Visiting Historic Sites and Monuments in the Greater Boston Area
By: Ariadne Argyros
I was tasked with creating a list of museums and cultural institutions that I would like to visit upon their reopening. While the Boston National Historical Park is getting ready to open some of their buildings, I am still going to be working remotely for the time being. Therefore, I took a few liberties and included some individual historic sites and monuments/memorials in the Greater Boston area. This way I was able to go see some of the free and open monuments in Lexington, Concord, and Cambridge, MA like the Battle Green, the Cambridge Common Cannons, and the Fort Washington Mounds.
One of the most iconic tours in Boston is the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile route that showcases 16 historically significant sites. I went onto their website and discovered distance learning resources filled with virtual tours, educational resources, lectures, and podcasts that are available to the public. I devoted a few days to checking out these cool online resources and then I went ahead and did my own in-person self-guided tour of the Black Heritage trail. I used the NPS Boston free app to navigate the trail and provide important background information on each site that I visited. I have briefly summarized some of these sites below!
The Black Heritage trail is a 1.6-mile tour that explores the history of Boston’s 19th century African American community who lived on the north slope of Beacon Hill. For some context, in 1783 Massachusetts became the first US state to make slavery illegal—this was due largely because the state was grateful for black participation in the Revolutionary War. Consequentially, many freed persons and escaped slaves flocked to the Boston area, settling in Beacon Hill. There are 14 historic sites included on the tour, including the 54th Regiment memorial, the African Meeting House, and several stations on the Underground Railroad.
The African Meeting House
The African Meeting House opened in 1806 and is recognized as being the oldest surviving black church in the United States. Constructed by Boston’s local African American community, this building served as a church, school, and gathering place for political activism in the abolitionist movement.
John Coburn House
Pictured above is the house of John Coburn, a clothing retailer and activist who lived between 1811 and 1873. He served as the treasurer of the New England Freedom Association, an organization dedicated to helping people escape the shackles of slavery. He was also the co-founder and captain of the Massasoit Guards, which was a Boston-based black military company in the 1850s that was a forerunner to the famous 54th Regiment.
The Lewis and Harriet Hayden House
The next stop on the Black Heritage Trail led me to the house of Lewis and Harriet Hayden. Lewis was born into slavery in Lexington, KY in 1816. He married Harriet and together they escaped and settled in Boston. Mr. Hayden became deeply involved in the abolitionist movement—the Hayden house even became an integral stop on the Underground Railroad! It is said that the Haydens kept a supply of gunpowder hidden in their home so as to scare away any potential slave catchers that tried to enter. Lewis also recruited for the 54th Regiment and was also elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
The Phillips School
This building was constructed in 1824 and for several decades it was a segregated “whites only” schoolhouse until 1855. Black children attended school on the first floor of the African Meeting House or, after 1834, the Abiel Smith School which was located right next door to the Meeting House. When Massachusetts Legislature abolished segregated schooling in 1855, the Phillips School became one of the city’s first integrated schools.
George Middleton House
This house, built in 1787, is one of Beacon Hill’s oldest standing homes. One of the original owners was George Middleton, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. He led the Bucks of America, one of three black militias that fought against the ‘Regulars’ (aka the British). After the war ended, Middleton became an activist and community leader, assisting in founding the Free African Society.
The Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial
This tour came to an end at the Boston Common where the famed memorial depicting Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment stands today. The memorial depicts the first black regiment from the north to serve in the Civil War. Through their heroic acts of bravery at the battle of Fort Wagner, SC, this regiment was integral in helping overcome public opposition to black people serving in the northern armies. Over 180,000 African Americans served in Union forces by the war’s end.
I also went to visit several Revolutionary-era historic sites and monuments outside of the city of Boston. Armed with a list, I traveled to Lincoln, Lexington, Somerville, and Cambridge, MA to experience some of the history of sites that bore witness to some of the most significant moments in the founding of this country.
Minuteman National Historical Park
First, I went to the Minuteman National Historical Park out in Lincoln, MA and walked the trail where Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott rode on horseback to warn the colonial militia in Concord of British arrival. Unfortunately, before the three riders could reach Concord, they ran into a British patrol. Prescott hurtled over a wall and managed to escape, and Dawes allegedly created a clever ruse into scaring off some of the soldiers, but Revere was seized. The capture site is pictured above.
The Battle Green
Located in the historic town common of Lexington, MA, the Battle Green is the site in which the famous “shot heard round the world” that initiated the Battles of Lexington and Concord was fired on April 19, 1775. On this day, men from local militia led by Captain John Parker emerged from the Buckman Tavern and faced off against the British troops, marking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.
The Old Belfry
The Old Belfry is a historic bell tower that was used to warn the militiamen of the approach of the British troops before the Battle of Lexington. It was originally erected on a hill in 1761, but it was moved to the Common in 1768 where it remained until its removal to the Parker Homestead in 1797. Eventually, it was brought back to the hill in 1891 by the Lexington Historical Society. Unfortunately, the bell tower was destroyed by excessively strong winds in 1909, and was rebuilt in 1910. When I visited the Old Belfry, I found that it was located in a quiet and peaceful place; there was even a red-tailed hawk perched on the lowest branches of a tree nearby!
The Old Powder House
Located in Somerville, MA, the Old Powder House is the oldest stone structure in the state of Massachusetts. Built in 1703 or 1704, this building originally functioned as a family windmill until it was sold to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1747, where it was turned into a gun powder storage unit leading up to the American Revolution. On September 1st, 1774, General Thomas Gage and his British troops seized 250 barrels of gunpowder that were being stored here, which marked the first act of British aggression against the colonies and consequently triggered the “Powder Alarm,” where people from the surrounding villages, albeit rather prematurely, took up arms in preparation for a march to Boston for battle.
Cambridge Common Cannons
The three cannons that sit in the middle of the Cambridge Common were abandoned by British forces at Fort Independence after British forces evacuated Boston on March 17th, 1776. However, other sources state that these cannons were brought to Cambridge from Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point by Colonel Henry Knox. In 1875, the Massachusetts State legislature gifted these three cannons to the city of Cambridge, MA to place on the Cambridge Common in perpetuum. Nearby, a tree and a commemorative plaque mark the spot where General George Washington is said to have gathered troops as he first assumed command of the Continental Army.
Fort Washington Park
Also located in Cambridge, MA, Fort Washington is the oldest surviving fortification from the Revolutionary War and the only surviving fortification from the Siege of Boston. It was built as a formal training ground by Continental Army soldiers under the orders of George Washington in November of 1775. The cannons were not originally on this site during the Revolution; they were cast either during or after the war at Fort Warren and placed there in 1858. The cut metal figures represent soldiers from the Continental Army and a seated Victorian woman. According to the artist, the goal of this art project “was to recreate the Fort’s encampment setting and to recall the park’s creation and heyday,” and to celebrate the park’s long and layered history.