Crispus Attucks: ‘The first to defy, the first to die’
On a cold evening in Boston on March 5, 1770, an incident took place that would serve as a major catalyst for the upcoming American Revolution.
During this time, tensions had been rising among the colonists as they became more and more frustrated by the imposing presence of British soldiers.
Civilians would often take out their frustrations by heckling and abusing the Redcoats, but on this particular evening, the heckling took a morbid turn.
A group of colonists started to harass a solitary British sentry, who in turn called for reinforcements. The harassers continued to assault the group, throwing snowballs and stones.
Amid the commotion, one of the soldiers fired into the crowd without orders, which provoked the other soldiers to fire as well.
The event later became known as The Boston Massacre, as the soldiers had shot and killed a total of five civilians.
Attucks was the first person to die in the shooting and thus considered to be the first American killed in the American Revolution, was a dockworker and former slave by the name of Crispus Attucks.
He was hit by two musket balls, one on each side of his chest.
Crispus Attucks was born into slavery around the year 1723 to an African father and a mother who was likely either Wampanoag or Natick Indian.
There is, however, some debate about who his parents actually were. Many historians agree that Crispus’ mother was likely a woman named Nancy, or “Nanny,” Peterattuck.
Accounts of his father are a little hazier.
While many sources say it was a man named Prince Yongey (though the spelling of his name varies), there is other evidence to suggest that he may not have arrived in Framingham until after Crispus was born.
Records also show he married Nancy in 1737, which would have made Crispus around 14 years old at the time.
Although it’s possible that Prince was the boy’s father, it’s also possible that he was his stepfather, or was related to him in some other way, or possibly even not at all.
Not much is known about Attucks’ life, as the colonies kept very poor records of slaves, but there are some historical documents that give us a glimpse of who he was.
A notice that appeared in the Boston Gazette on October 2, 1750, shows that Attucks managed to escape from his master William Brown.
The notice read as follows:
“Ran-away from his Master William Brown of Framingham, on the 30th of September, last, a Mulatto Fellow, about 27 years of age, named Crispas [sic], six feet, two inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common; had on a light colour’d Bearskin Coat, plain brown Fustian Jacket, or brown all-Wool one, new Buckskin Breeches, blue Yarn Stockings, and a checked woolen Shirt.
Whoever shall take up said Run-away, and convey him to abovesaid Master, shall have ten pounds, old Tenor Reward, and all the necessary Charges paid. And all Masters of Vessels and others, are herby cautioned against concealing or carrying off said Servant on Penalty of the Law. Boston, October 2, 1750.”
Life as a free man
Two more similarly worded notices appeared in the newspaper in the following weeks, but by that point, Attucks was long gone.
Reports on what he got up to during the 20 years between his escape and his death are again quite sparse.
He is said to have been what’s known as a Stevedore, spending much of his time working aboard various ships mostly coming in and out of Boston Harbor.
He also found work as a rope maker while on land.
Documents from after his death reveal that during this time, he went by the alias Michael Johnson.
As the presence of British soldiers increased, it became more and more disruptive to the colonials’ way of life.
This was in part due to stricter laws and ever-increasing taxes, but for people like Attucks, there were additional factors at play.
Anyone who worked at sea was constantly at risk of being forced into the British navy, while on land British soldiers were stealing work from people in the form of part-time jobs.
The disdain that Attucks must have felt towards the Redcoats probably fuelled a desire to be front and center whenever there was a potential altercation.
After the Boston Massacre and the death of Attucks and four other colonists, the soldiers who were involved in the Boston Massacre were put on trial.
In an interesting turn of events, they were defended by none other than the future second president of the United States, John Adams.
He claimed that the soldiers had acted in self-defense and that Attucks had been leading an attack at the front of an unruly mob. Most of the soldiers were acquitted, while two were convicted of manslaughter and had their hands branded.
Adams’ claims have led to a heated debate about what really happened. Another noteworthy historical figure, future founding father Samuel Adams, directly contradicted John Adams, claiming that Attucks was merely leaning on a stick when the first shots were fired.
Although the Boston Massacre didn’t immediately cause a war to break out, it’s still considered one of the biggest turning points leading up to the American Revolutionary War.
Samuel Adams was among a number of patriots who held an annual commemoration for those who died, known as Massacre Day, in an effort to grow support for American independence.
When the fighting finally did break out, it’s estimated that around 9,000 African Americans served on the side of the colonists in some capacity.
In 1855, abolitionist William Nell wrote a book about the colored patriots that took part in the war, where he mentions the likes of Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, and Prince Whipple.
Making of a martyr
After he died, Attucks’ body was temporarily brought to Faneuil hall with the other victims, and segregation laws were waived so that they could all be placed in the same burial ground.
Attucks’ clear acts of defiance and moral courage, rejecting the rule of both his former master and the British empire, have given him an important place in the history of America.
Poet John Boyle O’Reilly wrote an ode to Attucks, in which he hailed him as “The first to defy, the first to die,” and in 1888 a monument commemorating him and the four others who died in the massacre was built in Boston Common.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr praised Attucks for his moral courage and his defining role in American History.
Even in the last couple of years, a group of activists has been pushing for Faneuil Hall to be renamed Crispus Attucks hall, as its original namesake Peter Faneuil is known to have owned and traded slaves.
Attucks has had schools, public parks, museums and community centers named after him.
Even Marvel named a fictional building in their Netflix show Luke Cage after Crispus Attucks, which seems rather fitting.
It’s just good to know that the people writing about make-believe heroes still understand who the real heroes are.
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