Guide to Boston History Research

Boston Buildings

A Guide to Researching Boston Buildings, from the Massachusetts State Library

The Boston Landmarks Commission
The BLC is the city's historic preservation agency. It provides public information on city Landmarks, local historic districts, and architectural inventories of Boston neighborhoods.
Boston Landmarks Commission
Room 805
1 City Hall Plaza
Boston, MA 02201

Boston Public Library
Bromley and Sanborn atlases of the city of Boston, showing buildings and their owners, are available at the Boston Public Library.
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Copley Square
Boston, MA 02116

Boston Genealogy

New England Historic Genealogical Society
The NEHGS has a very large collection of published genealogies, local histories, and copies of censuses and land, probate, town, immigration, and vital records relating to New England.
New England Historic Genealogical Society
101 Newbury Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116-3007

The Massachusetts Archives
This state archives is the repository for records of genealogical interest including vital records, passenger lists, censuses, and military records.
Massachusetts Archives
220 Morrissey Blvd.
Boston, MA 02125
(617) 727-2816

The National Archives and Records Administration
The National Archives' Northeast Regional Branch, located in Waltham, MA, also holds many records of genealogical interest at the federal level, including federal censuses, passenger lists, and military records.
NARA's Northeast Region
380 Trapelo Road
Waltham, MA 02452-6399
(866) 406-2379

Boston Public Library
Boston City Directories, which list individuals and businesses in the city from 1789 to 1960, are available in the microtext department of the Boston Public Library.
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Copley Square
Boston, MA 02116
617-536-5400, extension 2018

Historic Burying Grounds Initiative
This City of Boston site includes information about the city's historic cemeteries and a searchable database of the headstones in those cemeteries.

Boston Businesses

Boston Public Library, Kirstein Business Branch
The Kirstein has information on Boston business history.
Kirstein Business Branch
20 City Hall Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02108

Boston Public Library
Boston City Directories, which list individuals and businesses in the city from 1789 to 1960, are available in the microtext department of the Boston Public Library.
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Copley Square
Boston, MA 02116
617-536-5400, extension 2018

Boston Artists and Architects

Boston Public Library, Fine Arts Department
The BPL Fine Arts department maintains a Boston Architecture Reference File on Boston architects and a Boston Art Archives with information on Boston artists.
Boston Public Library, Fine Arts department
McKim Building, 3rd Floor
700 Boylston Street
Copley Square
Boston, MA 02116
617-536-5400, ext. 2275

General Boston History

Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Copley Square
Boston, MA 02116
617-536-5400, extension 2270
Email Form

Local libraries in Boston suburbs and other towns in Massachusetts

Links to institutions with primary sources of Boston history


General Facts about Boston

  • Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau
  • The Freedom Trail
  • Kids' Information Zone about Massachusetts Facts and History


    Frequently Asked Questions

    Early Puritan Boston
    Colonial Boston
    Boston in the American Revolution
    Becoming a City: Boston in the 19th Century
    Boston's Manmade Geography
    African-Americans in Boston
    Immigration and Ethnicity

    Early Puritan Boston

    Where did Boston get its name?
    The peninsula which became known as Boston was originally referred to as Shawmut (believed to mean Living Waters) by the Algonquin Indians. Shawmut was renamed Boston on September 7, 1630. Many of the original settlers came from Boston, England.

    What does Massachusetts mean?
    The name derives from two Indian words, massa meaning great, and wachusett meaning mountain place. It is believed this is a reference to the Great Blue Hill.

    Who was the first European settler in Boston?

    William Blackstone (or Blaxton), an Anglican clergyman, came to North America with Robert George's expedition to Weymouth in 1623. After the dissolution of George's failed colony, Blackstone settled in what became Boston, and lived on Beacon Hill, near what is now Beacon Street.

