Boston Common originally included the entire block northeast of where Park Street is now, bounded by Beacon Street and Tremont Street. What is now called the Granary Burying Ground was established on this land in 1660, as part of the Common. In 1662, the land was separated from the Common; the southwest portion of the block was taken for public buildings including the Granary and a house of correction, and the north portion of the block was used for housing.
The Common's purpose has changed over the years. It was once owned by William Blaxton (often given the modernized spelling "Blackstone"), the first European settler of Boston, until it was bought from him in 1634 by the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During the 1630s, it was used by many families as a cow pasture. However, this only lasted for a few years, as affluent families bought additional cows, which led to overgrazing, a real-life example of the "tragedy of the commons". After grazing was limited in 1646 to 70 cows at a time, the Boston Common continued to host cows until they were formally banned from it in 1830 by Mayor Harrison Gray Otis.
Execution of Ann Hibbins on Boston Common, on charges of witchcraft, June 19, 1656. Sketch by F.T. Merril, 1886
The Common was used as a camp by the British before the American Revolutionary War, from which they left for the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It was used for public hangings up until 1817, most of which were from a large oak which was replaced with a gallows in 1769. On June 1, 1660, Quaker Mary Dyer was hanged there by the Puritans for repeatedly defying a law that banned Quakers from the Colony. Dyer was one of the four Quakers executed on the Common and known as the Boston martyrs.
On May 19, 1713, two hundred citizens rioted on the Common in reaction to a food shortage in the city. They later attacked the ships and warehouses of wealthy merchant Andrew Belcher, who was exporting grain to the Caribbean for higher profits. The lieutenant governor was shot during the riot.
True park status seems to have emerged no later than 1830, when the grazing of cows was ended and renaming the Common as Washington Park was proposed. Renaming the bordering Sentry Street to Park Place (later to be called Park Street) in 1804 already acknowledged the reality. By 1836, an ornamental iron fence fully enclosed the Common and its five perimeter malls or recreational promenades, the first of which, Tremont Mall, had been in place since 1728, in imitation of St. James's Park in London. Given these improvements dating back to 1728, a case could be made that Boston Common is in fact the world's first public urban park, since these developments precede the establishment of the earliest public urban parks in England—Derby Arboretum (1840), Peel Park, Salford (1846), and Birkenhead Park (1847)—which are often considered the first.
Originally, the Charles Street side of Boston Common, along with the adjacent portions of the Public Garden, were used as an unofficial dumping ground, due to being the lowest-lying portions of the two parks; this, along with the Garden's originally having been a salt marsh, resulted in the portions of the two parks being "a moist stew that reeked and that was a mess to walk over", driving visitors away from these areas. Although plans had long been in place to regrade the Charles Street-facing portions of Boston Common and the Public Garden, the cost of moving the amount of soil necessary (approximately 62,000 cu yd (47,000 m3), weighing 93,000 short tons (84,000,000 kg), for the Common, plus an additional 9,000 cu yd (6,900 m3), weighing 14,000 short tons (13,000,000 kg), for the adjoining portions of the Public Garden) prevented the work from being undertaken. This finally changed in the summer of 1895, when the required quantity of soil was made available as a result of the excavation of the Tremont Street Subway, and was used to regrade the Charles Street sides of both Boston Common and the Public Garden.
A hundred people gathered on the Common in early 1965 to protest the Vietnam War. A second protest happened on October 15, 1969, this time with 100,000 people protesting.
Today, the Common serves as a public park for all to use for formal or informal gatherings. Events such as concerts, protests, softball games, and ice skating (on Frog Pond) often take place in the park. Famous individuals such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II have made speeches there. Judy Garland gave her largest concert ever (100,000+) on the Common, on August 31, 1967.
It was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1987. The Boston Common is a public park managed by the Boston Park Department and cared for by Friends of the Public Garden, a private advocacy group, which also provides additional funding for maintenance and special events.
Mikhail Gorbachev gave a speech in the Common on May 31, 1990 on his way to Washington D.C. to sign agreements with U.S. President George H.W. Bush.
On October 21, 2006, the Common became the site of a new world record, when 30,128 Jack-o'-lanterns were lit simultaneously around the park at the Life is good Pumpkin Festival. The previous record, held by Keene, New Hampshire since 2003, was 28,952.
On August 27, 2007, two teenagers were shot on the Common. One of the bullets fired during the shooting struck the Massachusetts State House. A strict curfew has since been enforced, which has been protested by the homeless population of Boston.
On January 21, 2017, approximately 175,000 people marched from the common to the Back Bay vicinity to stand up for women's rights and profess resistance to the perceived anti-women viewpoints held by president Donald Trump.
On August 19, 2017, approximately 40,000 people marched from Roxbury Crossing to Boston Common to protest hate speech and white supremacy, in the wake of tragic events in Charlottesville, VA the week before. A right-wing "Free Speech" rally had been planned on Boston Common, which some feared would draw members of the KKK, Neo Nazis and other hate groups. However, this small right-wing rally "fell apart", with its 50 or so sparse attendees drowned out by the 40,000 largely peaceful counter protestors, unintentionally validating the rally's call for free speech. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh deemed the "Fight Supremacy" counter protest a great success.