Cambridge Commons & the Siege of Boston

The purpose of this article is primarily to discuss the geographic region around Cambridge Commons during the Siege of Boston. It does require a brief history of some of the now well-known institutions that exist at the edges of the Commons. For more information, check out the Sources section at the end of this article. 

The current City of Cambridge, MA is now considered one of the seats of education and culture in New England. However it started out from much more humble beginnings. As waves of Puritan colonization in the mid-17th century swept in from the shoreline inward, displacing Indigenous populations in decline from transplanted illnesses which they had no resistance to. The settlement at Cambridge, at the time called The New Towne or Newtowne began in the 1630s with the Dudleys and Bradstreets

Around this same time, Puritan leaders, concerned about the future of their Congregational Church, decided in 1636 to found a school to train men to become Congregational Ministers and leaders in their community. The New Towne was renamed Cambridge in 1638 after Cambridge, England. The College was originally Called Newtown College, then Cambridge College after the town’s name change, and finally in 1639, changed its name to Harvard College after John Harvard bequeathed the college half of his estate and his entire library. The College was officially chartered by the colony in 1650.

Founded on strict Puritan ideals, most of the first Presidents of the University were Puritain Ministers. It is at Harvard where the first printing press in the British Colonies operated. Interestingly, Harvard also had some Indigenous graduates, such as John Printer, a Nipmuc, who translated and printed the Old Testament and New Testament in Algonquin, which was used to enable further conversion of Natives to Christianity in the Praying Indian towns. 

To picture how Cambridge looked at the time leading up to the American Revolution, you have to picture a region that encompasses the current towns of Newton, Brighton, Arlington, and Lexington. Much of this land consisted of farms and estates, and most of the town dwellings centered around the Cambridge Commons and the area now called Harvard Square. Harvard was staunchly Protestant for much of its early history. Specifically Puritain, but by 1700 it had become more of a non-denominational Protestant institution. 

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Celebration of Anniversary of Washington taking over Army

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The population was chiefly Congregationalist, but some Loyalists with wealth and influence settled an area around Brattle Street, which to this day is referred to as Tory Row. While Cambridge already had a Congregational church, there was not one locally for members of the Church of England, so in 1759, they petitioned to start their own church in town. Prior to this they attended the King’s Church in Boston. The new location was perfect, right across Cambridge Common from Harvard University, in the heart of the Town of Cambridge. It took a while to raise funds and build the church, and the interior building was not yet finished when in the summer of 1774, most of the parishioners fled to Boston, further north, or back to England as revolutionary fervor grew. 

Immediately following the Battle of Lexington and Concord, thousands of militiamen gathered on Cambridge Commons. In a short period of time, many gathered as they determined what to do now that active hostilities had begun. As time continued, volunteers from other colonies arrived in town. While there were no battles that took place in Cambridge, Cambridge became the seat of much of the early Revolutionary War efforts and planning. 

As the Siege of Boston takes form, militiamen ensconced around the city needed places to stay. One such building was the Anglican Church, as Cambridge Commons made an excellent grounds for training and fortifying. So by summer of 1775, the church building was full of armed patriots. After Martha Washington joined her husband in November of 1775, one of the things she did to improve the army’s morale was on December 31, 1775 ask a minister to hold a Mass for the soldiers. On an interesting note, that same day Benedict Arnold was attacking the city of Quebec in Canada. 

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Another location that billeted soldiers was Harvard College’s dormitories. According to Harvard’s Handbook and the Calendar of Harvard History

Massachusetts and Hollis Halls each housed 640 soldiers, Stoughton College housed 240; left so damaged that it was dismantled in 1781 and replaced in 1805 by the current hall of the same name), and Holden Chapel housed 160. Half a ton of lead from the Harvard Hall roof was recycled into bullets to help drive the British from Boston.

So, what did Harvard students do during the siege? In 1774, the college thought it was best to suspend public Commencement ceremonies, and they did not start up again until 1781. Tensions rose between Tory and Patriot minded students, and the school banned bringing tea into classes in order to keep peace. Some of the students left school to join militias. In May of 1775 Harvard closed early, as ordered by the Committee of Safety. The Provincial Congress commandeered Harvard’s buildings, and the college needed to find somewhere to convene. “The New-England Chronicle or Essex Gazette* advertises that the Harvard Corporation and Overseers have chosen the Town of Concord as “a proper place for convening the Members of the said public Seminary of Learning” as the Revolution rages in Cambridge. Students are due in Concord by Oct. 4; probably less than 100 of the expected 125 show up. The College stays in Concord for eight months.

Questions for Exploration

Why do you think the Generals of the Continental Army made use of the mansions on Tory Row?
Imagine you were a student attending Harvard during these events. Would you attend classes in Concord, join the Continental Army, or wait for classes to resume? Why?