J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dorchester Heights, Sixty Years Later

W. H. Bartlett painted This watercolor in 1836, showing the view of Boston from the top of Dorchester Heights. Two years later it was adapted into this engraving; the Boston Public Library shared both on its Flickr page. There was also a color print, and later artists copied the image.

In the background is the skyline of Boston, topped by the dome of the State House on Beacon Hill. Some church steeples stick up as well. In the foreground are the remains of the earthworks built on Dorchester Heights in 1776, though most of what we see was probably built during the War of 1812 when the site was refortified. I suspect the decorative arch was more recent.

There was still a lot of water between this vantage point and Boston, but already some of the buildings in Dorchester were rising into the view. The sheep grazing inside the earthworks show how farmers had already reclaimed this land for their purposes. Indeed, the only reason this site remained undeveloped, sixty years after the British military left Boston, was probably because the hilltop was inconvenient to plow or build on.

In the nineteenth century most of those hills were cut down, and their tops went into the shallow waters between Dorchester and Boston to create part of South Boston. By 1898 there was little of the original topography left, and the state commissioned a monument on the remaining peak.


Lee Wright said...

It's a real shame that more hasn't been done at this neglected, out of the way monument to help visitors understand the terrain at the time. Climb to the top of the monument today and it's nearly impossible to understand why what's left of the hill held such strategic importance.

Charles Bahne said...

In 1806 this peninsula was annexed to Boston and became known as South Boston, so those would be the buildings of South Boston" in the foreground.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Charlie. There's one tower in particular visible right of center. Any idea what that is?

Charles Bahne said...

Unfortunately, I'm not that familiar with the 19th-century history of South Boston, and the earliest detailed map I can easily find is from 1874. I suspect that at that early date (1836) it was a church or possibly a school on West Broadway.

Charles Bahne said...

Here's an 1852 map showing the area, just 16 years after the watercolor:

Compare the watercolor view with the outline on the map of the "Old Fort" near the corner of East Fourth and G Streets. This would be the other fort that was erected in 1776, a few blocks northeast of the present Dorchester Heights monument. The building at extreme right in the watercolor also appears to match the 1852 map's illustration of the Perkins School for the Blind (in the right margin). This would imply that the tower near the center is the Mount Washington Female Seminary of Mrs. Burrill, on East Broadway near G.

J. L. Bell said...

That same map is surrounded with views of prominent Boston buildings, including the Mount Washington Female Seminary and the Perkins Institution. I don't see a tower that matches exactly, but perhaps that's a matter of angles (or rebuilding).

john said...

I visited this site for the first time this past September and really enjoyed it. The cab driver had a difficult time finding it but we got there. (I am not from Boston nor do I live there)