Crispus Attucks (c.1723—March 5, 1770) was the first death of the Boston massacre, in Boston, Massachusetts, and is widely considered to be the first American casualty in the American Revolutionary War. Aside from the event of his death, along with Samuel Gray and James Caldwell, little is known for certain about Attucks. He may have been a Native American slave or freeman, merchant seaman and dockworker of Wampanoag and African descent. His father was an African-born slave and his mother a Native American.
Despite the lack of clarity, Attucks became an icon of the anti-slavery movement in the 18th century. He was held up as the first martyr of the American Revolution, along with the others killed. In the early 19th century, as the abolitionist movement gained momentum in Boston, supporters lauded Attucks as a Native American who played a heroic role in the history of the United States.
Historians disagree on whether Crispus Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave, but agree that he was of Wampanoag and African descent. Two major sources of eyewitness testimony about the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770, did not refer to Attucks as “black” nor as a “Negro”; it appeared that Bostonians of European descent viewed him as being of mixed ethnicity. According to a contemporary account in the Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), he was a “Mulattoe man, named Crispus Attucks, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonged to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North Carolina . . .” Because of his mixed heritage, his story is also significant for Native Americans.
Arguing the soldiers fired in self-defense, John Adams successfully defended most of the accused British soldiers against a charge of murder. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. Faced with the prospect of hanging, the soldiers pleaded benefit of clergy, and were instead branded on their thumbs. In his arguments, Adams called the crowd “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack Tarrs.” In particular, he charged Attucks with having “undertaken to be the hero of the night,” and with having precipitated a conflict by his “mad behavior.”
- Seamen were known to ‘tar’ their clothes before departing on voyages, in order to make them waterproof, before the invention of waterproof fabrics. Later they frequently wore coats and hats made from a waterproof fabric called tarpaulin. This may have been shortened to ‘tar’ at some point.
- n March 5, 1770, a street confrontation, known as the Boston Massacre, resulted in British soldiers killing five civilians. The accused soldiers were arrested on criminal charges and expectedly had trouble finding legal representation. Adams ultimately agreed to defend them, though he feared it would hurt his reputation. In arguing their case, Adams made his legendary statement regarding jury decisions: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” He also expounded upon Blackstone’s Ratio: “It is more important that innocence be protected than it is that guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, ‘whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,’ and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen that would be the end of security whatsoever.” Adams won an acquittal for six of the soldiers. Two of them who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder but were convicted only of manslaughter. Adams was paid a small sum by his clients
History is a bending thing. It can be understood to many decrees and means one thing to one person and another to another person. If you read the above you can see certain things. As a history teacher I have taught Attacks was Black. But in reality he was also Indian. Note that the second President of the U.S. states the crowd as rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and Jack Tars. How is that translated into the famous picture? Do you see the Blacks? The Irish? how saucy are they? History is distorted by time and I believe that there is more distortion by design. What really happened, who knows, time erases some events and fogs up others. All we know is Attacks is portrayed as a hero. Maybe he was and maybe it is exaggerated. Does it matter two hundreds years later? There was work done proving Attacks was not the first to die but the third person to perish. He still died and he did stand against the soldiers of England.