Boston, Massachusetts is one of the top sites in New England to learn about American colonial history. Puritans first settled Boston in 1630, which then grew to be the largest port in New England. The Boston Freedom Trail guides you through the city and Revolutionary War history we learned in school. However, when we walked The Freedom Trail we learned that there were still many things we didn’t know.
Tours are fine for learning history, but sometimes the best lessons come as a surprise. Here are 10 unexpected things we learned when we walked The Boston Freedom Trail.
1. Boston Common – Parks Weren’t Always Fun.
Today Boston Common is a park where families have picnics and kids play on the playground. But on The Boston Freedom Trail, we learned that the park wasn’t always a fun place. Established in 1634, Boston Common was originally used to graze cattle. During the British occupation, it was used as a Red Coats training field. But the most interesting thing we learned was that it was once a place to punish Puritans. It was the site of whipping posts and stocks, as well as a large elm tree that was used to hang pirates and witches. Yikes!
2. Park Street Church – People Still Attend Historic Churches.
Founded in 1809, the Park Street Church was once the first landmark travelers could see as they approached Boston. A fun fact about the church is that in 1831, the song “My Country Tis of Thee” was sung for the very first time by the church’s Sunday school children. My 13-year- old daughter was confused when she saw two teens sitting outside of the church to sign kids up for Vacation Bible School. She expected the church to be a museum rather than an active church with weekly services.
3. Granary Burial Ground – Mother Goose is Buried in Boston. Maybe.
The Granary Burial Ground is the final resting spot of many famous colonials. Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock are among the residents. I almost overlooked the gravestone of another famous resident – Mother Goose. Well, maybe Mother Goose. This story gets complicated, but here it goes: Mary Goose and her husband Isaac had 10 children before she died in 1690. Isaac then married Elizabeth Foster, and they had six children. So Elizabeth had a lot of children, just like Mother Goose had in the nursery rhyme. As a grandmother, Elizabeth liked to tell her grandkids stories. Her son-in- law published her tales in the 1719 book Mother Gooses Melodies for Children. No one knows if Elizabeth is buried in the Granary Burial Ground along with her mother, but as a nursery rhymes fan, I enjoyed learning more about Mother Goose.
4. King’s Chapel – Colonials Paid to Attend Church.
The inside of King’s Chapel surprised the entire family. Instead of the rows of seats like our church, the sanctuary was filled with boxes. Each “pew box” had walls about 4 feet high and inside was bench-type seating. We learned that in Colonial times, families rented or purchased their box, and a better view of the preacher cost more than those in the back. At some churches, you couldn’t attend if your family didn’t own a pew box. My daughter couldn’t understand why a church would exclude poor people.
5. King’s Chapel Burial Ground – Headstones Weren’t Scary to Colonials.
Walking around Boston’s first burial ground, my husband was the first to notice that most had pictures of skulls. Puritans didn’t believe in putting graven images such as crosses on headstones. Instead, it was common to decorate the stones with a “death’s head” which is a skull or a skull with wings. So what seemed creepy and disturbing to my husband was normal in the 17th and 18th centuries.
6. Old Corner Bookstore – You can’t stop progress.
In the mid-1800’s, The Old Corner Bookstore was the center of American book publishing. Famous authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott printed their books at the store. But in 2016, the Old Corner Bookstore is a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant. That’s right. The teen boy thought it was stupid that you can visit a famous 19th Century publishing house and buy a burrito.
7. Faneuil Hall – Even a Grasshopper Can Make History.
Atop Faneuil Hall is an unusual weather vane. First off, it is a grasshopper. We have seen lots of weather vane roosters, a few pigs, and my daughter pointed out that there is even a crocodile at Disney World, but this was the first grasshopper. But it wasn’t just the grasshopper that was interesting. It was the story that goes with the grasshopper. During the War of 1812, suspected spies were asked the question: “What is on top of Faneuil Hall?” If they didn’t know the answer, they were considered suspicious. None of us ever heard that story in our history classes.
8. Paul Revere’s House – History Isn’t Always on the Official Tour.
The Freedom Trail near Paul Revere’s House follows uneven and narrow cobbled roads. My first thought was “How do they drive on these roads?” Then I realized that these were original roadways that weren’t updated to accommodate automobiles. The roads were built to accommodate horses and horse-drawn wagons. I almost missed this piece of history while looking at the historic buildings.
9. Old North Church – You Never know who you might be walking on.
The walls of the Old North Church have plaques with inscriptions that look like a tombstone — name, birth date, death date, and maybe a few words about the person. My concerned daughter thought there might be people buried in the wall. She was close. People were buried literally under our feet in the church’s crypt. In fact, the founding rector, Timothy Culter, is buried under the altar. She still thought it would be strange to worship in the same place as dead people.
10. Old North Church – Hanging those famous lanterns took a lot of climbing.
My kids were familiar with the tale of Paul Revere immortalized in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,—
One, if by land, and two, if by sea.”
But none of us realized how hard it was to hang those lanterns. First, the church sexton and vestryman climbed the stairs in the back of the church. Next, they squeezed behind the church organ and entered a small door into the tower. Then they climbed winding staircases and ladders up eight stories until they reached the windows. And they had to climb in complete darkness until they reached the windows where they lit two lanterns to indicate the British were approaching by sea. Eight stories in the dark. I think my daughter perfectly captured our reaction when she said, “They must have had a lot of determination.”
I hope you enjoyed the unexpected things we learned on The Freedom Trail in Boston. To read more about historic Boston, Take a Walk Back 200 Years Ago with Gringa TravelingMom Marina Kuperman Villatoro. After the walk, Marina suggests taking in more history as you Dine at America’s Oldest Restaurant – Union Oyster House in Boston.