...in 1770, Crispus Attucks, a black man from Framingham, and four other civilians were shot dead by British soldiers. Attucks worked on whaling ships and, between voyages, as a semi-skilled laborer around the port of Boston. There were many menwhite and blackwho resented the presence of the British Army, not so much as a threat to their rights as self-governing citizens but more as a threat to their already precarious economic position. They were ready to follow Attucks when he led them into a violent confrontation with a group of British Regulars. Although the soldiers were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, the incident has been known ever since as the Boston Massacre.
On a wintry evening in March of 1770, a group of British soldiers opened fire into a crowd of youths and men gathered near the Custom House in Boston. A number of the men were wounded; five of them died. The incident was labeled a massacre of innocent, unarmed civilians by bloodthirsty soldiers. Crispus Attucks, the first American casualty, was hailed as a martyr for freedom; he received a hero's burial attended by "an immense concourse of people . . . brought up by a long Train of Carriages belonging to the principal Gentry of the Town."
At least one member of the Boston gentry took a different view of Attucks and his compatriots. The young lawyer John Adams offered his services to defend the British soldiers. At the trial he characterized Attucks as a demagogue who turned a group of dockworkers, sailors, and Irish laborers into a dangerous mob. Adams asserted that Attucks instigated the trouble by marching his "army" up to King St. to provoke the soldiers.
John Adams was successful in portraying Crispus Attucks and his followers as "the most obscure and inconsiderable [mob] that could be found upon the continent"; he won an acquittal for most of the British soldiers. But the victims of what became known as the Boston Massacre were remembered as noble men who sacrificed their lives for the cause of liberty. Patriots used annual commemorations to stir revolutionary fervor and build popular support for independence.
The reality? Crispus Attacks was typical of a large class of struggling laborers whose discontent made them useful allies to leaders of the movement to resist British rule. Boston's wealthy merchants were the first to suffer from and protest the new taxes the British crown began imposing on the colonies in the 1760s. The measures had little impact on poor laborers who owned little property and purchased few imported goods. But when the elite Sons of Liberty organized a boycott of British goods, it affected small shopkeepers, mechanics, and artisans alike.
The arrival of British troops in Boston in 1768 caused resentment among all classes of Boston society. Men accustomed to self-government were unhappy living in an occupied city, under the watch of an army whose job was to enforce the hated new laws. Middling folk worried that they would be forced to provide lodging for British soldiers, who had a reputation for profanity, immorality, and abuse of the Sabbath.
But it was the men who made their living from the sea who suffered most. Boston's many sailors feared being "impressed," seized by the Royal Navy and forced into service, and dockyard workers faced competition for jobs from off-duty British sailors. Ropeworkers were especially angered by the loss of work. For months tension mounted along the wharves as British soldiers traded barbs, insults, and punches with local sailors and maritime artisans, like Crispus Attucks.
The son of a black father and a Native American mother, Attucks spent the first 27 years of his life enslaved to a resident of Framingham. In 1750, he ran away; like many other fugitive slaves, he avoided recapture by becoming a sailor, serving on whaling ships out of Boston. When he was in port, he worked from time to time as a ropemaker.
Trouble began on Friday, March 2nd when a fight broke out between some British soldiers and ropeworkers. The Redcoats were overpowered, and they vowed to return to settle the score. The following Monday night, the soldiers left the barracks. By some accounts, they went into the streets armed with clubs looking for their adversaries; by others, they were simply on patrol.
It is unclear exactly what happened next. One witness reported that a barber's apprentice insulted one of the soldiers, who retaliated by butting the youth with his rifle. The boy shouted for help, and his friends responded. Someone rang the bells of a nearby church to sound an alarm. A crowd of townspeople quickly gathered. The ropeworkers perhaps incited by fiery words they had heard from Samuel Adamsarrived on the scene just as the angry crowd cornered a lone British guard at the Custom House. The soldier called for help, and a small group of his compatriots came to his aide.
An angry crowd of almost 400 men began pelting the vastly outnumbered soldiers with snowballs and threatening them with sticks and clubs. The Redcoats leveled their muskets and bayonets in self-defense. Their captain instructed them to hold their fire. But then, according to most accounts, Crispus Attucks led the crowd forward, shouting, "Come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, God damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not." In the confusion, one soldier heard the word "fire" and thought his captain had given the command. He fired, and others followed suit, killing three civilians and mortally wounding two more, Crispus Attucks among them. The mob dispersed into the night.
Samuel Adams and other pro-Independence radicals used the incident to inflame anti-British sentiment in the colony. The following week, the Boston Gazette published an account of the funeral for "the unhappy Victims who fell in the bloody Massacre." An anonymous "Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston" circulated in the city, along with Paul Revere's dramatic, if inaccurate, engraving of British Redcoats firing at point blank range on unarmed and peaceable colonists.
The men involved in the violent incident of March 5th were not peaceable citizensat least not that night. With their livelihood threatened and their dignity insulted, they were quick to disregard the law. Their frustration fed the growing resistance to British rule.
On March 5, 1858, black abolitionists gathered at Fanueil Hall for a celebration of the first "Crispus Attucks Day." Thirty years later, a monument was erected on Boston Common in honor of Crispus Attucks, "the first to defy, the first to die."
The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution 1770-1800, by Sidney Kaplan (New York Graphic Society, 1973).
The Boston Massacre, by Hiller Zobel (W.W. Norton, 1970).
"Crispus Attucks - c. 1723-1770," from Africans in America.