Crispus Attucks was one of the five men killed in the “Boston Massacre,” but he is the only one still remembered by name. While Attucks is generally referred to as an African American, there is considerable debate as to his ethnic origins. The two earliest accounts of the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770, do not refer to him as “Negro.” Instead, Attucks is referred to as a “Mulatto” or an Indian. Most likely, he was of mixed African and Wampanoag (the Native American nation dominant in the New England region) heritage. Not until the 19th century abolitionist movement became popular in New England did Attucks begin to be identified exclusively as an African American.
Almost immediately following his death, Attucks became a symbol of the American struggle for independence. Samuel Adams and other patriot leaders in Boston helped to propagate the view of Attucks as the first martyr for the cause of freedom. Regardless, he does appear to have been the first American to die in the dispute with Britain over the question of American colonies’ status within the empire.
Very little is known about Attucks's life prior to the event that brought him fame. The location and place of his birth have never been verified, though he is believed to have been born in 1723. Although his origins remain obscure, there is good reason to believe that he was an escaped slave. In 1750, Deacon William Brown of Framingham, Massachusetts placed an advertisement in the Boston Gazette for the recovery of a runaway slave. “[A] mulatto Fellow, about 27 years of age, named Crispus, 6 Feet and 2 inches high, short curl'd Hair …”
Prior to the Boston Massacre, relations between the colonists and British officials in Boston had been strained. Tavern brawls and street fights were common occurrences, and British attempts to enforce new taxes only heightened the tension. On the night of March 5, 1770, Attucks ate at Thomas Symmonds's tavern, a popular locale with off-duty soldiers. Attucks identified himself as Michael Johnson and said he came from New-Providence in the Bahamas.
After finishing his dinner, Attucks left the tavern holding a cordwood stick about the thickness of a man's wrist and leading a group of 20 or 30 men. Some of the men carried clubs like Attucks, and others simply whistled and made noise. Their intentions are unclear, but most historians believe they were determined to make trouble. The crowd began taunting a lone British soldier, Pvt. Hugh White, stationed as a guard in front of the customs house. Yelling insults and throwing stones at the soldier, the men soon attracted a larger crowd that joined in the assault. A reinforcement of seven or eight soldiers was quickly dispatched to reinforce the guard, as the crowd grew even larger.
Tensions escalated as the crowd of now several hundred threw rocks and snowballs at the soldiers. One of the soldiers was struck so hard that he fell, and it is unclear exactly what happened next. Either the falling soldier discharged his weapon as he fell or the other soldiers panicked. Regardless, the other soldiers did fire their muskets, and, when the smoke cleared, 11 men had been hit—5 fatally, including Attucks.
The Boston Massacre became a symbol of British oppression and the threat that British troops posed to colonists. Samuel Adams and others quickly printed newspapers and broadsides depicting their version of events, portraying Attucks and the others as law-abiding innocents who were the victims of an unprovoked attack. The funerals for the slain men were public events in Boston, bringing thousands of people to the streets to show their support for the patriot cause.
Contrary to popular belief, the soldiers involved in the shooting and their commanding officer did not escape punishment because they were British soldiers. In fact, they were all indicted for murder. The British government, sensing the seriousness of the situation, made no effort to help them, and they had great difficulty finding a defense attorney. In the end, John Adams, a cousin of Samuel Adams and the future second president of the United States, agreed to defend the soldiers both because he was concerned about them getting a fair trial and because he doubtless realized the publicity that the trial would garner. In the end, Adams managed to get the officer and six of the soldiers acquitted, but two were found guilty of murder. Ever the clever lawyer, Adams found a loophole to free his clients—benefit of clergy. Benefit of clergy was an English law dating back to the 12th century that allowed first-time offenders to go free on the grounds that they might be clergymen (or later women) and, therefore, were not subject to civil law. In order to prevent the use of this defense more than once, however, the letter “C” was burned into their thumb.
Attucks's exact role in the Boston Massacre remains unknown, but he was certainly not an innocent bystander. In the years that followed, he became the “first” hero of the American Revolution. Today, numerous schools and monuments bear his name.
See also African Americans—1775–1860; Armistead-Lafayette, James; Beckwourth, James P.; 1st Rhode Island Regiment; Salem, Peter;.
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