O, not in vain did Attucks fall,
Or Shaw sink on the death-swept wall:
We, who have trod the thorny path,
And shrank beneath th’ oppressor’s wrath,
On hill, in dale, on field and flood,
They sealed it with their martyr blood!
From Centennial Year by Elijah W. Smith
Boston, the fifth of March, 1770. Nine o’clock at night; the moon was clear and the frost already heavy on streetlamps and rooftops. This night, like so many other evenings of the past seventeen months, soldiers of His Majesty’s forces and jeering crowds of civilian populace were at odds; they would soon come to blows. Unlike previous run-ins, where the most serious confrontations had been punctuated by fist fights, this evening would prove far more deadly. A fuse was lit when a volley of musket shot poured suddenly into the unruly mob. The explosion was heard across a vast new land and traveled beyond the sea to England, releasing a fury that would only end in the creation of a new democratic nation, one that would fully embrace the experiment of self governance.
The Boston Massacre, as it was called, was heralded as “the fuel to light the fire of liberty” in pamphlets that burst upon the colonies. Mercy Warren, sister of James Otis wrote, “it created a resentment which emboldened the timid,” and “determined the wavering.” It did more to bond the colonies into one voice than all the political rhetoric bandied from elected assemblies to tavern halls. Colonial propagandists jumped on the event, not allowing it to fade from memory. The five men who fell were moralized as martyrs. Each year, its anniversary was carefully staged in public ceremonies with speeches by leading citizens and firsthand accounts demonizing the British troops. The spiteful discourse was not just for those who opened fire, but all ministerial forces bivouacked in cities throughout the colonies, and most especially for the British government. This ritualistic pattern took on a new and stronger meaning with each passing year as the conflict raced toward armed confrontation and the “discontented ghosts with hollow groans” of those killed continued to call a population to arms. Of those killed, Crispus Attucks was a runaway slave whose impulsive act that night wrote his name in the annuals of history as the first to fall, white or black, in the name of liberty.
Twenty years earlier, October 2, 1750, the following advertisement for a runaway slave appeared in the Boston Gazette: “Ran-away from his Master William Brown of Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispus, 6 Feet two inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common; had on a light colour’d Bearskin Coat, plain brown Fustian Jacket, or brown all-Wool one, new Buckskin Breeches, blu Yarn Stockings, and a check’d woolen Shirt. Whoever shall take up said Run-away, and convey him to his above said Master, shall have ten Pounds, old Tenor Reward.” It went on to caution merchant ships not to take him aboard their vessels.
Chrispus was a tall, thick man who was regularly called stout throughout the Court of Inquiry that followed the incident. Born a slave in Framingham, MA in 1722, he was of African and Wampanoag Native American heritage. He was descended from John Attuck, a Natick, who was hanged during King Philip’s War (1675-1676), a war which resulted in the death of nearly 40 percent of the tribe, and the rest sold to slavery. Attucks’ father was Prince Yonger, believed to have been an ‘outlandish;’ a slave brought to America directly from Africa. His mother, Nancy Attucks, was a Natick Indian. Slaves either took their master’s name or the maternal surname.
It is generally accepted that after Attucks escaped bondage, he made his way to Nantucket, MA, where he sailed as a harpooner on a whaling ship, passing himself off as a freeman using the name Michael Johnson. He spent the next twenty years of his life on long voyages as a whaler, earning wages as a dockworker whenever he was in port for an extended period. It is further thought that he was temporarily in Boston in early 1770, having returned from a voyage to the Bahamas and was working along the wharfs while waiting on a vessel on which he was scheduled to ship out.
As a colonial merchantman, Attucks felt the ever present danger of being impressed into the British Navy. As a laborer in cities with a large presence of British troops, he experienced financial pressure as well. British troops, during their off-duty hours, would commonly seek part-time work, agreeing to work for wages far lower than what Attucks and many of his shipmates enjoyed. This competition escalated the resentment of the British presence among the dockworkers and the sailors in limbo while waiting on berths in ships.
The night of March 5th, Crispus Attucks joined several of his fellow sailors at a “victualling house” kept by Thomas Simmons. They were warming themselves around a fire while talk focused on the common complaint of unfair treatment by the British Government’s oppressive tax policies. The conversation soon carried to the English navy and escalated their animosity toward the redcoat soldiers. Suddenly, friends became aware of excited voices in the street, followed by the ringing of the town’s alarm bell. When racing to the door, Attucks and the others saw the snow-covered street lined with men moving toward the British headquarters on King Street. While some were agitating the crowd, others were trying to stop it while still others were either joining or fleeing. Needless to say, a mob scene quickly developed into which Attucks and his drinking mates soon joined.
