Crispus Attucks What we know of him

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Crispus Attucks
by Nicholas P. Giordy
Louis G. Romano
Robert L. Green
(written in 1969)

Sketch by Robert Swan





Any words that appear to be misspelled are not typographical errors. The words appear as they did in the documents from which they came. 

Slavery from the very beginning in America was strongly opposed by many people. The first antislavery society in this country had as its president Benjamin Franklin. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others wanted the practice of slavery ended. Most of the plantation owners did not want slavery to be discontinued. They wanted slavery to continue because they wanted a cheap source of labor for their large land holdings.

Although there was talk about freeing the slaves, little was done. The problem of the slaves was important, but more important was the trouble at this time between the American colonies and England. There were small fights and many arguments between the people in the colonies and the British soldiers.

The first clash between the Americans and the British soldiers took place on the 5th of March, 1770. This happening was very important for two reasons. First, as Daniel Webster said, it was the first time that the colonies showed that they wanted to break away from England. Second, it was a happening in which the first man to die in the war for American freedom was killed. This man who was killed was a Negro by the name of Crispus Attucks.

Very little is known of Attucks' early life except for a news paper notice in. The Boston Gazette, of October 2, 1750. The notice says:

"Ran away from his master WILLIAM BROWN of Farrningham. on the 30th of Sept. last, a Mulatto Fellow, about 27 years of Age, named Crispus. 6 Feet 2 Inches high; short curled Hair, his Knees nearer together than common: had on a light colour'd Bear-skin Coat, plain brown Fustain Jacket, or brown all-wool one, new Buckskin Breeches, blue Yarn Stockings. and a checked woolen Shirt."

"Whoever shall take up said Runaway, and convey him to his above-said Master, shall have ten Pounds, old Tenor Reward, and all necessary Charges paid. And all Masters of Vessels and others, are hereby cautioned against concealing or carrying off said Servant on Penalty of the Law."

This notice in the newspaper was published on two other days during the month of October. There was no record of Crispus Attucks being returned to his owner.

Soon after 1761. trouble grew between the Americans and the British. Laws were forced upon the American colonies which gave customs collectors the power to enter houses or shops to hunt for smuggled goods. The customs collectors would take anything they wanted to. Then in 1765, the Stamp Act forced the colonists to pay for the support of the British army in America. The colonists be came furious. They felt that the Stamp Act was an unfair law because they did not have a right to vote for or against the Act.

Other laws passed in 1767, called the Townshend Acts, placed taxes on tea and other articles. The money from these taxes would be used to pay the salaries of the governors and judges, but these officials would be responsible to the British authorities and not to the colonial government. The colonists were extremely angry because they felt that it was a blow at self-government.

A year later, the British sent a fifty-gun frigate. Rornnev, to America. The frigate was anchored in Boston harbor. When more help was needed on the frigate, colonists were forced to serve as seamen. A note was sent to the British authorities in Boston to remove the frigate, Romney, from the harbor. The Governor of Massachusetts refused to re move the frigate, but he did promise that no more colonists would be forced to serve as seamen.

In the first few days of October, regiments of British troops came to Boston. A directive from the British stated that the colonists must open their homes to the British soldiers for food and shelter. Samuel Adams, one of the leaders in the colonies, said that it was unfair to be forced into giving shelter and food to the British soldiers. Again it was a case of the colonists not being able to voice their opinions.

"To force British troops on the people of Massachusetts without the consent of the people was as gross a violation of the Bill of Rights as to force an American army in London without the consent of Parliament." said Samuel Adams.

During the remainder of the year and the early part of 1770. there were minor clashes between the colonists and the British soldiers. Then on a cold day with a light snow. an incident was to happen which definitely showed the feelings of the colonists toward the British. During the early hours of night a British sentry was on duty in Dock Square. Some young men began to shout at the sentry. Angry words were exchanged between the young men and the sentry. Soon a very large crowd gathered. Other soldiers came on the scene. but they were forced into the Custom House.

"Drive them out." shouted one of the young men.

"They have no business here." shouted another.

At the same time someone rang the church bells, and more colonists came to see what the excitement was about. In the meantime, Captain Thomas Preston, who was in charge of the British soldiers, heard about the trouble. With seven soldiers with fixed bayonets, they came up King Street (now State Street) to clear the road before them.

Then a crowd of about fifty Americans waited near the head of the street in the heart of the city. They were armed with clubs, sticks, and even icy snowballs. At the front of the angry crowd was Crispus Attucks.

"The way to get rid of these soldiers is to attack the main guard." shouted Attucks.

Just then there was a shot followed by others from the rifles of the British soldiers. No one was sure who gave the order to fire, but Preston claims that he did not. The bullet from the rifle of a soldier named Montgomery killed Crispus Attucks instantly. Another bullet from the rifle of Kilroy slew Samuel Gray who had stepped forward to help the fallen Attucks. James CaIdwell, a sailor, was also killed on the spot. Two others. Patrick Carr and Samuel Maverick. were mortally wounded. Maverick a youth of seventeen, died the next morning while Carr died nine days later. Others were injured, but recovered from their wounds.

