Boston’s North End – More Than “Little Italy,” A Brief History

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Most people know the North End as Boston’s Little Italy. But, Italians did not start moving into the North End in any significant number until the 1880’s – some 260 years after the North End’s earliest residents. The Italians were only the last of a series of ethnic groups to inhabit this area of Boston.

Boston's North End

Entering Boston’s Historic North End

Originally, the North End was a suburb for the Puritan families who migrated to Boston during the 1630’s. At that time, the North End was isolated, virtually an island surrounded by water on three sides, connected to the rest of Boston by a small neck of land.

Over time, was the land connecting the North End to Boston was filled-in, but the North End remained geographically isolated until the completion of the Big Dig in 2007. In recent history, and prior to the Big Dig’s completion, easy entry to the North End was blocked by the elevated Central Artery (Route 93).

By the mid 1640’s the North End had evolved into its own distinct community. By 1649, it was large enough to have its own church, the North Meeting House (later called Boston’s Second Church).

In 1659, the North End established its own Burying Ground, Copp’s Hill. Copp’s Hill took its name from William Copp, a shoemaker who had owned once owned the land. Copp’s Hill was also home to a free black population, many of whom are interred in the Burying Ground.

North Square boston

North Square – Looking at Site of Second Meeting House

The area around the North Meeting House developed into North Square, which quickly became the center of North End life. At that time, North Square was only one block from the harbor.

Increase Mather, the minister of the North Meeting House, had his home in North Square. It, along with the Meeting House and a number of surrounding buildings, was destroyed in the fire of 1673. The Meeting House was rebuilt and subsequently torn down by the British and used for firewood during the Siege of Boston between 1775 and 1776.

Paul Revere House in North Square

Paul Revere House in North Square

The Paul Revere house was constructed in 1680 where Mather’s home had once stood. Revere purchased it in 1770 and lived here until the 1780’s, when he moved a few blocks away to a house with a harbor view. The Pierce / Hitchborn house, next door to the Revere House, was built around 1711. These houses, along with the Old Corner Book Store and Old State House are the oldest remaining structures in Boston.

The opulent Clark-Frankland and Hutchinson mansions were build just off of North Square after 1710. Hutchinson’s mansion was gutted in 1765 in protest over the Stamp Act. Both the Clark-Frankland and Hutchinson mansions were torn down in 1834 to allow for street widening.

In 1890, Rose Fitzgerald (Kennedy) was born at 4 Garden Court Street, just across the street from where the Hutchinson mansion had stood. Rose later married Joseph P. Kennedy and was the mother of President John F. Kennedy, and Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy. There is a plaque marking the site of her birth on Garden Street just off of North Square. In the mid 1800s, North Square was also home to two Bethels – churches specifically built to minister to the needs of sailors.

Paul Revere & Old North Church

Paul Revere Statue w/View of Old North Church

In 1721, the construction of the Anglican Christ Church (Old North) began and was completed in 1723. In 1775, the Christ Church belfry was used to hang the “two if by sea” lanterns that warned Patriots of the British march on Lexington and Concord and was the start of Paul Revere’s Ride.

The Charles Bulfinch designed New North Congregational Church on Hanover Street was built between 1802 and 1804.  The Church was originally Congregationalist, but it switched to Unitarian in 1813.  It was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boston in 1862. It is the last Bulfinch designed church standing in Boston.

After the American Revolution, the North End began transitioning to a largely working class neighborhood with the influx of labor associated with the shipping industry. Wharfs and warehouses were built to support maritime trade and shipbuilding. And, along with the often drunken and violent sailors, came the requisite gamblers, whores and criminals. To proper Bostonians, it became a dangerous slum, a place to be avoided.

From early on there was an Irish population in Boston. Their numbers were small, but grew to about 7,000 by 1830. The Irish population really swelled during the Great Potato Famine when a reported 13,000+ Irish moved to Boston during 1847 alone. The North End was their primary destination.

By 1850, over half the North End’s population of 23,000 was Irish. This peaked at about 15,000 in 1880. With the influx of new ethnic groups, many of the Irish moved to the South End. By 1890, North End’s Irish population had dropped to 5,000 and by the turn of the century it was down to 3,000.

In the 1870’s, the North End became home to an Eastern European Jewish population. In the early 1900s, Jews made up almost one third of the North End’s population, many settling along Salem Street. By the 1920’s, most had moved to Boston’s West and South End, then on to Dorchester, Brookline, Newton, Chelsea and Revere.

The last ethnic group to settle in the North End was the Italians. Immigration started in the 1860s with a small group from Genoa. This was followed by and influx from other Italian regions including Sicily, Milan, and Naples. Each regional group settled in its own distinct North End enclave.

By 1900, the North End Italian population had reached 14,000. By 1920, this number grew to 37,000, with its peak of more than 44,000 in 1930. The North End was now almost completely Italian – and very crowded.

The census puts today’s North End population at about 10,000, of which only 40% are of Italian descent. The remaining residents are a mix of young professionals, college students and others. North End politics are still dominated by Italian Americans.

The North End remains Boston’s Little Italy. It retains a wonderful and distinct “Old Word” feeling and boasts fantastic collection of new and old Italian restaurants, cafes, bakeries and markets.  It is one of the most European-feeling neighborhoods in America.

It is the oldest neighborhood in Boston.  Having existed for over 375 years, is home to some of the most important and historic venues in America as well as some of the most significant Freedom Trail sites.

For more historical information, visit this wonderful five part series by Guild Nichols.

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