North End History: Boston’s First Neighborhood

North End History by Guild Nichols


From its earliest beginnings, the North End has been cut off from Boston proper, at first topographically and then socially and economically until only recently. In Colonial days, it was known as the “Island of North Boston”, a narrow peninsula reaching out into the harbor.  It comprised a few grand estates, Christopher Stanley’s pasture, and Mylne field. Perched high on a hill overlooking the adjacent Mill Pond was a wooden windmill.
Surrounded on three sides by water, the peninsula afforded promising commercial opportunities. The neighborhood developed at a rapid pace in the early 1700s. Cobblestone streets were laid out, wharves and warehouses constructed, stylish mansions built, and prosperous merchants, tradesmen and shipbuilders set up
business there.
By the 1750s, the North End had become a hub of commercial, social and intellectual activity. For Bostonians of English descent, it was the fashionable place to live.
The three-story, 26-room Clarke-Frankland mansion stood at the mouth of Prince Street and just around the corner on Garden Court was Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s elegant home. At the bottom of the Square was the tall brick Pierce-Hichborn house with the more humble-looking Revere residence nestled next door.
At the very top of North Square stood the original North Church, known later as the Second Church of Boston and as the “Church of the Mathers”.
It was from the pulpit of this church that Puritan Pastor Increase Mather ministered over his community with a stern hand. His 1689 book, Memorable Providences,Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions, had helped fuel the witchcraft hysteria that had seized nearby Salem. His son Cotton, with whom he shared the ministry, became so deeply involved in these Salem witch trials that he earned lasting disfavor and eventual opposition from the Puritans of the period.
By the early 1700s the religious hegemony of the Puritan church had begun to wane. In 1721, a new Anglican church named Christ Church (and later called Old North Church) raised its steeple 191 feet into the heavens above the North End, a beacon to ships entering Boston harbor for a century to come. Some 27 years later, a 15-year-old boy named Paul Revere took up Sunday morning bell-ringing duties in Christ Church for five English pennies a month.
Revere was an artist/patriot who later evolved into an artist/industrialist. Born in the North End in 1735, he was the second of 12 children and the eldest son of Apollos Rivoire and Deborah Hichborn. He learned the art of gold and silversmithing from his father, taking over the family business at age 19 when his father died. To supplement family income, he also worked as a copper plate engraver, producing business cards, political cartoons and book plates.
His political involvement with the American Revolutionary cause developed through his membership in the Masonic Lodge and his friendships with James Otis and Dr. Joseph Warren. It was Warren who instructed Revere on the eve of April 18th, 1775, to ride to Lexington and Concord to warn the Patriot leaders of the approaching British troops. After the British evacuation of Boston in March 1776. Revere served as a lieutenant colonel and commander of artillery at Castle Island, but he saw little action.
With the close of the American Revolution, nearly one-third of Boston’s population vacated the city for England and the eastern provinces of Canada. About the same time, the wealthiest North End merchants began migrating to new residential communities in the West End and on Beacon Hill. Their large estates and mansions were either sold and subdivided as rental properties or torn down to make way for row housing.
Revere, himself, moved out of his house on North Square to Greenough Lane off Charter Street to a new home with a harbor view. The rapid growth of the shipping and mercantile trades were to irrevocably reshape the neighborhood over the course of the next half century – the North End was on the cusp of change.