Crispus Attucks was the first American and African American to be killed in the Revolutionary War.
Early family life
Born into slavery around 1723, Attucks was said to be the son of Prince Yonger, an enslaved African brought to America, and Nancy Attucks, a Natick Indian.
Prince Yonger, the father of Crispus, was taken captive in Africa and transported as a slave to the northern colony of Massachusetts. He was subsequently sold to Colonel Buckminster, a landowner residing in Framingham. It is well known that the first group of black men and women forcibly relocated from Africa arrived in North America during the sixteenth century. This abhorrent practice is referred to as the transatlantic slave trade. Prince was captured in the African interior and endured a perilous journey for several months to reach the coast. Unfortunately, the harsh and inhumane conditions meant that upwards of forty per cent of slaves died during this traumatic ordeal.
Nancy, the mother of Crispus, belonged to the Native Indian community of Wampanoag descent. Although Indians were not typically subjected to the slave trade, Nancy was unfortunately forced into slavery following the conclusion of the First Indian War. The English Puritan principles were imposed on the self-governed Indian towns, which were also encouraged to adopt Christianity. The colonials established schools to hasten the conversion of the Indian population. These towns, located near Boston, were established under a self-protective colonial government policy.
In 1675, Wampanoag Indians were enlisted by the British to participate in King Philip’s War. This particular conflict is alternatively referred to as the First Indian War or Metacom’s Rebellion. It was a violent battle between English colonisers, their Indigenous American allies, and the Native American populations residing in New England. By the conclusion of the war in 1678, nearly 40% of the Wampanoag soldiers had succumbed to fatal injuries or were grappling with illnesses. Upon returning, those who survived discovered that their residences had been demolished.
During that time, the native people gradually lost their land, which resulted in many of them being sold into slavery by the white settlers. Nancy, one of the slaves. She was sold to Colonel Buckminster of Framingham, Massachusetts. There she met Prince. Nancy and Prince had three children, one of whom was Crispus Attucks.
As a young man, Attucks displayed a skill for buying and trading goods. He seemed unafraid of the consequences of escaping the bonds of slavery. According to historians, a white landowner offered 10 pounds for the return of a runaway enslaved person to Attucks in a 1750 edition of the Boston Gazette.
“Ran away from his Master, William Brown of Framingham, on the 30 September last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Year of age, named Crispas, 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl’d Hair…,” the advertisement read.
Attucks, however, escaped and spent the next two decades on trading ships and whaling vessels. He also found work as a rope maker.
Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre
The tensions between colonists and British soldiers increased as British control over the colonies tightened. As the situation deteriorated, Attucks was directly impacted. While colonial soldiers regularly stole part-time jobs from colonists back on land, sailors like Attucks feared they would be forced into the British navy.
A fight broke out between Boston rope makers and three British soldiers on 2 March 1770. Three nights later, a British soldier looking for work entered a Boston pub and was greeted by furious sailors, one of them Attucks.
Details regarding what happened that evening are disputed, but a group of Bostonians allegedly taunted a guard in front of the customs house. Things quickly got out of hand. A contingent of British redcoats came to the aid of their fellow soldier, but more angry Bostonians joined the fray, throwing snowballs and other items at them.
Attucks was among the dozens fighting, and he was the first of five men killed by the British when they opened fire on them. His murder made him the first casualty of the American Revolution.
This episode quickly became known as the Boston Massacre, which fueled the colonies’ war with the British.
The flames were fanned further when the eight soldiers involved in the incident, including their captain Thomas Preston, who was tried separately from his men, were acquitted on the grounds of self-defence. A defence of the soldiers was presented in court by John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States. During the trial, Adams referred to the colonists as an unruly mob that forced his clients to open fire.
Although Adams charged that Attucks led the attack, there is debate over the extent of his involvement. The future Founding Father Samuel Adams claimed Attucks was leaning on a stick when gunshots erupted.
Attucks went down in history as a martyr. A state funeral was held for him and the other victims of the attack at Faneuil Hall. In the case, city leaders waived segregation laws and buried Attucks with the other victims.
Since his death, Attucks’ legacy has endured, first with American colonists eager to break free of British rule and then with abolitionists and civil rights activists in the 19th and 20th centuries. In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr Martin Luther King Jr. hailed Attucks for his moral courage and his defining role in American history.