In my perusings of Google Books I’ve found some reference gems. One of the best is Bacon’s Dictionary of Boston (1886 edition), an invaluable book of the sort that makes historians weep for joy. It’s got clear explanations of many of the old mysteries of Boston, and it gives a delightful sense of what Boston was like towards the end of its decades of breakneck development in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Rather than try to summarize the wonderful entry on Roxbury, I’m simply going to reproduce the whole thing here. It starts on page 351 if you want to see the original. Happy reading!
Roxbury District (The). The first settlers of Roxbury, some say, were of the company from Dorchester, England, who came over in the ” Mary and John,” and founded the new Dorchester, now the Dorchester District of the city. [See Dorchester District, and Old Harbor Point.) But the principal settlers were of those who arrived a month later in the Arbella. They first called the place ” Roeksbury,” — or Rocksborough; and it was recognized as a town by the Court of Assistants on Oct. 8, 1030. Here Thomas Dudley afterwards settled. The Universalist Church, Rev. Dr. Patterson, now occupies the site of his house. Three years after the settlement of the town, in 1033, William Wood thus described its appearance: “A mile from this towne [Dorchester] lyeth Roxberry, which is a fair and handsome Countrey-towne; the inhabitants of it being all very rich. This Towne lyeth upon the Maine so that it is well woodded and watered; having a cleare and fresh brooke running through the Towne. Vp which although there come no Alewines, yet there is a great store of Smelts, and therefore it is called Smeltbrooke. A quarter of a mile to the North side of the Towne is another river called Stony-river, upon which is built a watermilne. Here is good ground for corne, and medow for cattle. Vp westward from the Towne it is something rocky whence it hath the name of Roxberry. of Cattle, impaled Corne-fields, and fruit“‘tl Gardens. Here is no Harbour for ships, because the Towne is seated in the bottome of a shallow Bay which is made by the necke of land on which Boston is built; so that they can transport all their goods from the Ships in boats from Boston which is the nearest Harbour.”
The town originally included the present West Roxbury District (set off in 1851), with Jamaica Plain; and the present town of Brookline, known in the early days as ” Punch Bowl Village.” The first church was founded in 1632 [see First Church in Roxbury]; and 13 years after the settlement of the town, the “Free Schoole in Roxburie” was established. Roxbury long remained a”faire and handsome countrey-towne.” Until well into the present century it was a picturesque vilage, with a single bustling business street, a few manufactories, clusters of houses about the ” centres,” and outlying farms, some of them with fine old-fashioned homesteads occupied by descendants of the original proprietors of the lands.
During the Revolutionary period it had scarcely 2,000 inhabitants, a little over 200 dwellings, three meeting-houses, and five schools. In 1800 the population had increased to only about 2,700. Twenty years after the population is given as 4,135. During the next 10 years many improvements were made. In 1824 Roxbury Street, now Washington Street, and then the one thoroughfare through the town, was paved, and brick sidewalks laid; the next year the several roads were given names as streets; the same year the Norfolk House was opened; the first newspaper was then started, — the ” Norfolk Gazette.” In 1827 hourly coaches began to run between the town and Boston, — the first in this part of the country. In 1830 the population was about 5,247. During the next 10 years the growth was more rapid. Many new streets were laid out, business extended, and new buildings and new dwellings were erected. In 1840 the population was 9,089. Six years after, the town government was abandoned, and the place became a city. In 1850 it had 18,373 inhabitants. In 1856 the first street railroad was established; cars running, at the beginning, from Guild Row to Boylston Street in Boston. In 1807, when it was annexed to Boston, and became the Roxbury District, it had a population of 30,000; and its property was valued at $18,265,400 real, and $8,280,300 personal, a total valuation of $26,551,700. [See Annexation.] In 1870 its population was 34,772; and in 1880, 78,799.
Though it has expanded and grown metropolitan of late years, the Roxbury District is to-day one of the most attractive portions of the city, with beautiful walks, fine drives, broad shaded streets over its hills and through its vales, lined with pleasant dwellings, — few unsightly blocks, but mostly detached houses, many of them with neatly laid-out grounds and trees about them, and not a small number extensive estates with fine lawns and large gardens. In an early edition of “Hayward’s Gazetteer,” it is said of Roxbury: ” A great degree of taste and skill has been displayed here, both in horticultural and architectural embellishments, for which the ‘highlands’ in the southern part of the city, especially furnish a beautiful advantage. Many parts of Roxbury, which until recently were improved as farms or rural walks, are now covered with wide streets and beautiful buildings. Several of the church edifices in Roxbury, being located on elevated positions, make a beautiful appearance.” As complimentary language can be employed in describing the Roxbury District of to-day.
A few of the old landmarks of Roxbury yet remain, the most noteworthy of which are mentioned in the paragraph on ” Old Landmarks” in this Dictionary. The Cochituate stand-pipe, on the hill between Beech Glen Avenue and Fort Avenue, stands on the site of the earthworks thrown up in June, 1775, and known as the “Roxbury High Fort.” This fort was built under the direction of Gen. Thomas, and crowned the Roxbury lines of investment at the siege of Boston. This was the strongest of the several Roxbury forts, others of which guarded the only land entrance to Boston, which was over the Neck (see Neck, The Boston], defended the road to Dorchester, covered the old landing place, and commanded Muddy River. The steeple of the First Parish Meeting-Honse was the signal station of the besieging army on this side, and was a conspicuous mark for the enemy’s cannon.
Roxbury, small as it was, had a conspicuous part in the early events of the Revolution. It was the native place of the immortal Warren, and of Heath and Greaton, generals in the Continental army. Gen. Horace Binney Sargent, in his oration on the occasion of the Roxbury celebration in November of the centennial year of 1876, recalled the meetings of the Sons of Liberty in the Greyhound Tavern in Roxbury Street, where Graham’s block now stands. “Its walls rang with wit and patriotic eloquence.” Greaton, the inn-keeper, who afterward became a brigadier-general in the army, was at Lexington and Bunker Hill. The first “general order” for the army was signed by Heath, who was the son of a Roxbury farmer. He was at Lexington and Bunker Hill, and commanded a part of the right wing in the siege of Boston. Later he was appointed to the command of West Point by Washington, after the treason of Arnold. Mosea Whiting and William Draper of Roxbury commanded companies at Lexington, and 140 Roxbury men were there. Robert Williams, master of the Latin School, “changed his ferule for a sword,” taking a commission in the army. Major-Gen. Dearborn, on the staff of Washington, lived and died in Roxbury.