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The Historical Atlas of Massachusetts
©The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991
Reprinted with permission

Reading for 2/5/03 and 2/12/03

Introduction Part I 

"There is not now and never has been a work on Massachusetts history embracing the whole field of the experience of the state, either chronologically or topically." So wrote Albert Bushnell Hart, editor of the magisterial five-volume Commonwealth History of Massachusetts, as he set out to remedy that oversight some fifty years ago. Since that time there have been other attempts to describe the people and events, ideas and institutions, that have shaped the state's rich and varied past. Yet none has combined the skills of the historian, the geographer, and the cartographer to explore the totality of experiences embodied in the notion* of a "commonwealth." Such is the goal of the Historical Atlas of Massachusetts.

A historical atlas is a blend of geography and history, the study of the natural and cultural landscape and the study of the human past. By join-ing these two disciplines, it seeks to illuminate the interaction between people and their physical environment, showing how the land shaped human history as well as how humans reshaped the land. The desired result is a mosaic of people, places, and events that provides a link between the seemingly remote past and the ever-changing present.

The last Massachusetts atlas was published in 1894, was not historical in approach, and was a town by town location of geographic place names. To render a vivid portrait of the state, the cartographers, geog-raphers, and historians working on the Historical Atlas of Massachusetts have used computer generated graphics, satellite imagery, full color maps and illustrations, and photographs. Complementing these more contemporary visual aids are a variety of historical maps and other arti-facts that capture the spirit of times past.

The chapter that follows introduces the contextual framework that will be developed more fully in the rest of the volume. The first section, entitled "The Historical Landscape," is devoted to a chronological his-tory that identifies eight key periods of change, beginning with Native American settlements and culminating with the postindustrial service economy that evolved after 1950. Rather than adopting a more traditional political approach, this analysis focuses on the dynamic inter-change between human beings and their environment: where and how people settled, how they used the land and reshaped the landscape, how they generated economic change. The second section explores a variety of political and social topics: the state's political organization and history, the status of women, ethnicity and race, demography, health care, architecture, communications, transportation, energy, and the unique story of the Quabbin Reservoir.

Throughout, the Historical Atlas of Massachusetts interweaves past and present to illuminate the forces of change that have transformed not only the state but the nation as a whole.


The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, true to the origins of its name, part British, part Native American-has always been a land of contrast. From early on the state's economy has been a mixture of agriculture, fishing, and industry; its politics, a blend of conservatism and radicalism; its cultural life, a potpourri of distinct ethnic traditions. Yet perhaps nowhere is the state's rich diversity more evident than in its geography-the physical setting that has provided the context for the making of the Commonwealth's history.

Situated at the intersection of several physical regions, Massachusetts features a patchwork landscape of widely varied terrain: barren beaches and fertile lowland valleys, rocky hills and thick woodlands, freshwater lakes and tidal salt marshes. Much of that landscape was shaped by the glaciers of the last ice age, which crossed the region some 18,000 years ago. Cape Cod, protruding into the Atlantic like a flexed arm, was cre-ated from the glaciers' terminal moraine, as were the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

Throughout the Bay State, zones of transition abound. The state's 8,257 square miles can be divided into 10 large ecological regions, with 27 subregions. The rocky, sharply defined coastline north of Boston dif-fers markedly from the beaches of Cape Cod, where the sandy coastal ecology of the mid-Atlantic region ends after more than 1,200 miles. The state's forest ecology reflects the gradual shift from broad-leaved decid-uous trees that lose their leaves in the fall to coniferous evergreens. The predominant geological structure of the New England Appalachian mountains was formed 400 to 350 million years ago, when plates of the earth's crust collided. This collision was particularly severe in southern New England, and in Massachusetts nine tightly constricted zones of underlying geological structure exist in a width of only 200 miles. The collision was also responsible for the north-south orientation of the state's mountains.

The climate of the state is equally varied. Seasonal changes are extreme, and even day-to-day weather is difficult to predict. Whereas most of the North American continent has a climate that is affected by a , small variety of air masses, Massachusetts is in a zone of interacting air masses that converge on the region. Interaction from these diverse storm paths from the colder continental interior to the north and west and the warmer tropical regions to the south and southeast produces a wide variety of storm types. Ocean currents are partly responsible for the weather's variability. Cold currents from the northern Labrador cur-rent meet the warmer Gulf Stream currents from the south off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts and Cape Cod. Because this area of the state extends farther into the Atlantic Ocean than any other part of the United States except Cape Hatteras, it is especially vulnerable to violent coastal storms and hurricanes.

Within this diverse and ever-changing environment, the people of Massachusetts have created a distinctive way of life, at once steeped in tradition and open to innovation. With its quaint colonial villages and bustling modern cities, rolling farmlands and high-tech industrial parks, Massachusetts is a place where past and present coexist-at times harmoniously, at times uneasily—at the threshold of the future.

The Formation of Cities and Towns Beginning with the founding of Plimoth Plantation in 1620, the colonial settlement of Massachusetts proceeded steadily apace. Over time, 129 cities and towns had been incorporated, and from these "parent communities" an additional 222 cities and towns were formed. Many of the original "parent communities" were much larger than they are today. Among the largest were Plymouth, Duxbury, Taunton, Rehoboth, Dorchester, Dedham, Lancaster, Rutland, Oxford, Brimfield, Deerfield, Hadley, Springfield, and Sheffield. Hampden County, which today has 23 cities and towns, originally included only five: Springfield, Brimfield, Blandford, Chester, and Grandville. Springfield alone comprised what would eventually become 14 different cities and towns. In other parts of the Connecticut River Valley, in Norfolk County, and in much of Worcester County, the situation was similar. In fact, only on Cape Cod and in the far western part of the state have many of the original town boundaries remained unchanged.

