When you think of the American Revolution, of what do you think? Many people think of the British soldiers and their red coats, the Boston Tea Party, the Founding Fathers, and the Constitution.
Many also have the impression the American colonies’ efforts for independence were entirely “white” efforts. That is, that the American Revolution and all the important things that happened in it were entirely the result of people of European descent. We think this because of how we have been taught things in school. When we look at actual history, though, we see a different picture that would surprise a lot of people.
This is a portrait of Crispus Attucks. He was the first adult casualty of the American Revolution, and leader of the patriot group that rallied against the redcoats on King Street in Boston. This event would later become known as the Boston Massacre.
What We Know about Crispus Attucks’ Early Life
We don’t know a lot about Attucks. He was born of a Native-American mother, and his father was an African-born slave. It is likely that Attucks ran away from slavery at age 27. A reward for a runaway slave named “Crispas” was published on October 2, 1750 offering a 10 pounds for his return. It read: “Ran-away from his Master William Browne of Framingham, on the 30th of September, last, a Mulatto Fellow, about 27 years of age, named Crispas, six feet, two inches high, short curl’s Hair…”
Spelling standards back in the day were more relaxed, and historians have assumed “Crispus” and “Crispas” were the same name. Attucks became a sailor for whaling vessels, and records show that he often traveled under the alias “Michael Johnson” in certain ports.
As a sailor, Attucks was under constant threat of conscription into the British military. Most sailors did not like conscription, and some writings we have indicate that Attucks did not either. Nor did he enjoy the company of British soldiers. The Friday before the massacre, Attucks and his companions chased a British soldier out of a tavern, and got in a scuffle with three other British soldiers as a result.
What Led to the Boston Massacre
Until the massacre, the British controlled the trade vessels of the American colonies through the Navigation Acts. They also taxed the colonies without representation, and the colonists did not like this. So they often would boycott businesses whose owners were loyal to the British.
On February 22, 1770, a protest occurred outside a British customs house. A man named Ebenezer Richardson, who worked there, tried to break up the protest. Instead of stopping, the crowd took their protest to his house. To ward off the protesters, who were throwing rocks, Richardson fired a musket shot into the crowd from his window. He wounded a teenager, and murdered an 11-year-old child.
After this, tensions escalated quickly between the British and the colonists. Not 11 days later, on March 5, 1770, was the Boston Massacre. What started out as an exchange of words between two men ended with a British soldier striking a colonist over the head with his musket. As a result, a large crowd of colonists appeared outside the customs house the soldier was guarding. One eyewitness account from historian William C. Nell’s “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution” reads:
The people were greatly exasperated. The multitude ran towards king street crying, ‘Let us drive out these ribalds; they have no business here!’… a band of the populace led by a mulatto named ATTUCKS… advanced to the quarter, the military were challenged to fire. The populace advanced to the points of their bayonets. The soldiers appeared like statues… at length, the mulatto and twelve of his companions, pressing forward, environed the soldiers, and striking their muskets with their clubs, cried to the multitude: ‘BE NOT AFRAID; THEY DARE NOT FIRE…’ The mulatto lifted his arm against Capt. Preston, and having turned one of the muskets, he seized the bayonet with his left hand, as if he intended to execute his threat. At this moment, confused cries were heard: ‘The Wretches dare not fire!’ Firing succeed, Attucks is slain. The other discharges follow…
Nell himself writes, “Attucks was killed by Montgomery, one of Capt. Preston’s soldiers. He had been foremost in resisting, and was first slain. As proof of a front engagement, he received two balls, one in each breast.” Many other firsthand accounts say Attucks died on the spot when the British fired. Several other men were shot and killed during the scuffle that ensued.
Remember, Remember, the Fifth of March
Despite laws and customs regulating the burial of blacks, Attucks was buried in the Park Street Cemetery with the other honored dead from the massacre. For years colonists observed March 5 as a day of remembrance. During the fortification of Boston in preparation for a battle several years later, George Washington said to his soldiers “Remember, it is the fifth of March, and avenge the death of your brethren!”
The signing of the Declaration of Independence had not happened yet, so for years this event was the most important day of remembrance for the colonists during the Revolutionary War. John Adams, a Founding Father who served as the second president of the United States, later wrote in hindsight that the Boston Massacre served as the “foundation of American independence” from British rule.
Attucks also became a symbol against slavery to American abolitionists. In the mid-1800s, Thomas Sims, a fugitive slave from Georgia, was recaptured and dragged back into slavery in public, over the same street on which Attucks had died. Legislator Anson Burlingame gave a speech about Sims a few months later in October in Boston. He said:
The conquering of our New England prejudices in favor of liberty ‘does not pay.’ It ‘does not pay,’ I submit to play our fellow-citizens under practical martial law; to beat the drum in our streets; to clothe our temples of justice in chains, to creep along, by the light of the morning star, over the ground wet with the blood of Crispus Attucks, the noble colored man, who fell in King street before the muskets of Tyranny, away in the dawn of our Revolution… a man made in the image of God… [was] led off to slavery, over the spot where Hancock stood and ATTUCKS fell… where the negro blood of CHRISTOPHER ATTUCKS stained the ground,- over that spot, Boston authorities carried a citizen of Massachusetts to Alexandria as a slave… Where the disgusting rites of sacrificing a human being to slavery were lately performed, was the spot which was first moistened with American blood in resisting slavery, and among the first victims was a colored person.
The great Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about Attucks in the introduction to his book “Why We Can’t Wait.” While many overlook Attucks’ contribution to American history, he still provides a powerful example of moral courage we should follow. A monument for the Boston Massacre (also known as the Crispus Attucks monument) was erected at the Boston Common in 1888, more than 100 years after the massacre.
Sources and More Information
- “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” by William C Nell
- PBS Biography on Crispus Attucks
- “Who was Crispus Attucks?”
- Crispus Attucks Museum
- “The Boston Massacre in Black, White, and Color”
- “Crispus Attucks,” by George Gaadt