Watch Now

FreightWaves Classics: Port of Boston was America’s first seaport

It is intertwined with American history

A photo of cranes at Conley Terminal, part of the Port of Boston complex. (Photo: Port of Boston)

This is the first in an ongoing series of articles on U.S. ports.

America’s ports are a key part of the U.S. transportation network. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, maritime vessels carry 53% and 38% of U.S. imports and exports, respectively, by value.

Among U.S. airports, seaports and border crossings, the Port of Boston ranked 69th in imports/exports at the end of 2020. While it is no longer among the nation’s busiest ports, it remains both an active and historic port.

America’s first port

Boston Harbor is a natural harbor and an estuary of Massachusetts Bay. It is located adjacent to the city of Boston. It is home to the Port of Boston, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest continually active seaport. According to historians, the region’s indigenous population used Massachusetts Bay as a trading area for about 4,000 years before European settlers arrived in the 1600s. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in 1629; the seaport grew over the decades to be a major commercial center, which it remains today.

Settlement and growth

English Puritans settled the Port of Boston area in 1630, seeking religious freedom from the Church of England. They named their new town Boston after the English town from which many of them came. They settled on the Shawmut Peninsula, recognizing its rich potential as a seaport. 

The Puritans, their descendants and other settlers became shipbuilders, seamen, fishermen and merchants. By 1648, Boston was doing quite well and by the end of the 1600s, the Port of Boston’s fleet was the third-largest in the English-speaking world. Boston was the largest city in the English colonies until the middle of the 18th century; at that point Philadelphia and New York City overtook it.

Boston harbor (circa 1765) by John Carwitham
Boston harbor (circa 1765) by John Carwitham

For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Port of Boston was the largest and busiest port in North America. It provided English goods to the growing colonies and exported lumber, salted fish, rum and newly built ships to England and other colonies.

Competition, new trade and restrictions

As the mid-Atlantic colonies continued to grow, Philadelphia and New York competed with the Port of Boston for cargo volume. Leaders of the Port of Boston began to develop foreign trade networks that created wealth, cultural diversity and prestige. Unfortunately, a portion of the wealth came from the “triangle route” – sugar was imported to Boston from the West Indies to make rum; the rum was traded for African slaves who were taken to the West Indian sugar plantations to grow and harvest the sugar for Boston’s rum distilleries.

English merchants envied and resented the Port of Boston’s success; they sought the colonies be limited to trading only with Britain. Their influence with the government and their insistence that Boston’s merchants restrict trade with other colonies and nations fueled the colony’s radical groups that were calling for revolution and independence.

A drawing of the Boston Tea Party from a "newspaper of the day." (Image:
A drawing of the Boston Tea Party from a “newspaper of the day.” (Image:

Attempts to restrict the Port of Boston’s trade led to a series of events that greatly influenced American history. Parliament enacted the Stamp Act in 1765; in retaliation, residents of the Port of Boston destroyed the governor’s house. In 1770, the Boston Massacre occurred; British troops killed several residents. Then in 1773, colonists dressed as American Indians dumped shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party was a key event that led to the American Revolution.

Revolution and aftermath

The increasing conflict in the Massachusetts Bay Colony caused the British Army to march to nearby Concord to seize military stores in 1775. Paul Revere made his famous ride to Lexington, and the American Revolution’s first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. George Washington and the Continental Army besieged the British in the Port of Boston during the winter, and in the spring of 1776, British and Loyalist residents left the city.

The U.S. Constitution was written and signed in 1780. John Hancock, its first signer, was elected the first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. After independence, Port of Boston merchants had to find other trade opportunities, because trade with Great Britain was severely curtailed.

As the fledgling nation grew, the Port of Boston expanded its trade with other ports around the world. Manned by Port of Boston seamen, American-flagged ships traded in ports across Europe and North Africa. Trade began with China and India, bringing the local economy to new heights.

