Cutting of Beacon Hill

Boston’s Use of First and Second Nature

Created by: Jess Reingold
Time Period: 17th Century, 19th Century
Topic: Foundations, Remaking Urban Space

Boston was physically shaped as a result of first and second nature. As Historian William Cronon describes, while “first nature” is the idea that a city is meant to be at a specific place based on ecological reasons, “second nature” is the idea that a city a is meant to be at a certain location but also requires various humans modifications have been done to it.  In this aspect, Boston was not unique, as other major United Cities cities as formed as a result of first and second nature. Chicago and New Orleans were also built on the ideas of first and second nature.Boston’s location was primarily a result of first nature, and during the early nineteenth century, second nature led Bostonians to manually reshaped the landscape by cutting down hills, and filling in tidal regions in order to create the city they had and continued to envision.

First Nature

When: 1630

Who: Governor John Winthrop

Why:  For Winthrop, Boston would be a “‘city of God,’”and he believed that “perfect love toward God and mankind” resulted in a “godly use of property.”2 Although Winthrop’s goal of creating central community did not initially happen, the belief that he had the divine right to settle in Boston and create a city there, shows how Winthrop utilized the concept of first nature to claim the Massachusetts Peninsula for the Massachusetts Bay Company.3

Governor John Winthrop

Governor John Winthrop, the namesake of Boston.

Second Nature

Once established, the concept first nature was not going to be able to keep Boston running as a city. Bostonians made use of second nature by filling in tidal flats and marshes to try to create residential areas. One noteworthy example of land manipulation and second nature is the cutting of Beacon Hill to fill Mill Pond in the early nineteenth century. This project was proposed primarily for the purpose of increasing the amount of land that made up Boston.

When: 1804-1828

Who: The city of Boston and the Mill Pond Corporation

Why: Soil and gravel from Beacon Hill was used to fill up Mill Pond in order to accommodate the growing population and expanding city. From 1790 to 1825, the population of Boston increased by approximately 39,957 inhabitants, and so the city, as well as private real estate owners began looking towards areas of the city that were mostly undeveloped to create homes and develop residential areas. Mill Pond, which had been artificially built to power mills, eventually became the site for Boston’s waste. Therefore, Mill Pond was not being used for its original purpose, and so it appeared to be the best place for the city to spread to.

Cutting of Beacon Hill

Filling carts with soil and gravel from Beacon Hill to take to Mill Pond.

On March 6, 1804, private real estate owners convinced Boston’s General Court to annex the area of Dorchester Neck for Boston, which is where Mill Pond was located.4 Then, three days later, the Mill Pond Corporation was created for the purpose of “filling the pond with soil from Beacon Hill.”The members of the corporation included the successors to the proprietors of the mills that created and used Mill Pond in 1643.The slow cutting down of Beacon Hill and transportation of the hill’s  soil to Mill Pond continued throughout the 1820s. In 1824, Beacon Hill was reduced to its present day height. The Mill Pond project was finally completed in 1828.7 The area never flourished as a residential area, however, because the project took too long, and up though 1824, much of the area was still filled with water.8

Mill Pond Completed

Map showing the completion of the filling of Mill Pond.

 Works Cited

1. Michael Rawson,  Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Cambridge, MAHarvard University Press, 2010), 1-2.

2. BruceDarrett Rutman, Winthrop’s Boston; Portrait of a Puritan Town, 1630-1649 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 4-5.

3. Ibid., 32.

4. Walter Muir Whitehill, and Lawrence W. Kennedy, Boston: A Topographical History (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), 76.

5. Ibid., 79.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 84.

8. Nancy S. Seasholes, “Filling Boston’s Mill Pond,” Historical Archaeology 32, no. 3 (January 1, 1998): 133.

Images in Order of Appearance:

“Governor John Winthrop.” The Project Gutenberg eBook, Two Centuries of Costume in America, Vol. 1 (1620-1820), by Alice Morse Earle. Project Gutenberg.

“Cutting Down Beacon Hill.” Boston Athenaeum. Massachusetts Historical Commission Archaeological Exhibits Online. Massachusetts Historical Commission.

“Mill Pond After it was Filled.” Massachusetts Historical Commission Archaeological Exhibits Online. Massachusetts Historical Commission. 

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