Considered the oldest public park in the United States, Boston Common played an important role in the history of conservation, landscape architecture, military and political history, and recreation in Massachusetts. The Common and the adjoining Public Garden are among the greatest amenities and most visited outdoor public spaces in Boston. The history of the Common’s use by the city illuminates the conservation movement in Massachusetts and mirrors similar models carried out by American conservationists throughout the nation.
In 1634, the townspeople of Boston voted to tax each household six schillings for the purchase of William Blackstone’s farm to be used as a community common. The newly established Common served a combination of public, military, agricultural, and recreational purposes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, companies from Boston and surrounding communities performed military training on the Common. During the winter of 1775 and 1776, British soldiers installed artillery entrenchments on the Common, and a garrison of 1,700 soldiers remained encamped there. Other early public uses of the Common included public hangings and whippings. The Common also served agricultural purposes. The Common was a pasture for cattle from the time of its creation through the early decades of the 19th century. As an early example of “utilitarian” conservation, regulations protected the land from overgrazing by restricting the number of cattle each family could graze on the Common.
There were also indications the Common was a place for recreation as early as the 1660s. John Josselyn wrote about men and women of Boston enjoying evening strolls on the Common: "On the South there is a small, but pleasant Common where the Gallants a little before Sun-set walk with their Marmalet-Madams…till the nine a clock Bell rings them home to their respective habitations, when presently the Constables walk their rounds to see good orders kept, and to take up loose people."
Children enjoyed the Common, too, wading in the Frog Pond in summer, and skating and sledding in the winter. Gradually recreational activities began to dominate the Common. The changes in land use mirrored changes in landscape design. The first wide, tree-lined mall added along Tremont Street in 1722 is one reflection of these changes. As the city grew, livestock grazing was further and further restricted, with cows forbidden altogether in 1830 and pasture fences removed in 1836.
In the 19th century as the Urban Parks Movement gained momentum, the Common began to acquire monuments, fountains, and artwork. Erected in 1897, the most famous of these memorials honors Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, a celebrated regiment of free African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Distinguished sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens was the designer and McKim, Mead, and White were the architects of the memorial. The 50-acre Common today is remarkably intact, due to the continued vigilance of local citizens. In the 1890s, a proposal to build a trolley line across the Common caused great public opposition that forced the examination of other transportation options, and in 1895, Boston installed the first subway in the United States. The first subway station, the Tremont Street Subway, still exists today bordering the Common along Tremont Street.
Since its inception, activities held on the Common stretched beyond relaxation and recreation to include public assembly. George Washington, John Adams, and General Lafayette celebrated our nation’s independence in this space. In the 19th century, abolitionists strove to abolish slavery and the United States Army recruited soldiers to fight in the Civil War. In the 20th century, Charles Lindbergh spoke to crowds on the Common about the future of commercial aviation. Anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights rallies, including one led by Martin Luther King Jr., took place on the Common. Today, Bostonians still gather on the Common to protest grievances and promote new ideas.
Used, enjoyed, and largely protected by generations, the Boston Common exemplifies the spirit of public conservation in Massachusetts and the trend in American cities to preserve nature within growing urban areas. Today visitors can enjoy ball fields, a tot lot, and the Frog Pond where the public skates in winter and children frolic in the summer. Other additions to the Common over time include a large underground parking garage and tennis courts. Despite these changes, the Common still retains its original function for the people of Boston: a relaxing open space in a congested city. Boston Common is one of the nine parks that are part of the Emerald Necklace, a 1,100-acre chain of parks linked by parkways.
Boston Common was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 12, 1972. Read the full nomination at the National Archives (learn more about the National Register of Historic Places program).
It was designated a National Historic Landmark on February 27, 1987 (learn more about the National Historic Landmark program).
You can learn more about Boston Common in the Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan, The Emerald Necklace: Boston's Green Connection.