    Who were the Puritans?
    Puritans were a group of dissenters who refused to accept the Church of England as a protestant religion. Unlike the Pilgrims, however, the Puritans were willing to remain members of the Church in order to attempt to purify it. However, the accession of Charles I to the English throne led to an increase in government persecution of the Puritans. At this point, many Puritans gave up hope of reforming the church from within and left England. Among this group was John Winthrop and other members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    Where did the Puritans first land?  
    A fleet of 11 ships carrying the residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony landed in Salem and Charlestown in 1630. John Winthrop, aboard the Arabella , landed at North River near Salem on June 12, 1630. Winthrop eventually decided to locate the colony in Charlestown because of its proximity to the harbor.

    Why did the Puritans settle in Boston?

    The colony did not flourish in its original location in Charlestown, partly due to the lack of drinkable water. Observing the colony's struggles, William Blackstone invited the group to Shawmut, and showed them where drinking water could be found. Blackstone evidently regretted his generosity, for he left Boston shortly thereafter.

    Who was the first woman resident of Boston?

    Anne Pollard was the first woman to step ashore when the group moved from Charlestown to Boston.

    Where did the first settlers live in Boston?

    Most of the colony's residents settled along what is now State Street (then Great Street, later King) and Cornhill (now Washington Street.) The colonists settled at this location due to its proximity to the both the harbor and a fresh water spring on what is still referred to as Spring Street.

    What was the center of Puritan and Colonial Boston?
    Since the town was settled in 1630, the center of the town was located at the intersection of King Street and Cornhill, known today as State and Washington streets. These were the two main thoroughfares in colonial Boston. King Street led up from Long Wharf and the harbor, and Cornhill and connecting streets crossed the narrow neck that connected Boston with the mainland.

    Colonial Boston  

    What was Pope's Day?
    17th and 18th-century Bostonians celebrated the anniversary of the English Gunpowder Plot as Pope's Day. To mark the occasion, residents of the North and South Ends held separate parades, carrying effigies of the pope with them. Both parades led to the center of town, near the Old State House. When the two groups met, a riot typically ensued; each group fought to secure the other's effigy of the Pope. The group that succeeded in doing so was declared the winner.

    Where is Benjamin Franklin's birthplace?
    Franklin himself stated that he was born at the corner of Hanover and Union streets in downtown Boston. However, it appears that Franklin was mistaken. Franklin's father, Josiah, was tenant of a building at the southwest corner of Milk and Devonshire streets in Boston, from 1685 to 1712. The family moved to the building on Hanover Street at a later date. However, Franklin was born on January 6, 1706, well before the family moved to Hanover Street.

    Boston in the American Revolution

    Who read the Declaration of Independence at the Old State House in 1776?
    The Declaration of Independence was first read to the public from the balcony of the Old State House on July 18, 1776. Both Colonel Thomas Crafts and William Greenleaf, the Sheriff of Suffolk County, read the Declaration that day. It was a longstanding tradition that proclamations to be read by the town sheriff in the 18th century. Legend has it that Sheriff Greenleaf's voice was weak, so Colonel Thomas Crafts had to re-read the Declaration of Independence.

    Who tore down the lion and unicorn?
    Patriots removed the lion and the unicorn - symbols of the monarchy - from the Old State House after the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 18, 1776.

    Where was the battle of Bunker Hill fought?
    The battle of Bunker Hill was actually fought at Breed's Hill, located to the north of Bunker Hill. Colonel Prescott decided to fortify Breed's Hill instead of Bunker Hill shortly before the battle took place.

    Becoming a City: 19th-Century Boston

    When did Boston become a city?
    Townspeople voted to incorporate as a city on January 7, 1822.

    When did cows stop grazing on Boston Common?

    How big was the Great Boston Fire of 1872?

    On November 9, 1872, fire broke out at the intersection of Summer and Kingston streets. By the time it was put out, it had destroyed 65 acres of land, most of it in the central business district, and caused $75 million worth of property damage.

    When was electricity introduced into Boston?
    The Hotel Vendome was the first public building in Boston to have electric lights, beginning in 1882.

    When did electric trolleys replace the horsecars?

    Who were the Brahmins? 
    Brahmin is a term (believed to have been coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes in the late 19th century) used to refer to the Boston aristocracy -- older Yankee families who controlled much of Boston's wealth and power. Members of this group saw themselves as moral leaders of the community, apart from the rest of society. This attitude moved Holmes to compare the group to the priestly class of Brahmins in India.

