Crispus Attucks was the first American and African American to be killed in the Revolutionary War.
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. We know very little about Attucks’ life or his family, who were said to be from a town outside of Boston.
Based on the information gathered, 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.