Becoming Boston

From an Oceanic Empire to a New Nation

Boston’s geographic location at the intersection of networks in trade, power, and ideas made the city fertile ground for independence movements that would eventually culminate in a revolutionary era.

In the first century and a half of colonial settlement in Massachusetts Bay, Boston quickly developed into the region’s most important city, one of the key sites in the British Atlantic empire. Making the most of relatively limited natural resources, Boston became an important entrepôt: a port for trading and transshipment. Its merchants became masters of the maritime commerce which linked New England, Britain, and the broader colonial world through exchanges of money and goods, deeply enmeshed with the plantation economies and enslaved labor of the south and the Caribbean. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the city began to resent the demands of an increasingly centralized British imperial administration. Boston became the flashpoint for the American Revolution, with its urban spaces hosting some of the first skirmishes that would eventually lead to all-out warfare. As the thirteen colonies struggled towards independence, ideas about commonwealth government drawn from the geography of Massachusetts towns became highly influential in the ideology of the new republic.

A plan of Boston in New England with its environs

Henry Pelham and Francis Jukes
Leventhal Map & Education Center

This map of the Boston area during the American militia’s seige of the city is one of the most significant documents of the entire American Revolutionary War era. Henry Pelham, the half-brother of the artist John Singleton Copley, was a British loyalist, describing his home city as a “turbulant and factious town.” After the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill in 1775, Pelham obtained permission to survey both the British fortifications and the “Rebel works,” and he included an illustrated copy of his pass in the upper left of the map. Due to the extensive detail that Pelham recorded about military positions, the British general William Howe asked him to delay the map’s publication, which did not occur until 1777, after Pelham had evacuated to London. Because this map is one of the most detailed plans of urban space in the period of revolutionary conflict, it also captures many elements of the geography of colonial life, including the likely traces of slave quarters located at the estate of “Genl. Royall,” just outside of Medford in the upper right of the map.

Note: the image above depicts a different copy of the Pelham map than the one on display in the physical exhibition.

A map of the coast of New England, from Staten Island to the island of Breton

Cyprian Southack
ca. 1737
Mapping Boston Collection

This map captures the three most important geographies for colonists in Boston in the century prior to the Revolution. At the top center, an inset shows New England on the western fringe of Britain’s Atlantic empire. In the upper left, the urban space of Boston is shown through an inset copy of John Bonner’s map, which recorded the streets, buildings, wharves, and common spaces of the colonial city. And the principal map shows the coastal region which pivoted around Boston, a stretch of colonial possessions hugging the coast from Long Island Sound through the Gulf of Maine to Nova Scotia. There was no border between the U.S. and Canada at this time, and the career of Cyprian Southack, the creator of this map, typified the region’s interconnection: Southack earned his living from fisheries and became a leader of fledgling navies for both Massachusetts and Nova Scotia.