    Boston's Geography

    Has Boston always appeared as it does today?

    No. Boston was originally a hilly peninsula, connected to the mainland only by a thin strip of land, known as Boston Neck. Today, Washington Street runs along the route of the Neck.

    How much of Boston is filled in?
    The original size of the peninsula was almost 800 acres. Since the 17th century, almost a thousand acres have been filled in, including:

    West Cove, 80 acres

    Mill cove, 70 acres

    South Cove, 86 acres

    East Cove, 112 acres

    Back Bay, 570 acres

    Furthermore, a much larger amount of land has been added to Boston through annexation. Today, Boston covers approximately 24,000 acres.

    When were Boston's neighborhoods annexed?

    South Boston: March 6, 1804

    Roxbury: January 6, 1868

    Dorchester: January 3, 1870

    West Roxbury: January 5, 1872

    Charlestown: January 3, 1874

    Brighton: January 5, 1874

    Hyde Park: January 1, 1912

    How long did it take to fill in the Back Bay?
    Filling in of the Back Bay began in 1857, and proceeded westward until 1890. By 1860 the Bay had been filled in to Clarendon Street; by 1870 Exeter Street had been reached; by 1880 the Back Bay district was entirely filled.

    African-Americans in Boston

    Where did Boston's African-American community live, historically?
    Since the 18th century, Boston's African-American community lived principally in the North End of Boston. As the black population increased in the early to mid-19th century, blacks began to move to the north slope of Beacon Hill. Here they lived in the area bounded by Pinckney Street on the north, from Joy Street to the Charles River. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, African-Americans began moving from Beacon Hill to the South End, and by the 1930s, into the lower Roxbury area.

    What sites are associated with the Underground Railroad in Boston?
    The Lewis Hayden House on Beacon Hill, owned by noted abolitionist Lewis Hayden, provided refuge to escaped slaves in the 1850s. The Farwell Mansion in Boston was also used to harbor fugitive slaves during that time.

    Immigration and Ethnicity

    When did Irish immigration to Boston begin?
    Irish had actually been emigrating to Boston ever since the mid-17th century. Beginning in the late 1820s and 1830s, the number of Irish immigrating to Boston increased significantly. The 1840s and 1850s, however, brought the largest waves of immigration, due to the Irish Potato Famine (famine conditions caused by a blight on potato crops, which were a basic staple of the Irish diet).

    Where did the Irish live?
    Irish immigrants crowded into neighborhoods along the waterfront, especially in the North End and the Fort Hill area. Beginning in the 1860s and 1870s, Irish began to move out of North End and Fort Hill, into the West End and the South End, later into South Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Charlestown.

    When did Chinatown develop?

    Initially, Chinese immigration to Massachusetts came from California. The Chinese had come to America in the 1850s and 1860s to work in the Gold Rush and to help build the railroads. They then began moving east after construction of the railroads was completed. In 1875, a group of Chinese workers were brought in to break a strike in a shoe factory in North Adams. When the strike ended, many of these workers came to Boston. They arrived by train at South Station, and settled in the nearby South Cove area.

    When did Italians and other immigrant groups arrive in Boston?
    Beginning in the 1880s, the nature of immigration began to change. Previously, newcomers had almost exclusively been from England, Scotland, Ireland and northern parts of France and Germany. Beginning in the 1880s, however, people began immigrating in rapidly increasing numbers from southern and eastern Europe - Italy, Poland, Greece and Russia.

    The first group of Jewish immigrants had been from Germany in the 1850s and 1860s. Jewish immigration increased in 1880s and 1890s, in response to pogroms in Poland and Russia. The height of Jewish immigration was in the 1890s.

    Where did these immigrants live?
    Italians settled in parts of the North End. Jewish immigrants initially settled in a small part of the North End, bounded by Hanover, Endicott and Prince streets. Jewish residents gradually moved into the West End, East Boston and parts of Roxbury and the South End. Italian Bostonians gradually moved into the West End.