Photo Courtesy of the US Mint

Crispus Attucks: The slave who sparked the American Revolution

February 01, 2018 - 12:43 pm

"WHERE shall we seek for a hero, and where shall we find a story?" begins the poem 'Crispus Attucks' written by Irish poet John Boyle O’Reilly.

Attucks, a runaway slave who was half African - half Native American, was effectively the first American patriot to die in the American Revolution.

His story is memorialized in monuments, museums, parks and poems.

It all happened on March 5, 1770, the night that came to be known at the Boston Massacre.  

In early 1770, Bostonians were in direct competition for work with the British soldiers who occupied the city. The tension it created slowly spiraled to a violent confrontation.

The night of March 5, a man named Edward Garrick was taunting a British soldier who was at his post on King Street in Boston. In a scuffle, Garrick was hit in the ear with the soldier’s bayonet and as he ran off, he met a group of men in the street.  The group of men grew to a small mob as they made their way to King Street, arming themselves with sticks along the way. 

At the head of the group? Crispus Attucks.

Depositions from the Boston Massacre Trial describe Attucks as 6'2', a brawny man who was strong and agile from working the physically demanding job of a whaler.  

Historians are unsure if Crispus Attucks was looking for trouble that night or if he was just standing up for what he felt was right. But the angry mob of Bostonians verbally provoked the soldiers and started hitting them with snowballs, rocks and clubs.  A witness described that Attucks grabbed the bayonet of a soldier named Hugh Montgomery with one hand, and using his other hand, he knocked Montgomery to the ground. The soldier fired two shots, instantly killing Crispus Attucks. 

All in all, seven or eight shots were fired the night of the Boston Massacre, killing five people.  A town meeting was called to demand the removal of the British and the soldiers were tried for murder.   The soldiers were defended by John Adams, who of course would later become the second President of the United States. The Massacre and the trial were dramatized in the HBO series "John Adams."

Six of the soldiers were acquitted, but Montgomery and another soldier, Matthew Killroy were found guilty of manslaughter.

The Boston Massacre was so important to Bostonians, they memorialized it each year, leading up to the Independance War. Over 10,000 people showed up for the funeral procession for the five people killed.

Attucks was buried as a hero in the Granary Burial Ground in Boston. Thousands attended the funeral. Attucks shares a grave and headstone with Christopher Snider, a 12 year old who was killed two weeks earlier. In what could be the first example of vetsploitation, Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty used their deaths as a way to drum up attention for their cause.

Was Attucks an agitator looking for trouble, or in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Either way, he became the face of the revolution, and an icon in the anti-slavery movement.

More than 5,000 enslaved and free African Americans fought for independence from the British, even though slavery continued until it was legally abolished in 1863.

A publically funded monument to the Boston Massacre and Crispus Attucks was erected in 1888. You can find the monument in Boston common, between Tremont and Avery Streets.  At the time the monument wasn't popular, even the Massachusetts Historical Society opposed it. Abolitionists, however, supported the monument and in 1858, they declared a “Crispus Attucks Day.”

Today, the memory of Crispus Attucks is honored across the country, including a park in Washington, DC, many schools and community centers. In 1998, commemorating the 275th anniversary of his birth and honoring African American Revolutionaries, the US mint issued the Black Revolutionary War Patriots Silver Dollar. A surcharge on the coin was used to fund the construction of a memorial, now called the National Liberty Memorial, which will eventually be placed on the National Mall.

(US Mint designed by John Mercanti)

On March 25, 1967, Newark New Jersey held the Crispus Attucks Parade.  The Prudential Insurance Company of America funded a film of the tribute, and you can watch it here.

The University of Massachusetts History Club formed the Crispus Attucks Museum, and online museum that honors the first hero of the American Revolution. 

Attucks was born in 1723, as a slave in Framingham, Massachusetts. His father, Prince, was captured in Africa and sold to Framingham landowner, Colonel Buckminster.  His mother, Nancy was a Native American, possibly from the Wampanoag tribe and was forced into slavery as well.  Nancy and Prince had a total of three children, an older girl and two boys, with Crispus being the middle child.

When he was 16 years old, Crispus was taken from his family and sold to Deacon William Brown, where he worked in trading cattle but he managed to escape when he was 27-years-old. His slave owner posted a reward of 10 pounds three times in the local papers looking for Attucks, but it was a reward that no one could get because Attucks had changed his name to Michael Johnson. 

With his new identity, he found work on a whaler ship. During the French Indian War, sometime between 1754 and 1760, Crispus left his whaling job to become a merchant seaman. His mixed heritage allowed him to pass so no one thought he could be an escaped slave because they thought he was entirely Native American. When not out to sea, he worked as a rope maker in Boston Harbor.