Names on the Land The original names of most places in Massachusetts were those given by Native Americans. Over the years the meanings of many of them have been distorted or lost, but the place names themselves, with their distinctive sound and rhythm, remain: Nantucket, Agawam, Saugus, Housatonic, Chicopee, Scituate, and Quabbin.

The name Massachusetts was taken from the Massachuset tribe of Indians who lived near the Great Blue Hill in Milton. According to The Origin of Massachusetts Place Names, compiled by the Writers' Project of the WPA in the 1930s, the name was first applied to the Charles River region around the time of John Smith's explorations in 1614, and then to Boston Harbor by the Pilgrims in 1621. Subsequently it was used to describe the entire bay between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. The Massachusetts Bay Company was chartered 1629, and the region around the bay was officially designated as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

After 1691 the colony became the Province of Massachusetts and, later, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The names of all but two of the 14 counties in the state had English origins. Half were named for counties in England: Berkshire, Essex, Hampshire, Middlesex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Worcester. English seaports accounted for names of Barnstable, Bristol, and Plymouth counties,while Dukes and Hampden counties were named after well-known Englishmen-the duke of York and John Hampden. Franklin County in western Massachusetts was named for Boston-born Benjamin Franklin. Only one county, Nantucket, received a Native American name.

The accompanying map of cities and towns identifies the 351 units and groups them into nine categories. Names of English cities, towns, and counties account for 106 of the total, about one-third, while 80 are named for distinguished Americans or local settlers, 52 for famous Englishmen, and 33 for geographical features. In addition, 32 towns are named for other communities in Massachusetts (e.g., New Salem, East Brookfield) and 17 for places elsewhere (e.g., Peru, Florida, Berlin); 15 have Native American names (e.g., Cohasset, Natick, Seekonk, Mashpee); and 14 are named after other things (e.g., Blandford, the boat that brought Governor Shirley in 173 1). Two, Norwell and Rowe, are unknown.

Population The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimated that 70,000 people lived in Massachusetts by 1700 and that they represented about a quarter (25.5%) of the population of British Colonial America. Although the state's population has continued to rise significantly, its proportion of the total population has declined: 125,000 in 1730 (19%); 238,195 in the first colonial census in 1765 (14%); 378,787 in the first U.S. census in 1790 (10%); 994,514 in 1850 (4.3%); 2,805,346 in 1900 (3.7%); 4,690,514 in 1950 (3.1%); and an estimated 5,890,000 in 1988 (2.4%).Massachusetts and Rhode Island led the nation in the growth of their urban population in the first half of the nineteenth century. By 1850 these two states were more than 50 percent urban. (The United States did not become that urban until 1920.) Urban population in the Bay State rose to 66.7 percent by 1870, 82 percent by 1890, and peaked at 90.2 percent in 1930. In 1980 the urban population had declined to 83.8 percent because many people moved to rural communities, commuting to cities to work. This shift is illustrated on the two population cartograms for 1930 and 1980 that are used to introduce the theme for the atlas as a whole.
Map Note: The population cartograms illustrate population distribution of the state¹s cities and towns for 1930, when the state was 90% urban, and 1980. Cartograms combine the locational qualities of maps with the proportional scaling of data found in graphs. The size or volume of each city or town is based upon its population rather than its actual physical size. A conscious effort was made to keep neighboring cities and towns in their relative locations although the resultant map appears distorted. The advantage of the cartogram is that it highlights the data for the map reader. As the cartograms and standards base map above illustrate, data displayed on a standard map can mask important socioeconomic or political facts. The cartogram for 1930 shows the almost total dominance of the state by a few large cities. The 1980 cartogram shows that the population of the state had increased from 4,249,614 to 5,737,637 (35%) but that Boston and most major cities lost population. The cities are still important, but the relative
growth of the suburban communities and on Cape Cod is increasingly significant.

Spirit of Place To the lifelong resident no less than to the occasional visitor, mention of Massachusetts is likely to conjure up any number of images. To some the state is chiefly notable for the legacy of its colonial past and its central role in the birth of the nation. For such people, Massachusetts is the home of Lexington and Concord, redcoats and minutemen, the Sons of Liberty and the founding fathers. Others think of the state primarily as a center of commerce, medicine, culture, and learning-the Massachusetts of Boston Brahmins and Cambridge intellectuals, of Emerson, Melville, and Thoreau. Still others associate the state with its climate and geography, from the serene beauty of Cape Cod in the summer to the stunning vibrance of the Berkshires in the fall.

Which, then, is the real Massachusetts? Is it the land of the small town common and "yeoman" Yankee farmers? Is it the world of the Gloucester and New Bedford whalers and the China "clipper" trade? Or is it the home of urban factory towns and the birthplace of the American industrial revolution? As this historical atlas attempts to show, it is all of the above and none in particular-a place where tradition thrives in the midst of innovation, and continuity persists in the midst of change.

© Massachusetts Studies Project 1997 - 2003