BIZARRE BOSTON: The Hermit of Boston Common

Boston Common is America’s oldest public park. It was established as the common property of Boston’s citizens back in 1634 and since then it has been used to graze cattle, hang criminals and (more recently) hold celebrations and performances.

The Common wasn’t always public land, though. It was originally the property of an eccentric bull-riding religious hermit named William Blackstone.

Blackstone was born in 1595 in the small town of Wickham, England. He spent the early years of his life as a respectable member of society, studying at Cambridge University and becoming ordained as an Anglican priest. In 1623, at the age of 28, he was selected to join a royal expedition to the exotic land of North America. The Pilgrims had recently established a colony on Cape Cod, and King James wanted to establish his own colony to counter the threat they represented to his religious authority. William Blackstone’s mission was to establish an Anglican church in New England.

Things didn’t work out according to plan. The expedition landed at Weymouth, Massachusetts, in September, 1623, but its leaders soon realized they weren’t equipped to found a settlement. They returned to England, but William Blackstone jumped ship and stayed in Massachusetts. Looking for suitable land to live on, he mounted a bull that had also been left behind and rode off.

He eventually made his way to what is now Boston, which was then an unpopulated wilderness. (The area had been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years, but their population was decimated by European diseases in the early 1600s.) Blackstone claimed the empty land for himself. He built a small house, planted apple trees and settled in to read the 186 books he had brought with him from England. That’s a lot of books, particularly for the 17th century!

Blackstone’s isolation came to an end in 1630 when the ship Arbella appeared in the harbor, carrying Puritans who were fleeing Charles I, England’s new king. They were looking for somewhere with clean water to establish a settlement. A spring flowed near Beacon Hill, and Blackstone charitably invited the Puritans to stay. After all, how much trouble could one ship of Puritans cause?

Soon, more ships appeared, bringing additional settlers. By 1633 thousands of people were living in Boston. William Blackstone had originally owned hundreds of acres, but slowly his acreage was reduced to a mere 50. Not only was Boston becoming crowded, but Blackstone, as an Anglican, didn’t obey the strict religious code of his new neighbors. Conflicts arose, and by 1634 Blackstone was fed up. He sold his remaining land, packed his books and rode his bull to the freer colony of Rhode Island. He died there in 1675, and the Blackstone River was named in his honor.

The Puritans decreed that the 50 acres they bought from Blackstone were to be used as a training field and cattle grazing ground. The land has been known as the Boston Common ever since. A plaque on the Common near Park Street commemorates this decree but sadly does not mention the bull.