Boston, by Nathaniel Dearborn (Boston Museum of Fine Art)
Boston, by Nathaniel Dearborn (Boston Museum of Fine Art)

In 1822, the Port of Boston was granted a city charter by the state legislature. New commercial activities and manufacturing grew in and around the Port of Boston. Textile mills were built on the banks of the Merrimack River. In the 1830s, railroads and new immigrants further stimulated growth. 

As the Industrial Revolution grew, international trade declined; the Port of Boston became an important coastal trade center. Raw materials – cotton, wool, sugar cane and turpentine were imported from the South and made into finished goods that were sold in other states or exported to Europe. The Port of Boston’s shipyards reached their peak in the mid-19th century; they produced the fastest commercial clipper ships in the world.

A hub for slavery earlier, the Port of Boston and its leaders were instrumental in the abolitionist movement. Other residents were involved in various social causes. Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science in the Port of Boston; it continues to be the faith’s international headquarters.  As its progressive movements grew, so did the port’s cultural and educational institutions. Founded in 1636, Harvard University was the only college in the Port of Boston until after the  Civil War, yet its prestige only grew as other colleges were established in the city. The Port of Boston became famous for its cultural and scholarly sophistication.

Change and decline

In 1825, shipping and maritime commerce began to decline when the Erie Canal was opened. Now New York City gained access to the nation’s western settlements. The Civil War ended access to Southern cotton, further reducing the port’s importance to the local and national economies. Banking, manufacturing, railroads and development of the frontier eclipsed maritime  economic activities in the Port of Boston during the latter half of the 19th century.

New York’s financial leaders were taking control of shipping lines and trading houses. International trade was increasingly centered in the Port of New York rather than Boston. In addition, the Port of Boston’s shipbuilders failed to adopt modern assembly-line production techniques and refused to move from building wooden ships to new iron and steam-powered vessels. This caused the city’s shipbuilding industry to collapse.

Boston Harbor by Fitz Hugh Lane (1854)
Boston Harbor by Fitz Hugh Lane (1854)

After the Civil War, Irish immigrants changed the Port of Boston’s political and social character. By the early 20th century, Irish politicians dominated the city’s political scene. However, descendants of the Puritans resented the Irish and rejected their politicians. During the 1930s and 1940s there were continuing power struggles between the Irish-Catholic Democratic political system and the Protestant Yankee Republican economic system. 

Other changes took place as well. Many of the region’s textile mills closed as the owners opened mills in the South where the labor was cheaper and raw materials were close at hand.  The original Port of Boston waterfront deteriorated when railroads built new port facilities in the South Bay and in East Boston.

Launching of the Cleveland-class cruiser Pasadena at the Bethlehem Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Massachusetts on December 23, 1943. (Photo: U.S. Archives)
Launching of the Cleveland-class cruiser Pasadena at the Bethlehem Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Massachusetts
on December 23, 1943. (Photo: U.S. Archives)

World War II brings new work

During World War II, the U.S. military became much more important to the Port of Boston. The Charlestown Navy Yard grew; three new annexes and a Naval air station were built. The nearby Fore River Shipyard produced more warships for the U.S. Navy than any other U.S. shipyard.

Having survived decades of industrial and economic transitions, political and social conflict, and cultural transformations, the Port of Boston today is a leader in higher education, medical research and computer technology.


Today, the Port of Boston still welcomes ships filled with goods from around the world. Containerships that dwarf the ships of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries unload their cargoes and take on cargo as well. Moreover, the Port of Boston has become a port for cruise ships as well.

While America’s first seaport has declined in importance over the centuries, it will not disappear. Numerous changes and increased competition have diminished its rank, but its historical importance cannot be understated.

 USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, sails past downtown Boston on her “Salute to the Pacific Northwest” cruise, July 16, 2005. (U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Matt Chabe)
USS Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, sails past downtown Boston on her
“Salute to the Pacific Northwest” cruise, July 16, 2005. (U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Matt Chabe)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.