The Early Years
The nation’s oldest public park, the forty-eight acres of the Boston Common have belonged to the citizens of Boston since 1634. That’s when each householder paid a minimum of six shillings toward its purchase from William Blackstone, the first European settler in Boston.
The original Common was gently rolling scrubland, sloping gradually from Beacon Hill to the tidal marshes of Back Bay. The original water line roughly followed today’s Charles Street. It was only lightly wooded, with perhaps three trees of notable size, including the legendary “Great Elm.” Of the four original hills and three ponds, only Flagstaff Hill and the Frog Pond are now discernible.
The seventeenth-century Common, rough and rural, was well suited as a pasture, its primary purpose. The village herd of seventy milk cows grazed peacefully, watched over by a town-appointed keeper. The Common was also a frequent site for hangings and other forms of execution of murderers, thieves, deserters, pirates, “witches,” Indians, and religious dissenters, especially Quakers.
The Eighteenth Century and Revolution
The story of the eighteenth-century Common is dominated by the events surrounding the Revolution. British troops occupied the town, and by 1775 the Common was an entrenched camp with a garrison of 1,750 men. The British troops set off from the Common for encounters at Lexington and Concord and later at Bunker Hill. Following the British evacuation in March 1776, Bostonians reclaimed the Common. It was here that a huge bonfire blazed to celebrate the surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.
The Nineteenth Century: A Prospering Boston
As Boston grew and prospered in a new nation, its inhabitants saw in their historic Common a precious heritage. New residences, many of them by Charles Bulfinch, arose along the bordering streets, and the Common gradually became more park than pasture. By 1830, the city had banished the cows, filled several ponds, and added tree-lined malls and paths. In 1836 the entire space, a mile in perimeter, was enclosed with a handsome iron fence financed in part by public subscription.By 1830, the city had banished the cows.
In an age of optimism and public display, the nineteenth-century Common played host to an extraordinary chronicle of events, both serious and fanciful, including balloon ascensions and early football. During the Civil War, the Common witnessed antislavery protests, recruitment rallies, a wild victory celebration, and then a mass demonstration of grief at the death of President Lincoln.
The Twentieth Century to Today: Growth, Decline, and Renewal
The twentieth century was a time of change for the Common. The malls accommodated the nation’s first subway, in 1897, and an underground garage half a century later. Two world wars brought victory gardens, war bond rallies, troop entertainment, and victory parades. The Common was the site of historic events like Boston’s tercentenary celebration of 1930, speeches by national figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., the protest rallies of the 1960s, and in 1979 the first papal mass in North America.
By the 1970s the Common had suffered from many years of neglect, with half of its trees lost, the Frog Pond empty, fountains defunct, fencing removed, and a grave imbalance of use and care. In recent decades, public-private efforts have brought notable improvements including new fencing, a refurbished playground and bandstand, a rejuvenated Frog Pond with an artificial ice rink, a management plan for future maintenance and control, and restoration of the Brewer Fountain.By the 1970s the Common had suffered from many years of neglect.
Today, the historic Boston Common attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year, both residents and visitors. It is a place of sports, informal and organized; exhibitions; musical events; a Shakespeare festival; rallies and protests; charity walks and art shows; and on New Year’s Eve, Boston’s famous First Night. Once a year, in long custom, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, formed in 1638, marches again before the dignitaries of the day.
The Common remains and always will be the center stage of civic life, a place to play and to protest, and a green retreat in the heart of a busy city.