Friday, January 14, 2005

Cannons on Washington Street

For the first two centuries of its history, Boston's only connection to the mainland was a particularly narrow isthmus of tidal flats. During high tides or stormy weather, this narrow link — referred to as "the Neck" — would sink below the waves, and thus it was that Boston would occasionally cease to be a peninsular settlement, and instead become an island-city.

In 1631, one year after founding the city, Boston's colonists fortified the Neck at its narrowest point in order to help guard against anticipated raids by Native Americans. Presumably little more than wooden stockades, the first fortifications stood until 1714, at which time they were replaced with simple earthen and brick walls, as depicted in the John Bonner Map of 1722:

John Bonner Map, 1722
Image: Mapping Boston

Just outside these walls, and in true European fashion, Boston hung its criminals in cages and from gallows, their corpses serving as a warning to others. Suicides and deceased vagrants were similarly dumped beyond the walls, as Esther Forbes describes in her book Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, both being considered unfit for burial in one of Boston's already heavily-populated graveyards.

General Thomas Gage, who commanded the British "occupation" of Boston, greatly improved upon the Neck's fortifications in 1774 and 1775, fearing an all-out assault by the rebellious colonists who controlled the countryside. Yet his elaborate plans and additions were of little help when the Continental Army, under General George Washington, assumed control of nearby Dorchester Heights and threatened to bombard the city lest the British evacuate — which they did on March 17, 1776.

Plan of the Neck and Fortifications; Delivd. to H.E. Gl. Gage, June 30th. 1775
Image: American Memory: The American Revolution and Its Era

Traces of the the Neck's fortifications remained until the 1820s, when they were wholly removed in preparation for land-making in the South End. Particularly curious readers may still visit the site of Boston's walls, however, by going to the corner of East Berkeley and Washington Streets, near Peter's Park.


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