudding, and that very homely." One of his students later called Eaton "fitter to have been ... master of a house of correction, than an instructor of Christian youth."

Summarily dismissed from Harvard, Eaton fled to Virginia, tossing a constable who tried to detain him overboard as he made his escape. It was then discovered that he'd amassed immense debts and had passed worthless bills of exchange. Of John Harvard's bequest, Eaton had absconded with everything he could lay hands on — at least £200, likely more. Years later he fled Virginia, abandoning his second wife there, and ultimately died in a London debtor's prison.

After just a year, the nascent college was forced to close while a new instructor was found. Its savior was Henry Dunster, chosen President of the College in 1640. Serving in that post for 14 years, Dunster was responsible for resuming classes, completing the college's first building, and putting the school in good financial standing. In 1642 he presided over Harvard College's first commencement ceremony, a graduating class of just nine students.

At the approach of its quarter-millennial celebration in 1886, the school — then known as Harvard University — wanted to honor its namesake with a statue. There are no portraits or even any written descriptions of John Harvard's appearance, so sculptor Daniel Chester French hired a student, Sherman Hoar (Harvard class of 1882) as a model. Its granite pedestal is carved "John Harvard, Founder, 1638," giving the sculpture the nickname "statue of three lies," since each line of the inscription is wrong. Tourists, told that rubbing the statue's left toe will bring good luck, have left that shoe bright and shiny; but students sometimes boast of doing unspeakable things to that shoe as well. As a university symbol, "John Harvard's" statue is a prime target for pranks by students of rival schools.

John Harvard's bequest of £779 — assuming that the college even got all of it — would be worth about $140,000 today. In a day when colleges routinely name things after large benefactors, a gift of that size would probably not even merit a coatroom. But for that puny amount, John Harvard got the greatest name in all of academia


Excerpted from Chronicles of Old Boston by Charles Bahne. Copyright © 2012 Charles Bahne. Excerpted by permission of Museyon, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Charles Bahne is a Boston historian, a tour guide, and the author of The Complete Guide to Boston’s Freedom Trail. He has worked in some of the city’s historic sites and museums, has been a seasonal park ranger with Boston National Historical Park, and has taught many Exploritas programs about Boston and its role in the American Revolution. He graduated from MIT with a major in urban studies and planning, focusing on urban history and tourism. He lives in Boston.

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