Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

History

History & Culture

Each of the 34 Boston Harbor Islands has a rich human history. The islands vividly illustrate the region’s complex past and the continual effect of natural and human processes on their habitats, their uses, even their shapes. The islands are both a recreational haven for urban residents and tourists and a highly effective laboratory in which to learn about natural change, cultural history, and stewardship.

Education Themes: American Revolution

  • The Boston Harbor Islands played an important strategic role during the Revolutionary War.
  • Used by farmers since 1634, Peddocks Island's proximity to the mainland ensured a prominent military role for the island. Said to be the site of a patriot infantrymen's raid on a Loyalist farm, Peddocks also saw over 600 patriot militiamen stationed on the island in 1776 to guard the harbor against the return of British troops.
  • Grape Island never hosted any military fortifications, though in 1775 it was a site of a skirmish over hay during the Revolutionary War. This skirmish is known as the Battle of Grape Island.
  • Boston Light, located on Little Brewster, was largely destroyed by the British when they evacuated Boston at the close of the Revolutionary War, but was rebuilt in 1783.

Education Themes: Civil War

Fort Warren

  • The partially restored Fort Warren, an impressive granite Third System fortification designated as a National Historic Landmark, has stood on George's Island as a major defensive post for the protection of the harbor in every conflict from the Civil War through World War II.
  • Fort Warren was built between 1834 and 1860 of massive blocks of Quincy granite.
  • During the Civil War, Union soldiers were trained at Fort Warren and Confederate soldiers were imprisoned there.
  • Fort Warren is said to be inhabited by "The Lady in Black," the ghost of a prisoner's wife.
  • Historian Edward Rowe Snow has asserted that Fort Warren "has more memories of the Civil War days than any other place in New England."
  • Another historian has claimed that soldiers working on the fort's parade ground invented the lyrics to "John Brown's Body." Set to the tune of a popular hymn, the song was so popular among Union troops that President Lincoln is alleged to have asked Julia Ward Howe to write a patriotic poem to the same melody, what became "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Gallops Island

  • Gallops Island quartered the Mass 54th Colored Regiment during the Civil War. Their story was later immortalized in the movie "Glory."

Cultural Landscapes

The Boston Harbor Islands contain numerous cultural landscapes that, when combined with historic structures, archeological resources, and associated museum collections, relate the history and culture of the people that shaped the cultural resources in the vicinity of Boston Harbor. As with structures, a number of cultural landscapes of the Boston Harbor Islands are potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Most cultural landscapes of the harbor islands are characterized as "historic vernacular," meaning that they were imprinted by the settlement, customs, and everyday use of people who altered the physical, biological, and cultural character of their surroundings. Fields and forests once inhabited by American Indians were later used as Euro-American farms and pastures, that, when abandoned, were transformed through natural succession into stands of trees, shrubs, vines, and herbaceous vegetation. On Middle Brewster and Calf islands the stone walls, house foundations, and remnants of gardens still demarcate the summer communities that thrived prior to World War I. On Grape Island a farmhouse foundation and a lone willow tree remain, while horse pastures abandoned during World War II have reverted to tree cover. The past agricultural use of Thompson Island is still evident in the landscape.

Many islands may also have "ethnographic landscapes," those containing natural and cultural resources that associated people define as "heritage resources" such as contemporary settlements, subsistence communities, and burial grounds. Such places can be found on Peddocks, Deer, Long, the Brewsters, and many other islands. The community of summer cottages on Peddocks Island, previously a fishing village, has been in active use for nearly 100 years. The islands were once seasonal homes for Indians. Deer Island and other islands became the location of tragic imprisonment of who were held during King Philip's War. (See "Native Americans and the Islands".)

A surprising number of harbor islands and associated peninsulas contain "historic designed landscapes," those consciously laid out by a landscape gardener, architect, or horticulturist according to design principles or by others in a recognized style or tradition. These are seen notably in the Olmsted design at Worlds End and in vestiges of military landscape design on several islands. Many island landscapes are also recognized as "historic sites," those places associated with a historic activity, event, or person. Such sites include the lighthouses on Little Brewster, where the landscape portrays the lifestyle of keepers who have tended the light for nearly 300 years, and on The Graves and Long Island.

