Why The Short Life Of Crispus Attucks Matters

Portrait of Crispus Attucks

In the evening of Monday, March 5, 1770, a young apprentice approached an armed, British soldier providing law enforcement in the city of Boston and demanded the soldier pay his master for the barbering services he’d provided. Instead of paying, the soldier berated the boy. Local men, having heard the altercation, came to the boy’s defense.

Since 1768, colonists had been protesting the violation of their charter and constitutional rights as British subjects. King George III responded by stationing soldiers in the colonies to quell the unrest.

So here they were. A young boy against an armed soldier.

The Boston Massacre

More soldiers from the 29th Regiment of Foot came to support their brother-in-arms. At the same time, Patriots came to the boy’s defense, carrying clubs, hurling snowballs and insults. Crispus Attucks was among them.

The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre

Surrounded, the soldiers panicked. They were not given orders to fire on the crowd, and yet they did. Crispus Attucks was the first man shot and killed by two ricocheted bullets to the chest. Two others also died instantly. Eight were wounded, two of whom died later. This was the Boston Massacre.

History is seen through the lens of the witness, but often that lens is brought into focus by prejudice, be it gender, race, or religion. Contemporary accounts of the Boston Massacre disagree on what occurred. Some state that Crispus Attucks was leaning on his club when the soldiers were attacked. Others, that he was the instigator.

Whoever started it, the soldiers were arrested the next day and charged with murder. John Adams, future American president, defended their rights in court. To plead that the soldiers fought back in self-defense, he claimed Attucks’s “very looks was enough to terrify any person.” It is hard to view a comment like that, in 2020, and think he was doing anything other than playing into the white jury’s fears of Black people.

Who was Crispus Attucks?

Portrait of Crispus Attucks

Crispus Attucks was born into slavery. His mother was either Wampanoag or Natick Indian and his father was a slave brought over from Africa. Attucks was one of many slaves owned by William Brown in Framingham, Massachusetts. He escaped slavery on September 30, 1750 when he was about 27 years old. This is known from an advertisement appearing in the Boston Gazette in which a ten pound reward was offered for his return. He was described as being six foot two with short, curly hair, and knock-knees.

After running away, Attucks took on the alias ‘Michael Johnson’ to avoid recapture and became a sailor, a dockworker, and ropemaker. At the time of the massacre, he’d recently arrived back in Boston from a voyage to the Bahamas and was set to leave within days for North Carolina.

Gravestone at Granary Burying Ground

Upon his death, Attucks’s body was carried to Faneuil Hall where he lay in state until March 8th. He and the other victims of the attack were buried together in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street, where Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and John Hancock would later be buried. At the time, it was not customary to bury Black and white people together. But Attucks was immediately hailed a martyr. They said he was:

The first to pour out his blood as a precious libation on the altar of a people’s rights.

-From the trial of the soldiers who killed Attucks and the other colonists.

Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, saw through the irony of a Black man as a symbol for American freedom:

It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me — to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.

Black People in America

It would take a hundred years and another war to give slaves their freedom. Sadly, 250 years after Crispus Attucks’s death, Black lives are still vilified and murdered out of prejudice. The colonists demanded an investigation after Attucks’s death. As Americans, with a Constitution to back us up, we cannot and should not accept anything less now.


  • Portrait of Crispus Attucks: Public Domain
  • The Fruits of Arbitrary Power: Public Domain
  • Gravestone: Wikimedia Commons
  • Black Lives Matter: Giphy

More information on Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre:

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Published by Hallie Alexander

Hallie Alexander writes steamy, American historical romances. She is a Northerner living in the South with her husband, three children, and two Doodles of Mayhem™, Bruno and Willow.

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