Located on the Merrimack River, it began as a farming community of Puritans, largely from Newbury Plantation. The land was officially purchased from Pentucket Indians on November 15, 1642 (a year after incorporation) for three pounds, ten shillings. Pentucket was renamed Haverhill and would evolve into an important industrial center, beginning with sawmills and gristmills run by water power. In the 18th and 19th century, Haverhill developed woolen mills, tanneries, shipping and shipbuilding. The town was for many decades home to a significant shoe-making industry. By the end of 1913, one tenth of the shoes produced in the United States were made in Haverhill, 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". Settlers such as John Ward, Robert Clements, Tristram Coffin, Hugh Sheratt, William White, and Thomas Davis aided in the purchase of land known by Indians as Pentuckett. The land was purchased from native Indian chiefs Passaquo and Saggahew and permission was granted by Passaconaway, chief of the Pennacook's. Settlers, Thomas Hale, Henry Palmer, Thomas Davis, James Davis and William White were its first selectman. First Court appointments; given to end small causes were given to Robert Clements, Henry Palmer,and Thomas Hale. At the same court, it was John Osgood and Thomas Hale that were also appointed to lay the way from Haverhill to Andover. It is said that these early settlers worshipped under a large oak tree, known as the "Worshipping Oak".
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 killing and then scalping her native captors, who were converts to Catholicism, 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, it was Woolen Mill Tycoon Ezekiel JM Hale that commissioned 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. Hannah Dustin remained controversial throughout her lifetime and remains controversial since the Native American Indians she killed and scalped in order to escape were allegedly not her original captors and among the people she killed were allegedly young children. (Hannah, born Hannah Emerson,came from a troubled family: in 1676 her father Michael Emerson was fined for excessive violence toward his 12 year old daughter Elizabeth, who in 1693 was hanged for concealing the deaths of her illegitimate twin daughters, and in 1683 Hannah's sister Mary was whipped for fornication).
In 1708, during Queen Anne's War, the town, then about thirty homes, was raided by a party of French, Algonquin and Abenaki Indians. Like most towns, Haverhill has been struck by several epidemics. Diphtheria killed 256 children in Haverhill between November 17, 1735 and December 31, 1737.
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.
It was Ezekiel Hale Jr. and son Ezekiel James Madison Hale (descendants of Thomas Hale) that gave Haverhill a great head of steam. It was in the summer of 1835, the brick factory on Winter St was erected by Ezekiel Hale Jr. and Son. It was intended to run woolen flannel at a whopping six hundred yards of flannel per day. It was Ezekiel JM Hale, age 21 and graduate of Dartmouth College that came to the rescue when fire destroyed the operation in 1845. He rebuilt the mill at Hale's Falls, now more than twice as large produced nearly three times the output. Ezekiel JM Hale became Haverhill's Tycoon. EJM Hale served a term in the State Senate and was much revered in the area. Hale donated large sums of money to build the hospital and library.
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 was controversial. Several leading citizens 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.
In the 21st century, downtown Haverhill has undergone a Renaissance of sorts. Housing trends, combined with a rezoning by the city led by long time Mayor James Fiorentini and the use of Federal and State brownfield's money to clean up abandoned factories, resulted in the conversion of several abandoned factories into loft apartments and condominiums. There has been a total of $150 milion in public and private investment in the downtown old factory district area. Additionally, the Washington Street area gained new dining and entertainment spots, and federal, State and local funds contributed to removing an abandoned gas station on Granite Street, cleaning up the site and converting it to a 350-space parking garage. The city was able to obtain Federal, State and local money to put in a new boardwalk and boat docks downtown. Recently, the city completed a rezoning of downtown proposed by Mayor Fiorentini designed to encourage artist loft live work space and educational uses for the downtown area. Despite the city's efforts, 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. Recently a group purchased that building with the intention of redeveloping it.