Coasts / Shorelines

Boston Harbor, a continuously working harbor since the mid 17th-century, and the islands have undergone significant physical transformation over the last 300 years. Both human actions and natural forces have caused this change. Many people are aware of the dramatic expansion of the Shawmut Peninsula by filling tidal land over the centuries to create what is now the city of Boston. However, most people are not aware of similar changes to current and former harbor islands. Natural forces significantly eroded Sheep and Hangman islands to mere outcroppings. Causeways and land bridges were constructed to connect Worlds End, Deer, and Nut islands to the mainland, as well as other former islands such as the end of what is now a section of the town of Hull and the Castle Island extension in South Boston. A modern vehicle bridge was constructed for Long Island. Massive landfill connected Wood, Noddles, Apple, and Governors islands to form East Boston and Logan Airport. Today's metamorphosis is the dramatic re-construction of Spectacle Island with material from the central artery highway tunnel through Boston known as the Big Dig. Today's visitor to the islands may get the sense of permanence. However, people and nature have had a dramatic impact on the geography of this resource over a relatively short period of time.

Boston Harbor Islands Overview

The Boston Harbor Islands became a unit of the National Park System in November 1996 by an act of Congress (16 USC 460kkk) that contains several provisions which, in total, make this a national park like no other. It includes 34 islands that lie within the large "C" shape of Boston Harbor. Managed by a unique Partnership, the islands have been closely linked to Massachusetts Bay and to coastal communities for thousands of years. The land mass of the Boston Harbor Islands totals approximately 1,600 acres at high tide and 3,100 acres at low tide. The Boston Harbor Islands national park area extends seaward 11 miles from downtown Boston. The Boston Harbor Islands form a transition between the open ocean and the settled coast, between the world beyond Boston Harbor and the features specific to it. They are not only a physical entrance but a gateway as well to a long sweep of history, from Native American uses through the explosive growth of the city and industry and the concerns of the current post industrial age. The only drumlin field in the United States that intersects a coast, 35 miles of relatively undeveloped shoreline within a densely settled urban area, resources associated with thousands of years of occupation by American Indians, and the complex natural communities of the intertidal zones all illustrate the intrinsic value of Boston Harbor Islands resources.

Both literally and symbolically, the islands offer a unique vantage point from which visitors can contemplate metropolitan growth and change. The islands also offer an exceptional perspective on change in the region's ecosystem. Magnificent open spaces surrounded by expanses of open water, the islands vividly illustrate the region's complex geological past and the continual effect of natural processes on their habitats, their uses, even their shapes. From them, visitors can learn about how such complex ecosystems as harbors are revived. The improvement of Boston Harbor waters has regenerated the biotic communities of the islands and the sea around them and has made possible an impressively wide range of recreational uses. Thus the islands are both a recreational haven for urban residents and tourists and a highly effective laboratory in which to learn about natural change, cultural history, and stewardship.

While the legal name is Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, the park is known as Boston Harbor Islands, a national park area. This latter name was chosen by the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership at the behest of American Indians and in consultation with the National Park Service Washington office. The Indian nations that were involved in King Philip's War strongly voiced their opposition to the word "recreation" and believed it was inappropriate and disrespectful to their ancestors who were incarcerated, died, and were buried on the islands (see "Native Americans and the Islands"). This change allows the park to foster public understanding and appreciation for Indians' strongly felt view of the islands as sacred ground. It focuses more on the park's resources and history than on recreation.

Until 1970, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began systematically to acquire them for the benefit of the public, the islands of Boston Harbor had been shielded from public view and appreciation for generations by commercial and industrial development along the waterfront and by the poor quality of harbor water. In 1985, Boston Harbor was labeled the most polluted harbor in the nation, but the dramatic recovery of water quality during the 1990s, through the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority's wastewater treatment, contributed to widespread support for establishing a national park area. Now, after an investment of more than $4 billion in better wastewater management and treatment, the harbor is cleaner and more inviting. Over the past three decades, numerous public and private agencies have once again turned their focus to Boston Harbor and its islands, as the region seeks to rebuild its historical and ecological ties to Massachusetts Bay.

