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Boston: A Topographical History

Source: Walter Muir Whitehill, Boston: A Topographical History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959).

[page 9]

[…] the Great Street was 113 feet wide. Within this area was an open air market place where farmers, sailors, townspeople and visiting Indians jostled each other for decades. The first meeting house fronted on the market place; the governor̓s house was nearby, and here in 1657 was built a Town House which served as the seat of government until its destruction by fire in 1711. Nearby to the east was the town dock, which has left its name in Dock Square.

The General Court on 1 April 1634 ordered every town to make up a book recording the ownership and transfer of properties. Actually Boston seems to have been dilatory in complying, for the Book of Possessions, which is the earliest thorough survey of landholdings, seems to have been compiled about 1643. This volume, which was published in the Second Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston through the energy of that indefatigable archivist and antiquary William H. WHITMORE, has furnished

[page 10]

the evidence for several reconstruction maps of Boston in the mid-seventeenth century.  While Captain John BONNER̓s map of 1722 is the first detailed contemporary map of the town, one can get a fair notion of the distribution of population from the modern map (Fig. 5) that Samuel C. CLOUGH prepared in 1927 for the Colonial Society of Massachusetts from the data contained in the Book of Possessions. There one notes the considerable amount of marshy ground along the shore front; the absence of any settlement on Fort Hill, Copp̓s Hill or the Trimountain, the rather heavy concentration around the market place and the road to the Neck, and the number of householders who had established themselves along the shore in the North End.

[page 37]

[…] the town that Captain BONNER described in 1722, on the first issue of his map, as having 42 streets, 36 lanes, 22 alleys, and “Houses near 3000, 1000 Brick, rest Timber.” The pattern of growth over the first ninety-two years is clear enough. Substituting the modern place names, the heart is the intersection of Washington and State Streets, at the First Church and the Town House, with the Town Dock hard by; for Washington Street affords the only approach to the town by land, and State Street the principall access from the sea. The churchyard adjoining King̓s Chapel is the oldest burying ground in the town. In 1650, a second church is established in North Square, and from 1660 the North End has its own burying ground on Copp̓s Hill. The third church, of 1669, is the Old South at Washington and Milk, while the Granary Burying Ground of 1660 serves the central area and South End.  By 1772 the North End has three Congregational meeting houses and one Baptist; the South End two Congregational, and the central area two Congregational, one Quaker and one French Protestant meeting house, as well as the Church of England King̓s Chapel.

If one had no other documents on colonial Boston, the crowded shore line of BONNER̓s map alone would testify to the maritime nature of the place, for a town of twelve thousand inhabitants with upwards of forty wharves, more than a dozen shipyards and six ropewalks, could only be a thriving seaport. It was, of course, not only that but the largest town in British North America—a place that it continued to hold until the middle of the eighteenth century, when it fell behind the faster growing ports of Philadelphia and New York.

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