What exactly happened is best told by an eyewitness at the shooting. This description was given at the trial of the British soldiers by Andrew, a Negro belonging to Mr. Oliver Wendell. The sworn statement says:

"On the evening of the 5th of March I was at home, I heard the bells ring, and went to the gate. and saw one of my acquaintances, and we run down to the end of the lane and saw another acquaintance coming up, holding his arm; I asked him what's the matter, he said the soldiers were fighting. had got cutlasses, and were killing everybody. and that one of them had struck him on the arm. and almost cut it off: He told me I had best not go down; I said a good club was better than a cutlass.

I went to the Town House. saw the Sentinels placed at the main guard standing by Mr. Howe's corner; numbers of boys on the other side of the way were throwing snow balls at them; the Sentinels were engaged and swearing at the boys; the boys called them lobsters, bloody backs. and hallooed who buys lobsters. 

I turned about and saw the officer standing before the men, and one or two persons engaged in talk with him. A number were jumping on the backs of those that were talking with the officer, to get as near as they could. Upon this I went as close to the officer as I could; one of the persons who was talking with the officer turned about quick to the people, and said, Damn him, he going to fire; upon that they gave a shout, and cried out, fire and be Dawn'd, who cares for you, you dare not fire. and began to throw snow balls and other things which then flew very thick.

Q. Did they hit any of them?

A. Yes, I saw two or three of them hit, one struck a grenadier on the hat, and the people who were right before them had sticks: and as the soldiers were pushing with their guns back and forth, they struck their guns, and one hit a grenadier on the fingers. At this time, the people up at the Town House called again, come away, come away. . . . The people seemed to be leaving the soldiers. and to turn from them, when there came down a number from Jackson's Corner, huzzaing and crying, damn them, they dare not fire, we are not afraid of them; one of these people, a stout (heavy-set) man with a long cordwood stick, thew himself in, and made a blow at the officer; I saw the officer try to ward off the stroke, whether he struck him or not I do not know; the stout man then turned round, and struck the grenadier's gun at the captain's right hand, and immediately fell in with his club, and knocked his gun away, and struck him over the head, the blow came either on the soldier's cheek or hat. This stout man held the bayonet with his left hand, and twitched it and cried kill the dogs, knock them over; this was the general cry; the people then crowded in, and upon that the grenadier gave a twitch back and relieved his gun, and he up with it and began to pay away one the people. I was then betwixt the officer and this grenadier, I turned to go off, when I heard the word fire; at the word fire I thought I heard the report of a gun, and upon my hearing the re port of a gun, and upon my hearing the report, I saw the same grenadier swing his gun, and immediately he discharged it.

Q. Do you know who this stout man was, that fell and struck the grenadier?

A. I thought and still think, it was the Mulatto who was shot.

Q. Do you know the grenadier who was thus assaulted and fired?

A. I then thought it was Killroy, and I told Mr. Quincy so the next morning after the affair happened, I now think it was he from my best observation but I can't positively swear it.

Q. Did the soldiers of that party, or any of them, step or move out of the rank in which they stood to push the people?

A. No, and if they had they might have killed me and many others with their bayonets.

Q. Did you, as you passed through the people towards Royal-Exchange lane and the party, see a number of people take up any and every thing they could find in the street, and throw them at the soldiers?

A. Yes, I saw ten or fifteen round me do it.

Q. Did you yourself pick up everything you could find and throw at them?

A. Yes. I did.

Q. After the gun fired, where did you go?

A. I run as fast as I could into the first door I saw open, which 1 think was Mr. Dehon's, I was very much frightened.

The people of Boston were greatly aroused about the shooting. The British decided that it would be safer to leave Boston and stay on Castle Island. Preston and the seven soldiers were arrested and tried for murder. The men were acquitted except for two. They were declared guilty of manslaughter and were given light sentences.

The colonists felt that the trial was unfair. The feelings against the British continued to grow. Years later Daniel Webster said about the Boston Massacre, "From that moment we may date the severance of the British Empire" although it was not until 1775 that the Revolutionary War actually began, and ended eight years later in victory.

The people of Boston did not forget the martyrs of the Boston Massacre. Each 5th of March after the massacre, the story of this event was remembered by a speech in the Old South Meeting House. When the American colonies won their independence on July 4th. the date of this event was changed to the 4th of July.

It was not until 1888 that a monument was built on Boston Common where it now stands facing Tremont Street. When the monument was unveiled, the poet John Boyle O'Reilly read a poem entitled, Crispus Auucks, which said in part:

Honor to Crispus Attucks, who was leader and voice that day;

The first to defy, and the first to die, with Maverick, Carr, and Gray.

Call it riot or revolution, his hand first clenched at the crown:

His feet were the first in perilous place to pull the King's flag down:

His breast was the first one rent apart that liberty's stream might flow;

For our freedom now and forever, his head was the first laid low.

Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd, as you may, such deaths have been seed of nations, such lives shall be honored for aye.

Another speaker at the ceremonies said, "It was the sacrifice of the lives of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr that brought about this preliminary victory of the American Revolution."

Crispus Attucks, a former slave, shall always be remembered as the first man to die for American liberty.

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