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Happy birthday, Boston. Here’s the city’s oldest document

Boston City Archives

Boston’s storied history begins — at least on paper — with a minor crisis. Boats and ships were being damaged as they came to shore in the new settlement, hitting deposits of stone and wood that were submerged at high tide.

In the presence of John Winthrop and Captain John Underhill, four years after the town’s founding, Boston declared that nobody would be allowed to place anything below the water line without also putting up a signal to alert sailors to its presence.

It’s the subject of the first entry in Boston’s town book for 1634, an artifact the Boston City Archives is featuring today in honor of the city’s 384th anniversary.


“Whereas it hath been founde that muche damage hath allreadye happened by laying of stones and logges near the bridge and landinge place, whereby diverse boats have been much bruised, for preventing of such harmes for tyme to come,” the entry says, “it is ordered that whosoever shall unlade any stones timber or logges where the same may not be plainly seen at highe water, shall sett up a pole or beacon to give notice thereof.”

Though some people celebrate Boston’s birthday on Sept. 7, City Archivist John McColgan says today is the most accurate approximation (the distinction has to do with the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar).

The town book provides a look at life in early Boston, recording the lives life of those who came here from Europe.

“This is the record that the original settlers kept to record the doings of the town,” McColgan said. One example of its contents, he said: “how many cows people kept.”

Though the document was transcribed into a more durable format in the late 19th century, the city has held onto the original record. It has only recently been restored after an effort in the 1930s to protect it led to its further deterioration.


Until about 15 years ago, McColgan said, the pages were coated in cellophane, which allowed acid to eat away at the paper. The substance had been placed there to remove mildew, but caused its own problems.

“It was a bound volume of a couple hundred pages,” McColgan said, “but if you went near it, the smell of vinegar would knock you over.”

The city sent the book to North Andover’s Northeast Document Conservation Center, which instead coated the pages in Mylar protectors.

The script in the old book can be difficult to read, and McColgan said the more recent transcription is more often used for research. Still, he said the document is an invaluable part of the city’s history.

“It has intrinsic artifactual value,” he said. “This is the record that the Puritans who founded Boston ... created and used.”

A previous version of this story contained an incorrect reference to the year of Boston’s founding.

Andy Rosen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.