Who Lived in Boston before the   Puritans? 

History of the Shawmut Peninsula from

8000 BC to 1630 AD

German copy of John Smith's 1616 map of New England
The three steep hills on the Shawmut peninsula seen by Captain John Smith and the Puritans - the site of Boston's present-day Beacon Hill neighborhood - shown in an illustration in Boston Illustrated, edited by Edwin M. Bacon, published by The Riverside Press, Cambridge MA, 1872

8000 BC
Long before the Puritan history of Boston begins, glaciers and ice sheets covering North America retreat as the Great Ice Age, or the Pleistocene Epoch, which started some 1.8 million years earlier, draws to an end.  As the glaciers melt, they deposit debris caught in their ice—called moraine—across the northeastern part of the continent, including the Boston area. 

Boston Harbor Islands todayYou can still see the glaciers’ deposits today. 

These include the drumlins (whale-shaped hills, such as Beacon Hill and some of the Boston Harbor Islands shown in the photo to the left), ridges, kettle ponds, rocks, and boulders that shape the landscape of Boston. 

Almost 10,000 years later after its creation, this is the landscape that greets the first Puritans.

2400 BC
Also well before the Puritans arrive in Boston, Native Americans start to occupy eastern Massachusetts.  They establish themselves on a peninsula that they call Shawmut, which roughly means "land of many waters," next to a river that they call Quinnebequi.  

1600 AD
As many as 100,000 native inhabitants belonging to the Algonquin Nation now live across New England.  They belong to smaller regional groups including the Massachusett, Wampanoag, and Nipmuck. If they could see 30 years into the future, they would spot the sails of Puritan ships looming large on the horizon.


Preamble to Puritan History in Boston –
Captain John Smith Arrives

Explorer Captain John Smith sails down the Maine coast to Massachusetts Bay.  He makes contact with the native inhabitants. 

Rounding the Shawmut Peninsula, Captain Smith spots nearby islands lush with Native American corn, calling them “the Paradise of all these parts."  He notes a hilly smaller peninsula with three peaks – an important site in Puritan history – surrounded by a harbor fed by three rivers.

Two years later, Smith draws a map of the coast, labeling it "New England" to make it seem more attractive to potential colonists. For land claim purposes, he backdates his map to 1614. 

Initially labeling least two different rivers Quinnebequi, which means long still water, he decides to rename them to honor Prince Charles of England.  He calls the southern one River Charles, and the northern one Kennebec River

John Smith's 1616 map of New England
Captain John Smith's 1616 map of New England

An epidemic speculated to be smallpox brought accidentally by European explorers kills about 75% of the Native Americans who have occupied eastern Massachusetts for the past 4,000 years, leaving only about 25,000 across the region. The closest settlement to the Shawmut Peninsula is in present-day Jamaica Plain, and it is decimated. 


Puritan History Begins –
Reverend William Blaxton Arrives

Reverend William Blaxton, an Anglican clergyman born in Lincolnshire, England in 1595, lands near Weymouth with his collection of 186 books written in various languages. 

Blaxton is part of a group brought by Captain Robert Gorges to establish a religious settlement – but in a rough moment for Puritan history, they discover that another group of English settlers already occupies the land they’d hoped to claim.

After failing to establish themselves in the New World, most of Blaxton’s original group returns to England – but Blaxton and several others strike out to find land for themselves. 

Blaxton moves north to the western slope of what is now Beacon Hill and lays claim to about 800 acres. He builds himself a snug cabin from logs near a fresh water spring (near the Charles Street and Beacon Street intersection, on what is now Boston Common), settles in with his book collection, plants an orchard – the first in the United States - with apple seeds that he’s collected, and becomes Boston’s first known permanent European resident.

Like the Native Americans who occasionally pass through the area while hunting partridge, he calls the area Shawmut.  

The remaining Puritans settle nearby in Charlestown, Chelsea, and on Thompson’s Island.


Puritan History in the Making –
Flight from England

In England, years of religious strife between the official Anglican Church and the nonconformist Calvinists who want to “purify” it from within—and therefore are called Puritans—cause John Winthrop and a like-minded group of wealthy Puritans to pool their resources and become shareholders in a royal charter to establish a commercial venture in New England.  Many of them are from the town of Boston in Lincolnshire. 

Winthrop and the others buy the existing but bankrupt Massachusetts Bay Company, formerly named the New England Company, set up earlier for the purpose of colonizing and reaping benefits from the New World, and approved earlier that year by the King. They purchase it as a joint stock venture, specify that only those who emigrate can own stock in it (thus protecting themselves from meddling outsiders), and sign a compact and charter that later become the framework for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Charters of other similar companies of that time specify that annual Board of Directors meetings must be held in London, subject to scrutiny by the King and Parliament.  The Massachusetts Bay Company's charter fails to mention a meeting place - an oversight that Winthrop and the other investors realize can be used to their advantage.

They decide that their colony will be self-governing, although they will still be English citizens and subjects of the king. They see this as a way to escape persecution in England, to exercise a degree of self-rule, and to create a new community based on their beliefs in predestination, austerity, and eventual rewards by their Almighty.


The Puritans Arrive

Arbella - as shown on a postcard (printed between 1930-1945), Boston Public Library Print Dept1630
Led by the flagship Arbella, the first four ships in the Puritans' fleet of 12 leave England on April 7, 1630 and land in Salem after a 3-month journey across the Atlantic.

(That's the Arbella at the left, as depicted in an early 20th century postcard now in the Boston Public Library.)

Eventually almost 1,000 English immigrants led by John Winthrop and sponsored by the Massachusetts Bay Company arrive on this fleet.

At the time of the Puritans' arrival, about 500 other English settlers, mostly Pilgrims in the Plymouth area, already inhabit Massachusetts.  The first of the Pilgrims, as you may recall, came on the Mayflower in 1620. 

In case you’re wondering about the difference between Pilgrims and Puritans, Pilgrims want to separate from the Church of England, while the Puritans want to “purify” and reform it.

In July, most of the Massachusetts Bay Colony move to Charlestown, where the lack of fresh water causes much sickness and a few deaths. 


The Puritans Move to the Shawmut Peninsula

Reverend Blaxton, a former college classmate of several of the group’s members back in England, hears about their problems and invites them to move to Shawmut where several springs provide plenty of fresh water.  Of course, the Puritans themselves don’t actually drink the water – following current English custom, they use it to make beer

Upon hearing Blaxton’s offer, John Winthrop declares, “We shall build a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” Most of the Colonists move with him to the Shawmut Peninsula, while a few migrate inland to Cambridge and several others establish a plantation that they call Watertown

At first the Puritans call their new settlement Tremontaine (Trimountain) because of the three tall peaks noted by John Smith.  Why would a group of English Puritans give their new home a French name?  I don't know - but later, France helped the Colonies in their fight for independence from Great Britain, and you'll still notice quite a few French names and spellings ("theatre" instead of "theater") in current use in Boston.

Within a few weeks—perhaps inspired by homesickness—they change their settlement's name to Boston, the town in Lincolnshire, England from which many of them came.

Sadly, before the end of 1630, they also establish the Colony's first graveyard, now called the King's Chapel Burying Ground

Within the first year of their arrival, 200 of them find their final resting place in this historic cemetery.  Eventually, King's Chapel Burying Ground will contain most of the first generation of Boston's Puritan founders.  


More about Puritan History