Longfellow was inspired to write the poem after visiting the Old North Church and climbing its tower on April 5, 1860. He began writing the poem the next day. It was first published in the January 1861 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. It was later re-published in Longfellow's Tales of a Wayside Inn as "The Landlord's Tale" in 1863. The poem served as the first in a series of 22 narratives bundled as a collection, similar to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and was published in three installments over 10 years.
Longfellow's family had a connection to the historical Paul Revere. His maternal grandfather, Peleg Wadsworth, was Revere's commander on the Penobscot Expedition.