Who was Crispus Attucks? - Biography, Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Mark Pearcy
Almost nothing is known about his life before 1770--but his legacy afterwards has been immortalized. Crispus Attucks' status as the 'first to defy, the first to die' in the American Revolution has become a part of the permanent mythology of the American Revolution.

Background of Crispus Attucks

All we really know about Crispus Attucks is that he was African-American--unless he wasn't, and he was actually a person of mixed ancestry. His father might have been African, and his mother might have been a member of the Nantucket tribe--or maybe not. He was probably a runaway slave, but it's hard to be sure. There were rumors that he was from Framingham, Massachusetts, and that he was known for trading in cattle, but he also might have been a sailor on a whaling crew, or a ropemaker in Boston. Or all of the above.

All we really know about Crispus Attucks is that he was the first person to die in a seminal event of the American Revolution, the Boston Massacre. Shot down by British troops on March 5, 1770, Attucks became (and still is) a symbol of American defiance, though the historical record about his life before that moment is sketchy at best.

Background of the Boston Massacre

A 19th century depiction of Crispus Attucks

In March 1770, Boston was nearing a boiling point. Seven years earlier, the British government had begun passing taxes on the colonies in order to pay the imperial debt after the French and Indian War. The taxes, first on products like sugar and molasses, then later on everything from legal documents to newspapers and playing cards, were greeted with hostility and sometimes even violence in America. The American argument, that it was a violation of their rights as British citizens to pass taxes on them without direct representation in Parliament, was dismissed by many in the British government. The British felt that the colonists should participate in paying for their own defense, and that frankly, their complaints sounded less like political philosophy and more like frugality.

In 1767, the British tried another series of fees on exports, known as the Townshend Duties. These were greeted with particular hostility in Boston, a city that relied heavily on seagoing trade and commerce to survive and thrive. Rioting, boycotts, and violence ensued, and the following year, in 1768, the British government finally had enough; it sent a regiment of the British army to occupy Boston and quell the disturbances.

Bostonians quickly grew to resent the British, not only for what they saw as an armed occupation, but for something more mundane. British enlisted men were paid very poorly, so it was common in their off-duty hours for them to seek part-time labor. Since they would often work for much less than American laborers, they were deeply resented by colonials who saw them as poaching their opportunities. In early March, 1770, there were several large brawls on the wharves of Boston, as groups of soldiers and American laborers fought violent, bloody battles, armed with bayonets, sticks, clubs, and boards. At least one, according to some accounts, included Crispus Attucks.

The night of March 5, bands of armed soldiers and Americans were wandering the streets of the city, looking for trouble. It began that night near the Customs House, the center of British government in Boston. An incident between a young apprentice and a British sentry attracted a crowd, which began throwing snowballs (some of them packed with shards of glass), oyster shells, and pieces of wood. The sentry called out the main guard, the supporting detail of British soldiers, led by Captain Thomas Preston.

How Was Crispus Attucks Involved?

By some accounts, Crispus Attucks was at the Customs House before the incident began; according to others, he arrived later with a larger group of men. Some accounts have him armed with a club, while others claim he was leaning on a stick. In any case, Attucks was apparently near the front of the crowd that night, which had grown ominously large and boisterous in the face of the British soldiers.

Someone threw a piece of wood from the crowd, which struck a British private. After the incident, several versions of the story claimed it was thrown by Attucks. At that point, the wounded private would testify later, he heard someone shout, 'Damn you, fire!' And so he did. The rest of the soldiers (whether ordered to do so by Captain Preston, a major issue of contention at the later trial) followed suit; and after the shooting subsided, six Americans were wounded, and five--including Crispus Attucks--were dead.

The Aftermath

The 'Boston Massacre' is famous for several reasons. It was the first widely publicized deadly incident between Americans and British troops. It also exacerbated anti-British feelings throughout Massachusetts and the rest of the colonies. The Massacre is also famous for some inaccurate reasons, including the most notorious depiction of the event. Paul Revere, a member of the radical group The Sons of Liberty and a Boston silversmith, came up with his own visual version of what happened that night. Though it can hardly be described as objective, the image spread up and down the colonies and cemented the view of the event as a 'bloody massacre.'

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