The 34 islands of Boston Harbor (ranging in size from less than 1 acre to 274 acres) have served numerous public and private uses and are a unique example of an island cluster intimately tied to the life of a city. Although within sight of a dynamic and densely populated metropolitan area, they continue to offer the visitor a rare sense of isolation. Their proximity to a large urban population and their special natural and geologic resources, cultural and historic resources, and associated values contribute to their national significance.

Island Facts: Little Brewster

Short History
This two-acre island is best known as the home of Boston Light, the country's oldest continually used lighthouse site (1716). Originally financed by a tax of a penny-a-ton on all vessels entering and leaving the harbor, the stone lighthouse was largely destroyed by the British when they evacuated Boston at the close of the Revolutionary War, but was rebuilt in 1783. In 1859, the tower was raised 14 feet to its present height of 102 feet above sea level, enabling its light to flash 27 miles out into the Atlantic. By 1990, the Coast Guard had automated every lighthouse in the United States, with Boston Light scheduled to be last in the process. Preservation groups appealed to Congress and the Coast Guard and funding was appropriated to keep Coast Guard staff on the island, where they remain to this day, recording meteorological data in addition to maintaining the light and structures on the island.

Boston Light is a National Historic Landmark, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. For more information about the facility, please go to the National Park Service Maritime Heritage Program Inventory of Historic Light Stations.

 
 
 

Native Americans and the Boston Harbor Islands

Histories and other studies prepared by and with American Indians are needed in order to adequately present Indian connections with the islands. In that those studies are not complete, the following sketch is offered to introduce the complex Native American topics associated with the park.

Prior to European contact American Indians lived on the islands from early spring to late autumn. If one assumes the islands were surrounded by the abundant marine life that characterizes Massachusetts Bay today, then several species of fish, including striped bass, bluefish, and flounder, along with shellfish, would have provided a plentiful supply of food for American Indians. It is known that they fished in harbor waters and cleared fields and parts of the forest to plant crops of corn, beans, and squash. They also gathered wild berries and other plants for food and medicine, and hunted animals and fowl. According to the remains that have survived to modern times, the most common fauna were deer, cod, and softshell clam. Archeological evidence indicates that Indians used the islands for tool manufacturing and also for social and ceremonial activities. When English settlers arrived, Indians still regarded the islands as their home and remained until Euro-American settlers started encroaching on their land.

Beginning in 1675 American colonists engaged in a major war with aboriginal people in the region, which began a tragic time in the life of American Indians. It came to be known as King Philip's War. King Philip was the name the English called Metacom, the Wampanoag sachem. As Indian resistance intensified and more colonial villages were attacked and burned, the English fear of Indians grew. Prior to the start of the war a number of "praying towns" had been established within Massachusetts Bay where natives were tolerant of and living among their European neighbors. As colonial settlements expanded, many American Indians were displaced, to the "praying Indian" villages and towns; some stayed in British colonial settlements; and still others continued in their traditional native communities.

King Philip's War had far-reaching and long-lasting effects on American Indian communities in the region and on the relations between Indians and Europeans. The significance of the islands during the war period is not due to battles fought there but because of the forced removal of Native Americans to the islands. During the winter of 1675-76, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed that the inhabitants of the "praying towns," such as Natick, be relocated. On October 30, 1675, a large body of Christian Indians was forced in shackles to the Charles River and, on three vessels, transported to islands in the harbor. The majority of those relocated were taken to Deer Island where they were incarcerated. Later some Indians were forced to other islands, probably Peddocks Island, Long Island, and one of the Brewster islands. According to some Indian oral histories, many more islands were used by the Colonial government to hold Native Americans due to an increasing number of captives during the period.

Accounts vary widely as to how many Indians were removed to the islands. Historians, using written records, give the range as between 500 and 1,100. Some Indians now believe that traditional (non-Christian) Indians were not counted by the Colonials and so the numbers were much higher. Historical records indicate that as many as one-half of the Indians died of starvation, exposure, and lack of appropriate medicines in what has been called a concentration camp. The General Court of Massachusetts, referring to Indians on the islands, proclaimed "that none of the sayd indians shall presume to goe off the sayd islands voluntarily, uponn payne of death...." After the war, those who survived the island internment continued to face dire relations with the colonies. Records indicate that the colonial government sold some Indians into slavery, or indentured them to English families. But other praying Indians who were released moved into and strengthened Christian Indian settlements. Praying Indians also dispersed to other Native communities including the Nipmucks, Nipmucs, Wampanoags, and Abenakis (Penobscots) and to communities farther south, west, and north in Canada. They were joined by traditional Indians who sought refuge in these communities.

