On the evening of 5 March 1770, British troops fired into a taunting, angry crowd of Americans in Boston, killing five colonists. Those responsible for the deaths were barely punished. The event, which was named the Boston Massacre, contributed to outrage against British rule and hastened the beginning of the American Revolution.
The first of the five killed by the British was Crispus Attucks, a middle-aged sailor of African American and Indigenous American descent. Attucks’ background is shrouded in mystery: at the time of the massacre, it is possible that he was a runaway slave operating under an alias, and had since made a living working as a seaman.
What is clear, however, is the effect that Attucks’ death had upon the American people as a symbol of independence, and later African Americans’ fight for freedom and equality.
So who was Crispus Attucks?
1. He was likely of African American and Indigenous American ancestry
It is thought that Attucks was born some time around 1723 in Massachusetts, possibly in Natick, a ‘praying Indian town’ that was established as a place for Indigenous people who had converted to Christianity to live under protection. His father was an enslaved African, likely named Prince Yonger, while his mother was probably a native woman from the Wampanoag tribe named Nancy Attucks.
It is possible that Attucks was descended from John Attucks, who was hanged for treason after a rebellion against the native settlers in 1675-76.
2. He was possibly a runaway slave
Attucks spent most of his early life enslaved by someone named William Browne in Framingham. However, it seems that a 27-year-old Attucks ran away, with a newspaper report dating to 1750 running an advertisement for the recovery of a runaway slave named ‘Crispas’. The reward for his capture was 10 British pounds.
To aid in evading capture, it’s possible that Attucks used the alias Michael Johnson. Indeed, the initial coroners’ documents after the massacre identify him by that name.
3. He was a sailor
After escaping from slavery, Attucks made his way to Boston, where he became a sailor, since that was an occupation open to non-white people. He worked on whaling ships, and when not at sea, made a living as a rope-maker. On the night of the Boston Massacre, Attucks had returned from the Bahamas and was making his way to North Carolina.
4. He was a large man
In the newspaper advertisement for his return by Attucks’ enslaver, he was described as 6’2″, which makes him around six inches taller than the average American man of the era. John Adams, the future U.S. president who acted as the soldiers’ defence attorneys at their trial, used Attucks’ heritage and size in an effort to justify the British troops’ actions. He stated that Attucks was ‘a stout mulatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person.’
5. He was worried about employment
Britain paid its soldiers so poorly that many had to take on part-time work to support their income. This created competition from the influx of troops, which affected the job prospects and wages of American workers such as Attucks. Attucks was also at risk of being seized by British press gangs that Parliament authorised to forcibly draft sailors into the Royal Navy. Attucks’ attack on the British soldiers was yet more marked because he risked being arrested and returned to slavery.
6. He led the angry mob who attacked the British
On 5 March 1770, Attucks was at the front of an angry mob that confronted a group of British soldiers wielding guns. Attucks brandished two wooden sticks, and after a scuffle with British Captain Thomas Preston, Preston shot Attucks twice with a musket. The second shot inflicted lethal injuries, killing Attucks and marking him as the first casualty of the American Revolution.
The soldiers were put to trial for killing the five Americans, but all were acquitted, except for Matthew Kilroy and Hugh Montgomery who were convicted of manslaughter, had their hands branded and were then released.
7. More than half of Boston’s population followed his funeral procession
After he was killed, Attucks was awarded honours that no other person of colour – particularly one who had escaped enslavement – had ever been awarded before. Samuel Adams organised a procession to transport Attucks’ casket to Faneuil Hall in Boston, where he lay in state for three days before a public funeral. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 people – which accounted for more than half of Boston’s population – joined in the procession that carried all five victims to the graveyard.
8. He became a symbol of African American liberation
In addition to becoming a martyr for the overthrowing of British rule, in the 1840s, Attucks became a symbol for African American activists and the abolitionist movement, who heralded him as an exemplary Black patriot. In 1888, the Crispus Attucks monument was unveiled in Boston Common, and his face has also featured on a commemorative silver dollar.