Any list of “Things to Do in Boston” is almost guaranteed to include the Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile long route through Boston that officially encompasses sixteen historic sites. The idea originated in a column written in March 1951 by local journalist Bill Schofield, who said, “not only would it add to the personality of the city, but also it would please the tourists.” The Mayor of Boston officially dedicated the Freedom Trail on June 11, 1951, and the iconic red line (marked by paint or red bricks on the street) was added in 1958. The Freedom Trail Foundation, established in 1964 to market and preserve the trail and sites, estimates that over 4 million people walk the entire trail each year.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The sixteen official sites on the Freedom Trail include churches, meeting places, cemeteries, and other places that are intrinsic to the story of early Boston. Three sites in particular have a close connection to the Declaration of Independence: Granary Burying Ground, the Benjamin Franklin Statue and Boston Latin School, and the Old State House.
Granary Burying Ground was established in 1660, and its name recalls a nearby grain storage building. There are 2300 markers, but an estimated 5000 individuals are buried in the relatively small grounds on Tremont Street. Among those individuals are three signers of the Declaration of Independence: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Robert Treat Paine. Former President of the Second Continental Congress John Hancock died in office as Governor of Massachusetts in 1793, and as may be expected for a man whose signature stands out on the Declaration of Independence, the tall white obelisk marking his grave stands out on the Park Street side of Granary Burying Ground. Samuel Adams’ grave marker is on the opposite side, near the graves of the Boston Massacre victims. A plaque honoring Robert Treat Paine is on the brick wall around the corner from Adams’ grave. A misleading monument is at the center of Granary Burying Ground - an immense obelisk that bears the name “Franklin”. This is not Benjamin Franklin’s grave (which is actually in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia), but rather the resting place of his parents.
Franklin was born in 1706 at 17 Milk Street in Boston; his birthplace is marked just steps away from the Old South Meeting House on the Freedom Trail, and Franklin was christened in the original meeting house. A statue honoring Franklin and his contributions to the founding of the nation is on School Street, near King’s Chapel. The site also has a mosaic commemorating the Boston Latin School (hence the name School Street), which was founded in 1635. The oldest public school in America, Boston Latin School counted five future signers of the Declaration of Independence among its students: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, William Hooper, and Benjamin Franklin, though Franklin did not graduate.
Ben Franklin in spring and winter (yes, the Freedom Trail is walkable year-round!)
As for the Declaration itself, the most relevant Freedom Trail site is the Old State House. Built in 1713, it was the location of the colonial government, and stood at the center of much of the conflict in colonial Boston; the marker for the site of the Boston Massacre is right in front of the building. On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read from the balcony of the Old State House to a crowd gathered below; Abigail Adams was witness to the event, and wrote to her husband John about it on July 21:
“Last Thursday after hearing a very Good Sermon I went with the Multitude into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for independance read and proclamed. Some Field pieces with the Train were brought there, the troops appeard under Arms and all the inhabitants assembled there (the small pox prevented many thousand from the Country). When Col. Crafts read from the Belcona of the State House the Proclamation, great attention was given to every word. As soon as he ended, the cry from the Belcona, was God Save our American States and then 3 cheers which rended the air, the Bells rang, the privateers fired, the forts and Batteries, the cannon were discharged, the platoons followed and every face appeard joyfull. Mr. Bowdoin then gave a Sentiment, Stability and perpetuity to American independance. After dinner the kings arms were taken down from the State House and every vestage of him from every place in which it appeard and burnt in King Street. Thus ends royall Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen.”
The “kings arms” were the lion and unicorn, and these symbols were first reinstalled during a restoration of the Old State House in 1882. The current lion and unicorn date to 1901, and a time capsule found in the lion’s head was examined in 2014. Even King’s Street itself disappeared; today, it is called State Street.
The Bostonian Society, the primary steward of the Old State House, takes pride in recreating the atmosphere of colonial Boston. Today, the Old State House is a museum, and among its artifacts are John Hancock’s coat, tea from the Boston Tea Party, and, of course, a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Rarely displayed (although a facsimile can be seen), the Bostonian Society has a copy of the Gill, Powars and Willis broadside in their collections. Each year on July 4th, there is a reenactment of the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in Boston, delivered from the balcony of the State House just as Abigail Adams recounted. Through its collections and public programs, the Old State House represents that “breaking news” moment when Bostonians first learned the news of independence.
Public reading of the Declaration of Independence at the Old State House in 1926, on the 150th Anniversary (see the Old State House blog for more)
Other Things to See
- The site of the Boston Massacre, though the marker has shifted over the years to accommodate traffic. Inside the Old State House, witness a recreation of the discussions in the Council Chamber after the Massacre through "Blood on the Snow".
- The "Cradle of Liberty", Faneuil Hall. Look for a statue of Samuel Adams, "A Statesman: Incorruptible and Fearless" outside, and portraits or busts of Samuel and John Adams, John Hancock, George Washington, and others inside.
- Old South Meeting House, the launching point of the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
- Old North Church, and steps off the Freedom Trail, the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, where you can pick up a copy of the Gill, Powars and Willis broadside.
Plan Your Visit
Location: Boston Common Visitors Center, 139 Tremont Street, Boston, MA
- Granary Burying Ground, Tremont Street (entrance across from Bromfield Street)
- Benjamin Franklin Statue and Boston Latin School, School Street
- Old State House, 206 Washington Street
- Hours: Most sites are open daily 9 am - 4:30 pm; trail is open year-round (check each site's hours of operation)
- Admission: Free to walk; some sites charge admission or suggest donation