On the evening of March 5, 1770, British troops fired into a crowd of angry American colonists in Boston who had taunted and violently harassed them. Five colonists were killed. The event, which became known as the Boston Massacre, helped fuel the outrage against British rule—and spurred on the American Revolution.
Among those killed by the British, the first victim was a middle-aged sailor and rope-maker of mixed African American and American Indian descent named Crispus Attucks, accounts suggest. Attucks has been celebrated not just as one of the first martyrs in what became the fight for American independence, but also as a symbol of African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality.
Despite Attucks’ fame, relatively little information about him has survived. Based upon various sources, including historians’ accounts, news coverage and the transcript from the 1770 murder trial of the British soldiers involved in the confrontation, here are eight things that we do know about Crispus Attucks.
He was multiracial.
According to the New England Historical Society, Attucks is believed to have been born sometime around 1723 in the vicinity of Framingham, Massachusetts, possibly in Natick, a “praying Indian town” established to provide a safe haven where local natives who had been converted to Christianity could live without fear of being attacked by colonists or other Indians. His father was an enslaved African and his mother was a native woman who was a member of the Wampanoag tribe. She may have been descended from John Attucks, who was hanged for treason during King Philip’s War, a native rebellion against the English settlers, in 1675-1676. According to Frederic Kidder’s 1870 history of the massacre, Attucks’ family lived in an old cellar.
He had escaped slavery.
Attucks seems to have spent most of his early life enslaved by a man named William Browne in Framingham. But when he was 27, Attucks ran away. In a newspaper advertisement published in 1750, Browne announced the escape of a “Molatto fellow” named Crispus and described him as 6’2″ with short, curly hair. He was also apparently knock-kneed. Attucks was wearing a bearskin coat, buckskin breeches, and a checked shirt when he fled. Browne offered a reward of 10 British pounds plus expenses for his capture and return. But Attucks was never apprehended. As Neil L. York details in his book The Boston Massacre: A History with Documents, Attucks initially was identified in coroners’ documents as “Michael Johnson,” and may possibly have used that alias to avoid detection.
After his escape, Attucks made his way to Boston, where according to the New England Historical Society, he became a sailor, one of the few trades open to a non-white person. (Around the time of the American Revolution, one-fifth of the 100,000 sailors employed on American ships were African American.) Attucks worked on whaling ships, and when he wasn’t at sea, he found work as a rope-maker. On the night that he died, Attucks had just returned from the Bahamas and was on his way to North Carolina.
He was a big man.
Attucks was six inches taller than the average American man of the Revolutionary War era, and testimony at the trial of the British soldiers indicted for his death depicted him as having a robust physique. John Adams, the future U.S. president who acted as one of the soldiers’ defense attorneys, used Attucks’ musculature—and his mixed-race lineage—in an effort to justify the British troops’ fear of him. Adams described Attucks as “a stout mulatto fellow, whose very looks were enough to terrify any person,” according to the trial transcript.
He was angry at the British over competition for work.
As Douglas R. Egerton writes in his book Death Or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, Great Britain paid its soldiers so poorly that many of them found it necessary to take part-time jobs when they were off-duty. Competition from the influx of troops threatened to depress the wages of American workers such as Attucks. Additionally, as an experienced seaman, Attucks faced the danger of being seized by one of the British press gangs that Parliament authorized to forcibly draft sailors into the Royal Navy. His ire toward the British apparently was intense.
According to Egerton’s book, on the evening of the massacre, Attucks was drinking at a pub with other seamen at a local tavern when a British soldier wandered in and inquired about part-time employment. Attucks was among the patrons who cursed the soldier and harassed him until he fled the establishment.
“Nobody was talking about American independence in March 1770,” Egerton says. “And so while we know so little about Attucks, my guess is that as a mariner, he was far more concerned with basic economic survival than making any ideological gesture.”
He was a tough, fearless street fighter.
According to testimony at the soldiers’ trial, Attucks was at the front of the mob that went to confront the British soldiers. His brazen defiance took considerable courage since he had escaped slavery, he faced the risk of being arrested and returned to servitude.
“The prudent thing to do for a man like Attucks was to back away from that confrontation, but he did not,” Egerton says. Instead, according to trial testimony, Attucks brandished two wood sticks, one of which he gave to a witness named Patrick Keaton. Another witness, an enslaved man named Andrew, described Attucks—“this stout man”—stepping into the fray and swinging his stick at Captain Thomas Preston, and then knocking away a soldier’s gun and hitting him in the face or head. According to Andrew, Attucks grabbed the solder’s bayonet in his other hand and then yelled for the crowd to “kill the dogs, knock them over,” just moments before the soldier regained control of his gun and shot him.
The jury acquitted the soldiers of murder in the deaths of the five Americans, though two of them—Matthew Kilroy and Hugh Montgomery—were convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter and branded on their hands as a punishment and then released.
He was shot twice in the chest.
One of the musket balls that hit Attucks apparently didn’t do too much damage, but the other, which tore an inch-wide hole in his chest, inflicted lethal injuries, according to the transcript of the British soldiers’ trial. A contemporary newspaper account described the shot as “goring the right side of his lungs, and a great part of the liver most horribly.”
Though some accounts describe him as being killed instantly, he may have lingered for at least a short time after. A witness named Robert Goddard, whose testimony is included in Kidder’s book, said that he helped Attucks into a house. “After we got him in there, I saw him give one gasp,” Goddard recalled.
He was honored as a hero after death.
In death, Attucks was afforded honors that no person of color—particularly one who had escaped slavery—probably had ever received before in America. As Egerton notes, Samuel Adams organized a procession to transport Attucks’ casket to Boston’s Faneuil Hall, where Attucks lay in state for three days before the victims’ public funeral. According to historians William Bruce Wheeler and Lorri Glover, an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people—more than half of Boston’s population—joined in the procession that carried the caskets of Attucks and the other victims to the graveyard.
According to Eric Hinderaker’s book Boston’s Massacre, Attucks became a symbol in the 1840s for African American activists in the abolitionist movement, who promoted him as an example of a black citizen and a patriot, and that image stuck. As civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in 1964, black schoolchildren “know that the first American to shed blood in the revolution that freed his country from British oppression was a black seaman named Crispus Attucks.”
Today, schools and public parks are named after Attucks, and his face has appeared on a commemorative silver dollar.