On the wintry night of March 5, 1770, a tall, angry sailor named Crispus Attucks led a resentful mob of civilians in a fight with British soldiers at Dock Square in Boston.
Tensions had risen between the British soldiers and the colonists since Parliament passed the hated Townshend Acts. They imposed import duties on paper, paint, lead, glass and tea.
For two years, British troops had been posted in Boston to protect Crown officials who tried to collect the tariffs.
In response, Boston boycotted British goods, which imperiled the livelihoods of struggling laborers. And off-duty British soldiers edged out American dockworkers. In addition, colonial sailors resented the British for impressing them into service in the Royal Navy.
As a result, working-class civilians and soldiers had clashed in the weeks and months before the Boston Massacre on March 5.
On that night, an argument between a wigmaker’s apprentice and a British sentry attracted a crowd, dockworkers, Irish immigrants and sailors like their leader, Crispus Attucks.
As W. Jeffrey Bolster writes in Black Jacks,
…a crowd of mostly white sailors followed a seafaring man of color into danger; and this time, into history.
Attucks was born around 1723 somewhere near Framingham, Mass., perhaps Natick, the praying Indian town. His mother belonged to the Wampanoag tribe, and his father was an African-American slave. His mother may have been descended from John Attucks, hanged for treason because he sided with his people during King Philip’s War.
Crispus Attucks was enslaved for 27 years, probably by a man named William Brown of Framingham. In 1750 he won his freedom by running away to sea. Or he may have bought his freedom. In any case, he often worked on whalers, and in between voyages he worked as a ropemaker.
Seafaring was one of the few occupations free men of color could enter. Twenty-five years after the American Revolution, one-fifth of the 100,000 men employed as sailors were African-American.
The sea allowed room for black leaders. White sailors would follow a skilled black seamen who could help navigate a ship out of danger.
African-American sailors also provided a vital communications link between North and South and among Africans everywhere. For example, they helped Boston abolitionist David Walker spread his inflammatory pamphlet, Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, by taking copies to Southern ports.
And though the sea represented enslavement to Africans, it also gave a lifeline to freedom for people like Attucks. Northern sea captains not only employed black sailors, they helped southern slaves sail to freedom on their ships; Frederick Douglass, for example, disguised himself as a sailor to escape slavery.
The Boston Massacre
On the night of the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks had just returned from a voyage to the Bahamas. He planned to sail to North Carolina. But he first joined the growing crowd harassing the sentry in Dock Square.
Witnesses said his eerie war-whoop egged on the angry civilians. They threw snowballs, sea coal and oyster shells at the sentry. Attucks then poked him with a stick, called him a ‘lobster’ and said he would have one of his claws.
British runners alerted the officer of the watch, Capt. Thomas Preston. Preston then gathered seven men and joined the sentry on the steps of the Custom House. They loaded their muskets.
According to most accounts, Crispus Attucks led the crowd forward. He shouted, "Come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, God damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not."
In the confusion, one soldier discharged his musket – hitting Attucks, according to witnesses. Soon after the soldiers fired into the crowd.
First To Die
Crispus Attucks died on the spot, the first killed in what Samuel Adams named as the Boston Massacre. Samuel Gray , a ropemaker, and James Carpenter, a sailor, died alongside Attucks. Samuel Maverick, a 17-year-old, died the next day of his wounds. Patrick Carr, an Irish immigrant, died two weeks later.
After the killings, patriots carried the body of Crispus Attucks to Faneuil Hall, where it lay in state. Then they buried the four dead victims as heroes in the Granary Burying Ground.
Attucks became an icon of the black abolition movement.
In antebellum New York at the Coloured Seaman’s Home, boarders dined under a framed portrait of Attucks. In 1858, black abolitionists celebrated the first ‘Crispus Attucks Day’ at Fanueil Hall. Thirty years later, a monument was erected on Boston Common in honor of Attucks and the other victims, "the first to defy, the first to die."
Reenactors typically reprise the Boston Massacre around the anniversary, though not in 2019.
With thanks to MassMoments and Black Jacks. This story about Crispus Attucks was updated in 2019.