Founding and rise as a textile center
Native Americans, namely the
Pennacook or Pentucket tribe, had a presence in this area. Evidence of farming at Den Rock Park and arrowhead manufacturing on the site of where the Wood Mill now sits have been discovered.
Europeans first settled the Haverhill area in 1640, colonists from Newbury following the
Merrimack River in from the coast.
 The area that would become Lawrence was then part of Methuen and Andover. The first settlement came in 1655 with the establishment of a
blockhouse in Shawsheen Fields, now South Lawrence.
The future site of the city (formerly parts of
Methuen), was purchased by a consortium of local industrialists. The Water Power Association members:
Thomas Hopkinson of
John Nesmith and
Daniel Saunders, had purchased control of Peter's Falls on the Merrimack River and hence controlled Bodwell's Falls the site of the present
Great Stone Dam. The group allotted fifty thousand dollars to buy land along the river to develop.
:11 In 1844, the group petitioned the legislature to act as a corporation, known as the
Essex Company, which incorporated on April 16, 1845. The first excavations for the Great Stone Dam to harness the Merrimack River's water power were done on August 1, 1845.
:17 The Essex Company would sell the water power to corporations such as the
Arlington Mills, as well as organize construction of mills and build to suit. Until 1847, when the state legislature recognized the community as a town, it was called interchangeably the "New City", "Essex" or "Merrimac".
:23 The post office, built in 1846, used the designation "Merrimac". Incorporation as a city would come in 1853, and the name "Lawrence", merely chosen as a token of respect to Abbott Lawrence, who it cannot be verified ever saw the city named after him.
Canals were dug on both the north and the south banks to provide power to the factories that would soon be built on its banks as both mill owners and workers from across the city and the world flocked to the city in droves; many were Irish laborers who had experience with similar building work. The work was dangerous: injuries and even death were not uncommon.
The Bread and Roses Strike of 1912
Working conditions in the mills were unsafe and in 1860 the
Pemberton Mill collapsed, killing 145 workers.
 As immigrants flooded into the United States in the mid to late 19th century, the population of Lawrence abounded with skilled and unskilled workers from several countries.
Lawrence was the scene of the infamous
Bread and Roses Strike, also known as the
Lawrence Textile Strike, one of the more important labor actions in American history.
Lawrence was a great wool-processing center until that industry declined in the 1950s. The decline left Lawrence a struggling city. The population of Lawrence declined from over 80,000 residents in 1950 (and a high of 94,270 in 1920) to approximately 64,000 residents in 1980, the low point of Lawrence's population.
Urban redevelopment and renewal
Merrimack River at Lawrence
Like other northeastern cities suffering from the effects of post-
World War II
industrial decline, Lawrence has often made efforts at revitalization, some of them controversial. For example, half of the enormous
Wood Mill, powered by the
Great Stone Dam and once the largest mills in the world, was knocked down in the 1950s. The Lawrence Redevelopment Authority and city officials utilized eminent domain for a perceived public benefit, via a top down approach, to revitalize the city throughout the 1960s. Known first as urban redevelopment, and then urban renewal, Lawrence's local government's actions towards vulnerable immigrant and poor communities, contained an undercurrent of gentrification which lies beneath the goals to revitalize Lawrence. There was a clash of differing ideals and perceptions of blight, growth, and what constituted a desirable community. Ultimately the discussion left out those members of the community who would be directly impacted by urban redevelopment.
Under the guise of
urban renewal, large tracts of downtown Lawrence were razed in the 1970s, and replaced with parking lots and a three-story parking garage connected to a new Intown Mall intended to compete with newly constructed suburban malls. The historic Theater Row along Broadway was also razed, destroying ornate movie palaces of the 1920s and 1930s that entertained mill workers through the
Great Depression and the Second World War. The city's main post office, an ornate federalist style building at the corner of Broadway and Essex Street, was razed. Most of the structures were replaced with one-story, steel-frame structures with large parking lots, housing such establishments as fast food restaurants and chain drug stores, fundamentally changing the character of the center of Lawrence.
Lawrence also attempted to increase its employment base by attracting industries unwanted in other communities, such as waste treatment facilities and incinerators.
From 1980 until 1998, private corporations operated two trash incinerators in Lawrence. Activist residents successfully blocked the approval of a waste treatment center on the banks of the Merrimack River near the current site of Salvatore's Pizza on Merrimack Street.
Recently the focus of Lawrence's urban renewal has shifted to preservation rather than sprawl.
Events of the 1980s and 1990s
Immigrants from the
Dominican Republic and migrants from
Puerto Rico began arriving in Lawrence in significant numbers in the late 1960s, attracted by cheap housing and a history of tolerance toward immigrants. In 1984, tensions between remaining working class whites and increasing numbers of Hispanic youth flared into a riot, centered at the intersection of Haverhill Street and Oxford Street, where a number of buildings were destroyed by
Molotov cocktails and over 300 people were arrested.
Lawrence saw further setbacks during the recession of the early 1990s as a wave of arson plagued the city. Over 200 buildings were set alight in an eighteen-month period in 1991–92, many of them abandoned residences and industrial sites.
Malden Mills factory burned down on December 11, 1995. CEO Aaron Feuerstein decided to continue paying the salaries of all the now-unemployed workers while the factory was being rebuilt. By going against common CEO business practices, especially at a time when most companies were downsizing and moving overseas, he achieved recognition for doing the right thing.
A sharp reduction in violent crime starting in 2004
 and massive private investment in former mill buildings along the Merrimack River, including the remaining section of the historic
Wood Mill – to be converted into commercial, residential and education uses – have lent encouragement to boosters of the city. One of the final remaining mills in the city is
Malden Mills. Lawrence's downtown has seen a resurgence of business activity as Hispanic-owned businesses have opened along Essex Street, the historic shopping street of Lawrence that remained largely shuttered since the 1970s. In June 2007, the city approved the sale of the Intown Mall, largely abandoned since the early 1990s recession, to
for the development of a medical sciences center, the construction of which commenced in 2012 when the InTown Mall was finally removed.
 A large multi-structure fire in January 2008 destroyed many wooden structures just south of downtown.
 A poor financial situation that has worsened with the recent global recession and has led to multiple municipal layoffs had Lawrence contemplating