Conflict started when a small crowd collected near a soldier stationed at the Custom House on King Street. Members of the crowd accused the soldier of striking a boy with the butt of his musket when the youth complained that an officer was late in paying a barber’s bill. The sentry later said the youth had used uncouth, slurring remarks towards an officer. Pelted with snowballs and broken ice, the sentry backed up from the gathering host, primed his musket and called for help. Soon, eight men from the 29th regiment trotted up, followed by their company commander, Captain Thomas Preston, officer of the day. The soldiers quickly formed a half circle with the sentry and Captain Preston intervened to calm the crowd. By then, the growing throng of angry citizens grew braver and more vocal, yelling and taunting the troops with shouted insults like “you lobster” and “you bloody-back.” The town’s alarm bells sounded. Men flowed into the square, many carrying fire bags and buckets, and many more began to show up with wood and steel clubs. Into this melee came Attucks and his associates.
Contemporary reports of the event are in conflict. The best and most convincing account surfaced during the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry. The soldiers and Captain Preston were defended by Sons of Liberty patriot John Adams. Andrew, a slave of Oliver Wendell who was a Boston selectman, gave an account considered the most accurate: “The People seemed to be leaving the soldiers, and to turn from them when there came down a number from Jackson’s corner, huzzaing and crying, damn them, they dare not fire, we are not afraid of them. One of these people, a stout man with a long cordwood stick, threw himself in, and made a blow at the officer [Captain Preston]. I saw the officer try to ward off the stroke; whether he struck him or not, I do not know; the stout man then turned around and struck the grenadier’s gun at the captain’s right hand [Hugh Montgomery], and immediately fell in with his club, and knocked his gun away, and struck him over the head; the blow came either on the soldier’s cheek or hat. This stout man held the bayonet with his left hand, and twitched it and cried, kill the dogs, knock them over. This was the general cry; the people then crowded in.” When the court asked who this ‘stout man was’, Andrew replied, “I thought, and still think, it was the mulatto who was shot.”
The rest of what occurred is not as clear. The Grenadier, Montgomery, was able the gain his feet and wrestle his musket from Attucks. His gun erupted, followed by the other eight muskets. Eleven men were struck. Attucks was the first killed, taking two bullets in the chest. Rope maker Samuel Gray and sailor James Caldwell also died on the spot. Samuel Maverick, a 17 year old joiner’s apprentice, died the next day, and Irish leather worker Patrick Carr died nine days later. Attucks’ and the others’ bodies were carried to Faneuil Hall where they lay until Thursday, March 8th, when they were buried in the Granary Burial Ground, Boston’s third oldest cemetery.
In his defense of the soldiers, John Adams stated that it was Attucks “whose very looks was enough to terrify any person,” who “had hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down.” That it was Attucks “to whose mad behavior, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.” Adams argued his case successfully and obtained an appeal for the officer and the men he represented, further fanning the flames of war.
Though Attucks was credited as the leader and instigator of the events of that cold March night in Boston, many argued for decades afterward whether he was truly a “hero and a patriot”, or a “rabble-rousing villain.” Notwithstanding, he was immortalized during the centennial date of the Massacre as “the first to defy and the first to die,” lauded as a martyr and “the first to pour out his blood as a precious libation on the altar of a people’s rights.” Nevertheless, when the Crispus Attucks Monument was erected on the Boston Common twelve years later in 1888, there was strong opposition from the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society, both of which continued to regard Attucks as a villain.
In his introduction of Why We Can’t Wait (1964), Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote of Crispus Attucks as “an example of a man whose contribution to history, though much-overlooked by standard histories, provided a potent message of moral courage.” And James Neyland put it succinctly writing in 1995, “He is one of the most important figures in African-American history, not for what he did for his own race, but for what he did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African-American heritage is not only African, but American and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America.”
Holton, Woody, Black Americans in the Revolutionary Era. 2009 Bedford/St. Martin, Boston, MA.
Kapland, Sidney & Kapland, Emma Nogrady, The Black Presence in the Ear of the American Revolution. 1989 University of Massachusetts Press.
Lanning, Lt. Colonel Michael Lee, U.S. Army (Ret), African Americans in the Revolutionary War. 2000 Kensington Publishing Corp., New York, NY.
Neyland, James, Crispus Attucks Patriot. 1995 Melrose Square Publ. Company and Holloway House Publishing Company, Los Angeles, CA.
Quarles, Benjamin, The Negro in the American Revolution. 1961 University of North Carolina Press.