Today we will visit with Crispus Attucks, the most famous Black Revolutionary War figure. Attucks, a sailor, was the first American to die for his country.
Historian George W. Williams in History of the Negro Race in America described the Boston Massacre as “the bloody drama that opened the most eventful and thrilling chapter in American history.” Neither a soldier nor a leading town citizen proved the hero of that pre-Revolutionary War struggle. Instead, the first of five men to die in the massacre was a runaway slave turned sailor, Crispus Attucks. His death has forever linked his name with the cause of freedom.
Historians know little about Attucks, and they have constructed accounts of his life more from speculation than facts. Most documents described his ancestry as African and American Indian. His father, Prince Yonger, is thought to have been a slave brought to America from Africa and that his mother, Nancy Attucks, was a Natick Indian. Researcher Bill Belton identified Attucks as a direct descendent of John Attucks, an Indian executed for treason in 1676 during the King Philip War. The family, which may have included an older sister named Phebe, lived in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Apparently, young Attucks developed a longing for freedom at an early age. According to The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, historians believe that an advertisement placed in the Boston Gazette on October 2, 1750, referred to him: “Ran away from his Master William Brown from Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of age, named Crispas, 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common: had on a light colour’d Bearskin Coat.” The owner offered a reward of ten pounds for the return of the slave and warned ship captains against giving him refuge. George Washington Williams noted that the advertisement appeared again on November 13 and November 20. Biographers surveyed that Attucks escaped to Nantucket, Massachusetts, and sailed as a harpoonist on a whaling ship.
Historians definitely place Attucks in Boston in March of 1770. While in Boston, probably awaiting passage on a ship to the Carolinas, he found a job as a dockworker. Some writers proposed that he was using the name Michael Johnson. Assuming that the Boston Gazette advertisement did refer to him, he would have been about 47-years old.
By 1770 Boston had become “a storm center of brewing revolt,” according to Benjamin Quarles in The Negro in the American Revolution. The British had stationed two regiments in the city following protests by the colonists against unfair taxes. Citizens welcomed neither the troops walking the streets nor the two canons aiming directly at the town hall. Describing the setting, historian John Fiske explained in Unpublished Orations that “the soldiers did many things that greatly annoyed the people. They led brawling, riotous lives, and made the quiet streets hideous by night with their drunken shouts. … On Sundays the soldiers would race horses on the Common, or would play `Yankee Doodle’ just outside the church-doors during the services.”
As tensions mounted, the atmosphere grew ripe for confrontation. Fiske pointed out that during February of 1870, “an unusual number of personal encounters” had occurred, including the killing of a young boy. Regarding the evening of March 5, 1770, he explained, “Accounts of what happened are as disorderly and conflicting as the incidents which they try to relate.” A barber’s apprentice chided a British soldier for walking away without paying for his haircut. The soldier struck the boy, and news of the offense spread quickly. Groups of angry citizens gathered in various places around town. Someone rang the church bell and such a summons usually meant that a fire had broken out. This night, however, it presaged an explosive situation between the soldiers and the townspeople.
Captain Thomas Preston called his Twenty-ninth Regiment to duty. Townspeople began pelting the troops with snowballs. From the dock area, a group of men, led by the towering figure of Attucks, entered King Street, armed with clubs. Some accounts maintained that Attucks struck soldier Hugh Montgomery. Others, for example, John Fiske, stated that he was “leaning upon a stick” when the soldiers opened fire. However the incident occurred, Attucks lay dead, his body pierced by two bullets. Ropemaker Samuel Gray and sailor James Caldwell also died in the incident. Samuel Maverick, a 17-year-old joiner’s apprentice, died the next day. Irish leather worker Patrick Carr died nine days later, and six others were wounded. Citizens immediately demanded the withdrawal of British troops. Fiske noted in Unpublished Orations that the deaths of these men “effected in a moment what 17 months of petition and discussion had failed to accomplish.”
John Adams reluctantly agreed to defend the British soldiers, two of whom were charged with manslaughter and branded. At the trial, Adams focused on Attucks, portraying him as a rabble-rouser. Because of accounts given at the trial, some historians have questioned the motives of the massacred men. Fiske evaluated that although we cannot know their motives, “we may fairly suppose them to have been actuated by the same feelings toward the soldiery that animated Adams and Warren and the patriots of Boston in general.”
The town’s response to the murders expressed the significance of the sacrifices these men made. The bodies of Attucks and Caldwell lay in state at Faneuil Hall; those of Gray and Maverick lay in their homes. For the funeral service, shops closed, bells rang, and thousands of citizens from all walks of life formed a long procession, six people deep, to the Old Granary Burial Ground where the bodies were committed to a common grave. Until the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Boston commemorated their deaths on March 5, “Crispus Attucks Day.” According to Ted Stewart in Sepia, Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips stated on the first such occasion, “I place…this Crispus Attucks in the foremost rank of the men that dared.”
Through the years, people have remembered Attucks in a variety of ways. Paul Revere created a woodcut of the incident, and the National Archives housed a painting by noted New England artist Benjamin Champney depicting the event. Negro military companies took the name Attucks Guards. Poets dedicated works to his memory, and communities named schools after him.
In 1888 Boston erected a monument to the heroes of the massacre which James Neyland in Crispus Attucks called “the first ever to be paid for by public funds” in Massachusetts. City officials had rejected earlier petitions for such a monument. Even in 1888, various Boston factions heatedly debated the appropriateness of this gesture. At the unveiling, speaker John Fiske called the Boston Massacre “one of the most significant and impressive events in the noble struggle in which our forefathers succeeded in vindicating, for themselves and their posterity, the sacred right of self-government.”
In his 1995 biography, James Neyland wrote about Attucks: “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.” Although obscure in life, Attucks played an important role in U.S. history through his death. Bill Belton in the Negro History Bulletin contended that the name of Crispus Attucks will stand “forever linked to the birth of this nation and its dream of freedom, justice, and equality.”
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