Located on the Merrimack River, it began as a farming community that would evolve into an important industrial center, beginning with sawmills and gristmills run by water power. In the 18th century, Haverhill developed tanneries, shipping and shipbuilding. The town was for many decades home to a significant shoe-making industry. By the end of 1913 Haverhill boasted one tenth of the shoes produced in America, and because of this the town was known for a time as the "Queen Slipper City". The city was also known for the manufacture of hats.
The town was founded in 1640 by settlers from Newbury, and was originally known as Pentucket, which is the native American word for "place of the winding river". The town was renamed for the town of Haverhill, England, in deference to the birthplace of the settlement's first pastor, Rev. John Ward. The original Haverhill settlement was located around the corner of Water Street and Mill Street, near the Linwood Cemetery and Burying Ground. The home of the city's father, William White, still stands, although it was expanded and renovated in the 17th and 18th centuries. White's Corner (Merrimack Street and Main Street) was named for his family, as was the White Fund at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Judge Nathaniel Saltonstall was chosen to preside over the Salem witch trials in the 17th century; however, he found the trials objectionable and recused himself. Historians cite his reluctance to participate in the trials as one of the reasons that the witch hysteria did not take as deep a root in Haverhill as it did in the neighboring town of Andover, which had among the most victims of the trials. However, a number of women from Haverhill were accused of witchcraft, and a few were found "guilty" by the Court of Oyer and Terminer.
One of the initial group of settlers, Tristram Coffin, ran an inn. However, he grew disenchanted with the town's stance against his strong ales, and in 1659 left Haverhill to become one of the founders of the settlement at Nantucket.
Haverhill was for many years a frontier town, and was occasionally subjected to Indian raids, which were sometimes accompanied by French colonial troops from New France. During King William's War, Hannah Dustin became famous for scalping her native captors after being captured in the Raid on Haverhill (1697). The city has the distinction of featuring the first statue erected in honor of a woman in the United States. In the late 19th century, descendants of the controversial settler erected a statue in her memory in Grand Army Republic Park. The statue depicts Dustin brandishing an axe and several Abenaki scalps. Her captivity narrative and subsequent escape and revenge upon her captors caught the attention of Cotton Mather, who wrote about her, and she also demanded from the colonial leaders the reward per Indian scalp.
George Washington visited Haverhill on November 4, 1789. Washington was on a "triumphant circuit" touring New England.
In 1826, influenza struck.
A temperance society was formed in 1828.
Haverhill residents were early advocates for the abolition of slavery, and the city still retains a number of houses which served as stops on the Underground Railroad. In 1834, a branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society was organized in the city. In 1841, citizens from Haverhill petitioned Congress for dissolution of the Union, on the grounds that Northern resources were being used to maintain slavery. John Quincy Adams presented the Haverhill Petition on January 24, 1842. Even though Adams moved that the petition be answered in the negative, an attempt was made to censure him for even presenting the petition. In addition, poet John Greenleaf Whittier was an outspoken abolitionist.
The Haverhill and Boston Stage Coach company operated from 1818 to 1837 when the railroad was extended to Haverhill from Andover. It then changed its name and routes to the Northern and Eastern Stage company.
Haverhill was incorporated as a city in 1870.
In the early morning hours of February 17, 1882, a massive fire destroyed much of the city's mill section, in a blaze that encompassed over . Firefighting efforts were hampered by not only the primitive fire fighting equipment of the period, but also high winds and freezing temperatures. The nearby water source - the Merrimack River - was frozen, and hoses dropped through the ice tended to freeze as well. A New York Times report the next day established the damage at 300 businesses destroyed and damage worth approximately $2M (in 1882 dollars).
In 1897 Haverhill annexed the town of Bradford. Bradford had previously been part of the town of Rowley. At the time, this was regarded as a promising move for Bradford, given the wealth and prosperity of the manufacturing center in Haverhill. Haverhill's international prominence in shoe manufacturing waned, however, after the Great Depression. Historians also cite a lack of reinvestment in newer plants and equipment, as well as competition from less expensive imports as reasons for the erosion of the industry.
Haverhill became the first American city with a socialist mayor in 1898 when it elected former shoe factory worker and cooperative grocery store clerk John C. Chase. Chase was re-elected to this position in 1899 but defeated the following year.
In the early part of the 20th century, the manufacturing base in the city came under pressure as a result of lower priced imports from abroad. The Great Depression exacerbated the economic slump, and as a result city leaders enthusiastically embraced the concept of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, receiving considerable federal funds used to demolish much of the north side of Merrimack Street, most of the Federal homes along Water Street (dating from the city's first hundred years of development), and throughout downtown. Many of the city's iconic buildings were lost, including the Oddfellows Hall, the Old City Hall, the Second Meetinghouse, the Pentucket Club, and the Old Library, among others.
During Urban Renewal, the iconic high school—the inspiration for Bob Montana's Archie Comics—was falsely declared "unsound" and slated for demolition. Instead, the historic City Hall on Main Street was demolished, and city began using the High School of Archie's Gang as the new City Hall.
Urban Renewal polarized the city, and several leading citizens including architect Jonathan Woodman argued to use the funds for preservation rather than demolition. Their plan was not accepted in Haverhill, which chose to demolish much of its historic downtown, including entire swaths of Merrimack Street, River Street, and Main Street. However, examples of the city's architecture, spanning nearly four centuries, abound: from early colonial houses (the White residence, the Duston Garrison House, the 1704 John Ward House, the 1691 Kimball Tavern, and the historic district of Rocks Village) to the modernist 1960s architecture of the downtown Haverhill Bank. The city's Highlands district, adjacent to downtown, is a fine example of the variety of Victorian mansions built during Haverhill's boom years as a shoe manufacturing city.
Housing trends in the 21st century have led to the conversion of several of the old factories and business into loft apartments and condominiums. Additionally, the Washington Street area gained new dining and entertainment spots, and federal funds have been secured to remove and rebuild an old factory building on Granite Street as a 350-space parking garage. However, many old buildings remain vacant or underutilized, such as the former Woolworth department store - boarded up for some 40 years now at the intersection of Main Street and Merrimack Street.