Crispus Attucks was born around 1722, possibly in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Attucks was of mixed African and Wampanoag Native American parentage and a descendant of John Attucks, a Natick Native who was hanged around 1675 during King Philip’s War.
Considerable uncertainty remains about Attucks’ origins and early life.
History notes that he grew up to become a dockworker and merchant seaman.
In 1750 William Brown, a slave-owner in Framingham, advertised for the return of a runaway slave named Crispus, although history is not certain this was Attucks.
In the fall of 1768, British soldiers were sent to Boston in an attempt to control growing colonial unrest. Local Whigs had been coordinating waterfront mobs against the authorities following the introduction of the Stamp Act and the subsequent Townshend Acts.
Rather than reducing tensions, the presence of British troops further inflamed them.
After dusk on March 5, 1770, a crowd of colonists confronted a sentry who had chastised a boy for complaining that an officer was late in paying a barber bill. Both townspeople and a company of British soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot gathered.
The colonists threw snowballs and debris at the soldiers.
Crispus Attucks and a group of men approached the Old State House armed with clubs.
A soldier was struck with a piece of wood, an act some witnesses claimed was done by Attucks.
Other witnesses stated that Attucks was “leaning upon a stick” when the soldiers opened fire.
Crispus Attucks, along with Samuel Gray and James Caldwell, and two other colonists Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr all died “on the spot.”
Attucks took two bullets in the chest and was the first to die.
In total, five people were killed and six were wounded.
County coroners Robert Pierpoint and Thomas Crafts Jr. conducted an autopsy on Attucks.
Crispus Attucks was thought to have been 47 years old.
Attucks’ body was carried to Faneuil Hall, where it lay in state until Thursday, March 8 of 1992, when he and the other victims were buried together in the same grave site in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.
While custom of the period discouraged the burial of black people and white people together, such a practice was not completely unknown.
Attucks’ status at the time of the massacre was either a free black or a runaway slave, and has been a matter of debate for historians.
However, his descendants maintained he was a runaway slave and had escaped slavery sometime in his teenage years.
What is known is that Attucks became a sailor and he spent much of the remainder of his life at sea often working on whalers which involved long voyages.
He was on shore leave that fateful night in Boston, having recently returned from a voyage to the Bahamas, and due to leave the next day on a ship for North Carolina.
Reaction and trials
Arguing the British soldiers fired in self-defense, John Adams successfully defended most of the accused British against a charge of murder.
Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter.
Faced with the prospect of hanging, the soldiers pled benefit of clergy, and were instead branded on their thumbs.
In his arguments, John Adams called the crowd “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.”
In particular, Adams charged that Attucks had “undertaken to be the hero of the night,” and with having precipitated the conflict by his “mad behavior.”
Two major sources of eyewitness testimony about the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770, did not refer to Attucks as a “Negro,” or “black” man; it appeared that Bostonians accepted him as mixed race.
Two years later, Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams, named the event the “Boston Massacre,” and helped assure that it would not be forgotten.
Boston artist Henry Pelham (half-brother of the celebrated portrait painter John Singleton Copley) created an image of the event.
Paul Revere also made an engraving from which prints were made and distributed, however his print was not an accurate depiction of the event.
Today, Historians disagree on whether Crispus Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave; but agree that he was of Wampanoag and African descent.
While the extent of his participation in events leading up to the massacre are still unclear, by the 19th century Attucks had become an icon of the anti-slavery movement.
Attucks was held up as the first martyr of the American Revolution along with the other victims of the shootings.
In the early nineteenth century, as the Abolitionist movement gained momentum in Boston, supporters lauded Attucks as a black American who played a heroic role in the history of the United States.
Because Attucks had Wampanoag ancestors, his story also holds special significance for many Native Americans.
Now WE know em