Boston, 1775: A City Under Siege!

Of all the record groups in the Cartographic Department’s holdings, one of the most interesting and varied is RG 77.   This record group, with its myriad of smaller series, holds many Revolutionary War, Civil War and Civil War-era maps, (both printed and manuscript), drawings and schematics of forts, posts, and reservations, and original designs for bridges and pathways for roads just to name a few things.  Generally speaking, this huge record group holds some really interesting and beautiful documents.

RG 77: Fortifications Map File Plans of Military Forts, 1818-194, Drawer 19, Sheet 5 (NAID 17369895)

One of the more fascinating maps in terms of illustrating exactly how significantly things have changed in the United States over time is the above map entitled “Map Showing Boston and its Environs and Harbor, with the Rebel Works Raised Against the Town in 1775“.  This map, dated October 1st, 1775, presents a very different image of Boston than the one that we are familiar with today.  At the time that this map was created, the city of Boston was on a small piece of land, called “Shawmut” in the Native Algonquian language.  The colonists initially referred to the area as “Trimountaine”, but changed the name to “Boston”, after the city of Boston in Lincolnshire, England on September 7th, 1630[i].  Looking closely at the map, the Boston of 1775 is located on the left side of the map, almost centered between the top and bottom of the image with the upper part of the landmass labelled “mill pond” and “mill dam”.

To put this map in context, it is important to understand briefly what was taking place in Boston during the months surrounding October of 1775. Boston had been besieged since April of 1775 following the battles at Lexington and Concord.  The British still maintained control over Boston Harbor, however, and were able to receive supplies via that route.  So, Colonial forces decided to surround Boston in an effort to disrupt supply lines.

In June of 1775, the British had managed to capture Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill, both of which lie to the north of Boston, and stop the Continental Army from bombarding the city[i].  Washington arrived shortly thereafter, in July, and took command of the Continental forces with the express goal of driving British forces out of Boston.  Later on, in November, Washington would send for heavy artillery, captured at from the British at Fort Ticonderoga the previous May, to be brought to Boston[ii].  The cannons arrived in January and, by March, had been positioned at Dorchester Heights.  The British quickly came to realize that their position was indefensible given the positioning of the Continental Army’s artillery on Dorchester Heights and withdrew from Boston on March 17th, 1776[iii].

Record Group 64: Reference Maps and Drawings, Boston (NAID 26335516). 

From a strictly geographical standpoint, this map looks very different from what we think of as Boston today.  At the time that the 1775 map was made, none of the areas around Boston had yet been filled in.  The above map from RG 64 shows Boston as it is today.  The West Cove was filled in first (1803-1863), followed by the Mill Pond (1804-1829), then the West Cove (1803-1863), and finally, the South Cove (1806-1843).  Later on in the 19th century, filling projects were undertaken in East Boston, and Marine and Columbus park in South Boston.  The land that would eventually be occupied by Logan airport was filled in 1922[iv].

[i] “Battle of Bunker Hill”.  Encyclopedia Britannica.  Nov. 16, 2017.

[ii] Frothingham, Jr, Richard (1851). History of the Siege of Boston and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. Little and Brown.

[iii] McCullough, David (2005). 1776. Simon and Schuster Paperback. Pp 95-97.

[iv] Howe, Jeffrey.  “Boston: History of the Landfills”.  Study Guide for FA267.   From Saltbox to Skyscraper: Architecture in America.  1996.


2 thoughts on “Boston, 1775: A City Under Siege!

  1. I have a reproduction of a map similar to the 1775 one shown that was drawn by an English Lieutenant. It shows clearly Orange Street (Washington Street now) and the narrow neck to Roxbury and the Fort on what is now Fort Hill. We bought it because we lived across the street from Fort Hill for over 20 years.

  2. Thank you for sharing these great images. However the 1913 map from RG64 does not represent Boston’s shoreline “as it is today.” Fill projects later in the 20th Century significantly changed the shorelines of Cambridge, South Boston, the Fort Point Channel, and (as you have noted) Logan Airport.

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