Understanding Dorchester: Overview + Resources
By Rudy Mitchell, Senior Researcher
Dorchester is Boston’s largest and most populous neighborhood. In fact, Dorchester was a separate town from 1630 until 1870, when it voted to become a part of the city of Boston. If Dorchester’s population was separated from Boston, the community would be the fourth largest city in Massachusetts!
Dorchester reflects the diversity of Boston in its varied churches, people, business centers, buildings, and landscapes. The community has a long and rich history with many significant personalities, including activists Lucy Stone and William Munroe Trotter. Today Dorchester also has a rich mixture of diverse people groups ranging from Cape Verdeans to Hispanics and Vietnamese, as well as Irish, African Americans, and immigrants from the Caribbean.
"Growing up in Codman Square has been a rich experience for me. So much of my story has been influenced by what this town has to offer. From the danger to the diversity, and everything in between, I take pride in being from Dorchester." - Caleb McCoy
Dorchester today: Top Ten Distinctives
Dorchester has the largest population of any neighborhood in Boston – 124,489.
More than one third of Dorchester’s residents are foreign born (41, 685).
3. Higher Education
Twenty-five percent of Dorchester residents aged 25 older had bachelor’s degrees or higher, compared with 45% of Boston residents.” This grew from 18% in 2000 to 25% in 2015.
The 2015 median household income for Dorchester was more than $12,000 lower than the Boston median income.
Dorchester’s population is likely to experience future growth since 1,244 new housing units were approved in 2016 as a part of nearly two million square feet of new building development. Currently another 512 new housing units are approved or in the pipeline at the Boston Planning and Development Agency, including about 700,000 square feet of development in a dozen new projects.
Dorchester residents speak a variety of languages at home:
- 16,918 residents speak Spanish
- 9,395 residents speak Vietnamese
- 4,045 residents speak Portuguese or Cape Verdean Creole
7. Children and Youth
Dorchester has 15,841 children age 0 – 9 years and 16,428 young people age 10-19 years, which is significantly higher percentage of children and youth than that of Boston as a whole.
The poverty rate for Dorchester is about 23% compared with 21.5% for the city and 11.6% for the state.
Dorchester has 11,879 residents 65 years and over, which reflects Boston as a whole.
10. Ethnic Diversity
Dorchester is one of Boston’s more diverse neighborhoods with many Vietnamese, Cape Verdean, African American, Caribbean, White, and Hispanic residents.
Ethnic Makeup of Dorchester, MA
A BRIEF History of Dorchester
English Puritans from Dorsett County in the West of England first settled Dorchester in June 1630. The organizer of this group, Rev. John White, and a number of the immigrants were from Dorchester, England.
In the early years these settlers built a church and school along with their homes. Two 17th century homes, the Blake House and the Pierce House, can still be visited in Dorchester.
The large area of the town developed as several village centers with farmlands in between and mills along the Neponset River. After the town agreed to be annexed by Boston in 1870, it experienced rapid growth with real estate developers and rail and streetcar lines proliferating. Triple-deckers housed the growing population, as churches, industries, businesses, and cultural activities grew and thrived.
The population peaked in the mid-twentieth century, and then went through several transitions as African Americans, Cape Verdeans, West Indians, Hispanics, Vietnamese and others moved in to replace earlier residents who had left for the suburbs. Recently, new churches, businesses, and housing developments have taken root to serve the community.
Some Dorchester Firsts
- Oldest Congregation The First Parish Church of Dorchester is the oldest congregation in present day Boston.
- First Public School The Mather School, founded in 1639, was the first tax supported, free public elementary school in America.
First Town Meeting Dorchester held the first recorded town meeting in American history, on October 8, 1633.
- First Chocolate Dr. James Baker and Irish chocolatier, John Hannon began the first chocolate factory in America in 1764 in Lower Mills, Dorchester. The Baker Chocolate Factory became world famous.
Reporters living in the neighborhood wrote a series of in-depth articles which were combined into the feature 68 Blocks.
MyDorchester.com contains a Dorchester guide, current news, events, and information on Dorchester.
Books & Booklets on Dorchester today
www.dorchesteratheneum.org is an excellent collection of material on Dorchester history, including maps, pictures and articles.
BOOKS on Dorchester History
The notable people, attractions, houses, churches, and other buildings of each section of Dorchester are covered in turn by this illustrated history using many old photographs.
The second volume has chapters covering the periods before and after Dorchester was annexed to Boston. These sections, like late 19th century county histories, focus on prominent citizens and their houses or businesses. This second volume also illustrates the history and various modes of transportation and the history of Carney Hospital.
The two volumes give a good visual impression of selected aspects of Dorchester’s past history, but not a coherent and full narrative history of the neighborhood.
Edward Taylor’s Postcard History Series book on Dorchester, also by Arcadia Publishing, is basically the same type of illustrated history, but with a slightly different selection of pictures.
Unlike Sammarco's other three volumes on featuring historical photos with detailed descriptions, Dorchester: A Compendium is a collection of historical essays.
The first chapter traces the development of various parts of Dorchester while describing early leaders, buildings, and landowners. Later chapters cover the many interesting men and women who have lived in Dorchester:
- Lucy Stone, abolitionist and women’s rights activist
- William Monroe Trotter, African American civil rights activist who helped found the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP
- Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, matriarch of the Kennedy family
- Edward Everett, famous orator
- Theodore White, historian, Pulitzer Prize winner
The Then and Now books on Boston neighborhoods compare and contrast photographs of the same scenes and buildings in the past with more current ones. Different sections of this book feature schools, churches, and houses with their many changes.
In the case of Dorchester, many impressive houses and churches of the past have been lost over the years. Blayney Baptist Church, Baker Memorial Church, and Immanuel Baptist Church for example became parking lots. Fortunately, the stately buildings of the First and Second Churches of Dorchester still overlook Meeting House Hill and Codman Square respectively.
Dorchester is still home to many vibrant congregations even though many of them occupy more humble buildings today. To the probing mind, some of these pictures may raise the question, why did these churches grow, decline, and in some cases die?
Streetcar Suburbs is a very insightful study of how the urban systems of transportation (streetcars) and housing interconnected in the rapid growth of Boston neighborhoods like Dorchester, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain.
This book is still relevant in Boston’s new wave of growth because transportation centered housing development is still important and because the book’s discussion of class divisions and inequality continue to be major issues in the city.
Orcutt, William Dana. Good Old Dorchester. A Narrative History of the Town, 1630-1893. Cambridge: John Wilson & Son, University Press, 1893.
Dorchester Antiquarian and Historical Society. History of the Town of Dorchester, Massachusetts. Boston: Ebenezer Clapp, Jr., 1859.