Taking It to the Streets

Posted on March 3, 2022

by Tom Clavin

March 5th is the anniversary of what became known as the “Boston Massacre.” While that title is familiar to many Americans, the event may not have gotten its due over the years, perhaps because there was a five-year gap between it and the events of 1775 that truly launched the American Revolution. Well, I’m here to tell the tale of what really was the first battle of the war for American independence. And I guess I’m in the mood to write about citizens standing up to tyrants with weapons.

The Bloody Massacre, Paul Revere’s engraving of The Boston Massacre, 1770, hand-colored by artist Christian Remick.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

The story begins in 1767 when the Townshend Acts were enacted, which placed tariffs on a variety of common items that were manufactured in Britain and shipped to the 13 colonies. Many American leaders objected, and the Massachusetts House of Representatives began a campaign against the Acts by sending a petition to King George III asking for their repeal. The House also sent a letter to other colonial assemblies, asking them to join the resistance movement, and called for a boycott of merchants importing the affected goods.

Lord Hillsborough had recently been appointed to the newly created office of Colonial Secretary, and he was alarmed by the actions of the Massachusetts House. In April 1768, he sent a letter to the colonial governors in America instructing them to dissolve any colonial assemblies that responded to the Massachusetts letter. He also ordered Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard to direct the Massachusetts House to rescind the letter. The members refused to comply.

Boston’s chief customs officer, Charles Paxton, wrote to Hillsborough for military support because “the Government is as much in the hands of the people as it was in the time of the Stamp Act.” Commodore Samuel Hood responded by sending the 50-gun warship HMS Romney, which arrived in Boston Harbor in May. On June 10, customs officials seized the Liberty, a sloop owned by the Boston merchant John Hancock, on allegations that the ship had been involved in smuggling. Bostonians were already angry because the captain of the Romney had been impressing local sailors. Fearing for their safety, customs officials fled to Castle William for protection.

Hillsborough then instructed the British commander-in-chief in North America, Gen. Thomas Gage, to send “such Force as You shall think necessary to Boston,” and the first of four British Army regiments began disembarking in Boston on October 1. Two regiments were removed from Boston in 1769, but the 14th and 29th Regiments of Foot remained.

Then the press got involved. The Journal of Occurrences was an anonymous series of newspaper articles which chronicled the clashes between civilians and soldiers in Boston, fueling tensions with its sometimes exaggerated accounts. Those tensions rose markedly after 11-year-old Christopher Seider was killed by a customs employee on February 22, 1770. His death was covered in The Boston Gazette and his funeral was described as one of the largest of the time in Boston. The killing and subsequent press coverage further inflamed tensions, with groups of colonists looking for soldiers to harass and soldiers also looking for a confrontation.

Two weeks later, on the frigid, snowy evening of March 5, Private Hugh White was the only soldier guarding the King’s money stored inside the Custom House on King Street. It wasn’t long before angry colonists appeared and insulted him and threatened violence. At some point, White fought back and struck a colonist with his bayonet. In retaliation, the colonists pelted him with snowballs, ice, and stones. Bells started ringing throughout the town—usually a warning of fire—sending a mass of male colonists into the streets. As the assault on White continued, he eventually fell and shouted for help.

In response and fearing mass riots and the loss of the King’s money, Captain Thomas Preston arrived on the scene with several soldiers and took up a defensive position in front of the Custom House. Worried that bloodshed was inevitable, some colonists reportedly pleaded with the soldiers to hold their fire as others dared them to shoot. Preston later reported a colonist told him the protestors planned to “carry off [White] from his post and probably murder him.”

The violence escalated, and the colonists struck the soldiers with clubs and sticks. Reports differ of exactly what happened next, but after someone supposedly said the word “fire,” a soldier fired his gun, although it’s unclear if the discharge was intentional.

Once the first shot rang out, other soldiers opened fire, killing five colonists–including Crispus Attucks—and wounding six. Among the other casualties of the Boston Massacre was Samuel Gray, a rope maker who was left with a hole the size of a fist in his head. Sailor James Caldwell was hit twice before dying, and Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr were mortally wounded.  

Like the event itself, the name Crispus Attucks is familiar to many Americans . . . but who was he? Attucks was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1847 and was a slave of Deacon William Brown, though it is unclear whether Brown was his original owner. In 1750, Brown advertised for the return of a runaway slave named ‘Crispas.’ In the advertisement, Brown said that a reward of 10 pounds would be given to whoever found and returned Attucks to him. Attucks’s status at the time of the massacre as a free person or a runaway slave has been a matter of debate for historians.

Attucks became a sailor and whaler, and he spent much of his life at sea or working around the docks along the Atlantic seaboard. An 1874 article in The American Historical Record includes a passage in the memoirs of Boston Tea Party participant George Hewes which stated that at the time of the massacre, Attucks “was a Nantucket Indian, belonging onboard a whale ship of Mr. Folgers, then in the harbor, and he remembers a distinct war whoop which he yelled… the mob whistling, screaming, and rending like an Indian yell.” Many historians believe Attucks went by the alias Michael Johnson in order to avoid being caught after his escape from slavery. He may only have been temporarily in Boston in early 1770, having recently returned from a voyage to the Bahamas. He was due to leave shortly afterwards on a ship for North Carolina.

Though Attucks is commonly described as an African American in popular culture, two major sources of eyewitness testimony about the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770, did not refer to him as “black” nor as a “Negro,” but rather as a mulatto and an Indian. In an account in The Pennsylvania Gazette referred to Attucks as a “Mulattoe man, named Crispas, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonged to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North Carolina.” However, at the time mulatto was often used to describe skin tone rather than ethnicity, and sometimes referred to full-blooded Native Americans.

Back to the action: Within hours of the shootings, Preston and his soldiers were arrested and jailed. The propaganda machine was in full force on both sides of the conflict. The captain wrote his version of the events from his jail cell for publication, while Sons of Liberty leaders such as Hancock and Samuel Adams incited colonists to keep fighting the British. As tensions rose, British troops retreated from Boston to Fort William. Paul Revere encouraged anti-British attitudes by etching a now-famous engraving depicting British soldiers callously murdering American colonists.

It took seven months to arraign Preston and the other soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and bring them to trial. Ironically, it was the American colonist, lawyer, and future President of the United States John Adams who defended them. He was no fan of the British but wanted Preston and his men to receive a fair trial, especially with the death penalty at stake. Certain that impartial jurors were nonexistent in Boston, Adams convinced the judge to seat a jury of non-Bostonians.

During Preston’s trial, Adams argued that confusion that night was rampant. Eyewitnesses presented contradictory evidence on whether Preston had ordered his men to fire on the colonists. But after witness Richard Palmes testified, “After the Gun went off I heard the word ‘fire!’ The Captain and I stood in front about half between the breech and muzzle of the Guns. I don’t know who gave the word to fire,” Adams argued that reasonable doubt existed. The jury agreed and Capt. Preston was found not guilty. The remaining soldiers claimed self-defense and were all were also found not guilty of murder. Two of them—Hugh Montgomery and Matthew Kilroy—were found guilty of manslaughter and were branded on the thumbs as first offenders per English law.

The relieved and rather eloquent Preston said it best when he wrote about the conflict: “None of them was a hero. The victims were troublemakers who got more than they deserved. The soldiers were professionals who shouldn’t have panicked. The whole thing shouldn’t have happened.”

Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.

Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—and Blood and Treasure with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

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