Research has yet to show exactly where Natives were held on the islands, or the locations of any island burial grounds from the period. This is not surprising because on many islands, like Deer Island, construction for military and institutional facilities during past centuries has transformed the landscape in successive projects. Only recently have those projects been guided by a concern for and subsequent laws protecting culturally sensitive sites and Native American burials.

The scope of King Philip's War extended west, beyond the Berkshire Mountains, south to Long Island Sound, and north into present-day Maine. However, the events referenced above are those most directly associated with Boston Harbor Islands. The island focus stems from the park's enabling legislation which highlights the importance of understanding the history of Native American use and involvement with the islands, and calls for protecting and preserving Native American burial grounds, particularly those connected with King Philip's War. This Congressional recognition of the importance of Indian history and of King Philip's War has raised public awareness around these topics. It has also raised managers' sensitivity to the complex issues surrounding the management and interpretation of island resources associated with Indian use of the islands. This recognition and awareness complements a broad range of federal and state initiatives to protect Native American sacred, cultural, and historic sites in collaboration with Indian tribes. The establishment of the park has also brought a new focus for tribes with cultural affiliation to the islands and their resources. Paramount among the many concerns expressed by Indian people is that any burial grounds or sacred sites be protected and treated with respect by all.

Ethnographic & Archeological Sites

Ethnographic Sites
Many contemporary American Indians have cultural ties to the Boston Harbor Islands, and other groups may also feel connections to the islands based on long-standing use. Although little research has been conducted to identify any of these traditionally associated groups, they might include Irish immigrant families or groups of former island inhabitants including fishermen, lighthouse keepers, and "communities of caring," people who tended to the sick. Ethnographic sites on the Boston Harbor Islands have not been professionally documented.

Deer Island, to single out one island of ethnographic importance, has been used historically by Native Americans, quarantined immigrants, farmers, orphans, "paupers," military personnel, and tens of thousands of prisoners (at the recently demolished county house of corrections), but it has special significance to American Indians as a place of internment in King Philip's War. Native Americans return to Deer Island every year in October to solemnly commemorate their ancestors' suffering in this sorrowful historical chapter. That period marks an inhumane chapter in this region's history. The descendants of Indian nations and tribes that were involved in the King Philip's War are adamant that their stories be told about what they consider a holocaust in the 1670s.

In the 1840s, when the potato famine drove a million or more Irish citizens to emigrate to the United States, Deer Island was a landing point for thousands, many sick and poverty-stricken, where the City of Boston established a quarantine hospital in 1847. Approximately 4,800 people were treated in the first two years, but more than 800 died and were buried in the Rest Haven Cemetery. The documented number of people of European ancestry buried at Deer Island is approximately 4,000. (To commemorate those who died on the island, Indian and Irish memorials will be built on Deer Island.) In 1850, an almshouse was built to house paupers. Later institutional uses on Deer Island were a reform school, a county house of corrections, and a sewage treatment plant.

Archeological Sites
The Boston Harbor Islands have a rich human history, some of which is revealed by physical evidence including pre-contact and historic archeological resources. The islands began to separate from the mainland during the Late Archaic period (3000 BC to 1000 BC), but have produced artifacts from the Early Archaic period, indicating that native peoples were living on the shores of river estuaries. The Middle and Late Woodland periods (300 BC to 1000 AD) are most heavily represented in the archeological record, but erosion may have taken out earlier sites. The islands contain evidence of American Indian use of such archeological significance that, to date, 21 islands have been designated within an archeological district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Archeological sites of the historic period have not been systematically surveyed, although many are known to exist on the islands. Fifteen types of sites are known: agricultural, cemetery, fishing colony, fortification, hospital, hotel or resort, industrial, poorhouse, prison, prisoner-of-war camp, quarantine, sewage treatment, lighthouses, dumps, and miscellaneous other site types.

