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John Eliot Square

by Marcia Butman, Discover Roxbury

JOHN ELIOT SQUARE is named after John Eliot, the second minister of the First Church in Roxbury and best known as “the Apostle to the Indians.” Eliot translated the Bible into the Massachusetts language and spent most of his life converting the native people, mostly of the Massachusetts and Nipmuc tribes, to the Puritan faith.

Eliot Square was first settled by Europeans in 1630, when members of the Massachusetts Bay Company, under the leadership of William Pynchon moved to Roxbury. The first homes were clustered around the meetinghouse (built in 1632), in what is now known as Eliot Square. Roxbury was located right at the end of Boston Neck; anyone going to or coming from Boston by land had to travel through Roxbury. The parting stone still standing at the west end of Eliot Square was placed there by Chief Justice Paul Dudley in 1740 as a marker for travelers going to Cambridge and Watertown (to the northwest) and to Dedham and Rhode Island (to the southwest).

The area around Dudley Square became the center of commerce for Roxbury, while John Eliot Square was the institutional and governmental heart of the town. Until Roxbury was annexed by Boston in 1868, the Roxbury Town Hall was located in Eliot Square, on Putnam Street. During the siege of Boston (1775-1776), Eliot Square was a focal point for the almost 5000 patriot troops camped in Roxbury, guarding the only land route out of Boston. The church green functioned as a parade ground and officers were housed in the residences around Eliot Square. The two forts in Roxbury, the lower fort and the Roxbury High Fort, were vital links in the ring of patriot forts and redoubts surrounding the British who spent from April 1775-March of 1776 trapped on the Shawmut peninsula.

A description of the camp gives a vivid picture of Eliot Square in 1775. “It is very diverting to walk among the camps. They are as different in their form as the owners are in their dress, and every tent is portraiture of the temper and taste of the person who encamp in it. Some are made of boards, and some of sail cloth; some partly of one and partly of the other. Again, others are made of stone and turf, brick or brush, some are thrown up in a hurry, others cunningly wrought with doors and windows, done with wreaths and withes in the manner of a basket.” (William Emerson quoted in Francis Drake, History of Roxbury.)

Eliot Square suffered considerable destruction during the siege of Boston, both from the exchange of fire between the British and the patriots and from the military encampment of the area. Trees and houses were town down to use for firewood and shelter for the patriot troops. Most residents fled the area and moved to safer territory outside of Boston.

“Nothing had prepared me with more horror than the present condition of Roxbury; that once busy street is now occupied only by a piquet-guard. The houses are deserted, the windows taken out, and many shot-holes visible; some have burnt and others pulled down to make room for fortifications.” (Jeremy Belknap in Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston.)

After the revolution, Eliot Square went through a period of rebuilding and new development: the 5th building of the First Church in Roxbury, the Spooner Lambert House, Ionic Hall and later the Norfolk House, a public house and hotel frequented by travelers to and from Boston. The Norfolk House ran horse cars from down town Boston to John Eliot Square.

John Eliot Square and Highland Park, the area south of Eliot Square and up the hill developed together: first farmland, then estates and then wealthier suburban dwellings with a rich diversity of architectural styles. In the 20th century multiple unit buildings were added to the mix to accommodate the need for more affordable housing.

The population of the Eliot Square/Highland Park area was predominantly Puritan and then Yankee until the last part of the 19th century, when Irish, Jewish, Italians and Latvian immigrants (to name a few) also moved into the area. In the 20th century African Americans became the predominant group living in Highland Park.

A series of fires in the 1970’s contributed to the neglect and disinvestment in the community. Efforts by the Roxbury Action Program and other community groups helped turn the tide and today the area is looking beautiful. It is home to both long time African American and white residents and to a new influx of both blacks and whites who value the area for its convenience, beauty and built environment. Preservation, gentrification and affordable housing are the main issues facing

Eliot Square and Highland Park in the 21st century.