Winter 2020

Accidental Hero

By Nicolas Brulliard

Crispus Attucks is believed to be the  first casualty of the American Revolution,  but 250 years later, it’s still difficult to untangle fact from myth.

What would soon be known as the Boston Massacre started with a minor dispute: On the evening of March 5, 1770, a wigmaker’s young apprentice accused a British officer of not paying for his new hairpiece.

A British soldier heard the accusation, and soon he and the boy traded insults. The argument escalated until the soldier hit the boy’s head with the butt of his rifle. The scuffle quickly attracted a large crowd of colonists who surrounded the soldier, yelling and waving clubs in the air. The dispute came amid rising tensions over unpopular taxes the British Parliament had imposed on the colonists a few years earlier. To maintain order in Boston, Great Britain deployed troops, which locals keenly resented.

When reinforcements came to the rescue of the lone soldier, the crowd grew even more agitated and hurled snowballs and rocks at the British troops. Among the protesters was Crispus Attucks, a 6-foot-2-inch sailor of African and Native American descent who had escaped slavery more than two decades earlier. Attucks found himself on the front line, and when the soldiers opened fire, he was the first to fall, hit by two bullets in the chest. The Boston Massacre crystallized anti-British sentiment, and although war with Britain began five years later, many historians consider Attucks the first casualty of the American Revolution.

Did Attucks, a fugitive who was in town between sea voyages, feel so strongly about the British occupation that he was willing to risk his life for the cause? Was he an involuntary participant in a fight that wasn’t his? Or was he an irrational agitator, as the soldiers’ lawyer suggested during the trial that followed? These questions have never been answered adequately, but for 250 years, revolutionaries, abolitionists, civil rights leaders and others have claimed his memory and used it for their own causes.

“When we lift people up as heroes or protagonists in our own stories, is that what they wanted?” asked Nathaniel Sheidley, the executive director of the Bostonian Society.

The Bostonian Society is organizing exhibits, a temporary art installation and other activities to commemorate the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Sheidley said. Boston National Historical Park, which encompasses the site of the massacre and Faneuil Hall, is also planning anniversary events, including a reenactment of the massacre.

One reason people have been able to speak for Attucks and mold him into a myth is that so little is known about him. According to the prevailing narrative, Attucks was born around 1723 near Boston, but his parents are unknown. With little to go on besides his unusual name, historians have linked him to John Attuck, a Native American who was hanged in Boston in 1676 during a three-year conflict between colonists and local tribes. Possibly enslaved at birth, Attucks was later sold to William Brown, according to a notice in the Boston Gazette in 1750 that promised a 10-pound reward to whoever would capture a runaway named “Crispas.”

Attucks was adept at buying and selling cattle, according to one of Brown’s descendants, but it is apparently at sea where he chose to spend much of the next two decades. It is unclear what Attucks was doing in town on that fateful March 1770 night, but according to witness testimony in the trial of the British soldiers accused of murdering Attucks and four others, he played a major role in the lead-up to the Boston Massacre. Witnesses said he was carrying a large stick and took hold of a soldier’s bayonet before knocking him down. Soon after, Attucks was shot dead, and mayhem ensued.

Attucks’ body lay in Faneuil Hall before he and the other victims were buried in a cemetery that is also home to the graves of revolutionaries Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. While Attucks would become a hero of the American Revolution in the coming years, he was portrayed as the clear villain during the trial by future President John Adams, who acted as a defense lawyer for the British soldiers. Adams described Attucks as a “stout Molatto fellow” whose looks were “enough to terrify any person” and “whose mad behavior” was chiefly responsible for “the dreadful carnage of that night.”

“John Adams specifically cast Attucks as a troublemaker because of his race and because he was a stranger in Boston,” said Mitch Kachun, a professor of African American history at Western Michigan University and the author of “First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory.”

That approach paid off. Most of the soldiers were acquitted. Two were convicted of manslaughter but were released after their thumbs were branded with a hot iron. In the ensuing years, revolutionaries commemorated the Boston Massacre and used the death of Attucks and the four other victims as a rallying cry against the occupying forces. Their tactics were effective at swaying public opinion as the country marched toward war, yet after the United States gained independence from Britain in 1783, most lost interest in Attucks’ story. Not everyone did, though.

“His name recedes from the white memory, but not from the black memory,” said Jocelyn Gould, a park ranger who tells Attucks’ story at Boston National Historical Park.

William Cooper Nell, an African American abolitionist who wrote about the role of African Americans in the American Revolution, did much to revive Attucks’ memory. In addition to writing about him, Nell — along with others — petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to fund a monument in Attucks’ honor. Outraged by a Supreme Court decision in 1857 that denied citizenship to enslaved African American Dred Scott and by extension all other black Americans, Nell also instituted a “Crispus Attucks Day” celebration on March 5, 1858. He believed that highlighting Attucks, who in his mind had proven his worthiness as a citizen and patriot decades earlier, underscored the unfairness of the Dred Scott ruling. For African Americans, Attucks turned into a sort of “black founder,” Kachun said.

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In the 1960s, Attucks’ memory was once again resurrected. African Americans lobbied school boards for him to be included in history lessons, and he started appearing in textbooks. Martin Luther King Jr. described him as one of the most important figures in African American history “not for what he did for his own race but for what he did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African American heritage is not only African but American, and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America,” King wrote.

Attucks’ name still resonates with many African Americans, especially in Boston. As activists campaigned to rename Faneuil Hall recently because Peter Faneuil was a slave-trading colonist, one of the replacement names they floated was Crispus Attucks Hall. Sheidley said the Bostonian Society will work with local groups to increase public awareness of Attucks and of how his memory can be used to mobilize people around social causes.

“Attucks is held up as an example of engaged black citizenship and used as a vehicle to discuss issues of racial justice in Boston,” he said. “We want to use Attucks to open up this larger conversation.”

About the author

  • Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor

    Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue

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