Education Themes: Native Americans

Island Use
  • Archaeological evidence shows that Native Americans have lived on or used the islands for at least 8000 years.
  • Different cultural groups using the islands likely included the Moswetuset, Mashpee, Wampanoags and the Nipmuks.
  • Prior to European contact Native Americans lived on the islands from early spring to late autumn.
  • During the thousands of years of Indian use, the natural environment was sustained and a deep connection was developed between Native Americans and the islands.
  • Native Americans fished in harbor waters and cleared fields and parts of the forest to plant crops of corn, beans, and squash. They also gathered wild berries and other plants for food and medicine, and hunted animals and fowl. According to the remains that have survived to modern times, the most common animals on the islands were deer, cod, and softshell clams.
  • Archeological evidence indicates that Native Americans used the islands for tool manufacturing and also for social and ceremonial activities.
  • In 1626, Thompson Island was a Native American trading post.
  • Deer Island was one of several islands used for internment camps for Native Americans during King Philip's War. (See description below.)

Interactions between Native Americans and European Settlers

  • When English settlers arrived, Native Americans still regarded the islands as their home and remained there until Euro-American settlers started encroaching on their land.
  • Beginning in 1675 American colonists engaged in a major war with the Native Americans. It came to be known as King Philip's War. (King Philip was the name the English called Metacom, the Wampanoag sachem.)
  • King Philip's War had far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Native American communities in the region and on the relations between Native Americans and Europeans.
  • As the Native American resistance intensified, and more colonial villages were attacked and burned, the English fear of the Native Americans grew.
  • The significance of the islands during the period of King Philip's War is not due to battles fought there but because of the forced removal of Native Americans to the islands.
  • Prior to the start of the war, a number of "praying towns" had been established within Massachusetts Bay where natives were tolerant of, and living amongst, their European neighbors. As colonial settlements expanded, many Native Americans were displaced to the Indian praying villages and towns.
  • During the winter of 1675-76, the Massachusetts Bay Colony decreed that the inhabitants of the "praying towns," such as Natick, be relocated. On October 30, 1675, a large body of Christian Indians was forced in shackles to the Charles River and, on three vessels, transported to islands in the harbor. The majority of those relocated were taken to Deer Island where they were incarcerated.
  • Later some Native Americans were forced to other islands, probably Peddocks Island, Long Island, and one of the Brewster islands.
  • Accounts vary widely as to how many Native Americans were removed to the islands. Historians, using written records, give the range as between 500 and 1,100. Some Native Americans now believe that traditional (non-Christian) Native Americans were not counted by the Colonists and so the numbers were much higher. Historical records indicate that as many as one-half of Native Americans died of starvation, exposure, and lack of appropriate medicines in what has been called a concentration camp. The General Court of Massachusetts, referring to Native Americans on the islands, proclaimed "that none of the sayd indians shall presume to goe off the sayd islands voluntarily, uponn payne of death . . . .
  • After the war, those who survived the island internment continued to face dire relations with the colonies.
  • Records indicate that the colonial government sold some Native Americans into slavery, or indentured them to English families. Other praying Indians, who were released, moved into and strengthened Christian Native American settlements.
  • Praying Indians also dispersed to other Native communities including the Nipmucks, Nipmucs, Wampanoags, and Abenakis (Penobscots) and to communities farther south, west, and north in Canada.
  • The scope of King Philip's War extended west, beyond the Berkshire Mountains, south to Long Island Sound, and north into present-day Maine. However, the events referenced above are those most directly associated with Boston Harbor Islands. The island focus stems from the park's enabling legislation which highlights the importance of understanding the history of Native American use and involvement with the islands, and calls for protecting and preserving Native American burial grounds, particularly those connected with King Philip's War.
  • This Congressional recognition of the importance of Native American history and of King Philip's War has raised public awareness around these topics. It has also raised park managers' sensitivity to the complex issues surrounding the management and interpretation of island resources associated with Native American use of the islands. This recognition and awareness complements a broad range of federal and state initiatives to protect Native American sacred, cultural, and historic sites in collaboration with Indian tribes. The establishment of the park has also brought a new focus for tribes with cultural affiliation to the islands and their resources. Paramount among the many concerns expressed by Native American people is that any burial grounds or sacred sites be protected and treated with respect by all.
  • Presently, Native Americans return to Deer Island every year in October to solemnly commemorate their ancestors' suffering.