The musket shots at the Boston Massacre were, arguably, the first in America’s struggle for Independence. The British soldiers killed five men on March 5, 1770. First among them was Crispus Attucks, an African and Native American believed to be a runaway slave. Unfortunately, historians know little about his life. Much of what is known about Attucks stems from a missing slave advertisement printed in the Boston Gazette in 1750.
Attucks was born in Farmingham, Mass., in 1723 to an African slave father, and a Natick Indian mother. Historians believe Attucks ran away in 1750 and began using the alias Michael Johnson. Attucks then became a sailor aboard a whale ship, where he sailed in-and-out of Boston Harbor and served as a rope maker for the next 20 years.
His job brought him into contact with the Royal Navy, who often forced sailors into service for the Crown. The sailors also competed with off-duty British soldiers who made rope for lower pay.
Tensions between laborers and British soldiers boiled over on March 5, 17770, when a British soldier entered a pub where Attucks and other sailors were socializing. According to John Adams (the future President defended the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre) a group of about 30 “motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,” began harassing the soldier and pegging him with sticks and snowballs. Details on what happened next have been debated since, but a large crowd angry at the treatment of a child by a British soldier, gathered outside the State House. The fracas from the pub then moved outside, where a larger group of British soldiers had arrived.
Attucks and his group of sailors approached the soldiers. At that point, the crowd starting throwing debris and a soldier was struck. The Royal Army opened fire, killing five, with the first bullets hitting Attucks. All the victims became martyrs in the eyes of pamphleteers who were setting the stage in the fight for liberty. In an effort to demonize the African-American sailor and exonerate the British soldiers, Adams said Attucks struck first with a “hardiness enough to fall in upon them, and with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down.” All the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre were found innocent, but the seeds of revolution were sown.
Despite laws and customs regulating the burial of blacks, Attucks was buried in the Park Street cemetery along with the other honored dead. A “Crispus Attucks Day” was inaugurated by black abolitionists in 1858, and in 1888, the Crispus Attucks Monument was erected on the Boston Common. However, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Historical Genealogical Society both opposed the monument, saying Attucks was a “villain.”
John Boyle O’Reilly later wrote a poem about Attucks, calling him “The first to defy, and the first to die”