Urban Archipelago: an Environmental History of the Boston Harbor Islands

The Boston Harbor Islands have been called Boston’s “hidden shores.” Previously home to prisons, asylums, and sewage treatment plants, this surprisingly diverse ensemble of islands has existed on the urban fringe over the last four centuries. Click here for a 54-minute video of Pavla Šimková’s December 6, 2021 presentation by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Pavla Šimková reinterprets the Boston Harbor Islands as an urban archipelago, arguing that they have been an integral part of Boston since colonial days. Drawing on archival sources, historic maps and photographs, and diaries from island residents, she attests in her book that the harbor islands’ story is central to understanding the ways in which Boston has both shaped and been shaped by its environment over time.

In a 1688 map of the Harbor and in a later one entitled “An exact drawn Survey of Bostone Harbour, with most of the Islands about it, 1711”, the islands are shown as an integral part of Boston during colonial days when transportation was primarily by ship and not the poorly developed trails and roads.

Šimková responds to a question about how the islands were used by Indigenous people and goes on to talk about how Deer Island was used as a concentration camp during the King Philip War. She used a variety of sources that have been published about the islands in the 20th century.