Artist's conception of Crispus Attucks

Artist's conception of Crispus Attucks

George Washington. Samuel Adams. Paul Revere. These names are part of the story and legacy of our nation. But the name of Crispus Attucks may not be recognized by many. In fact, he was a man we know very little about, although he has been called “the first to defy, the first to die” and “the first to pour out his blood as a precious libation on the altar of a people’s rights”. To this day, his life remains shrouded in mystery.

On October 2, 1750, an advertisement was printed in the Boston Gazette.

 

“Ran away from his Master, William Brown of Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last: a mulatto Fellow, about 27 years of age, named Crispus, 6 Feet and 2 inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees near together than common; and had on a light colour’d Beaverskin Coat, plain new buckskin breeches, blue yarn stockings and a checked woolen shirt.”

The piece went on to promise a reward to anyone who would find and return the runaway slave. The advertisement was printed again on November 13th and November 20th.

No one knows for sure who this slave was, but many scholars speculate that it could have been one Crispus Attucks, who, in March of 1770, was a dockworker and sailor in the ports of Boston. He was of African, and perhaps Wampanoag Indian, heritage. Very little is known of this man, but he was probably born into a family of slaves. His father may have been a man named Prince Yonger, who was brought to America on a slave ship from Africa and married a Native American woman named Nancy Attucks.

Many historians believe that Crispus, yearning for freedom at a young age, escaped to Nantucket in Massachusetts and found work as a harpoonist on a whaling ship. Following his dream of liberty, Crispus worked for 20 years as a merchant seaman before that fateful March of 1770, which found him in Boston, possibly awaiting passage to the Carolinas.

Tensions between the colonies and the motherland across the sea had been mounting ever since the French and Indian War. Many of the American colonists vehemently believed that certain acts passed by King George III and the heavy taxation without colonial representation he had enacted were violations of their rights as Englishmen. After the American complaints reached London, the king ordered some of his troops to encamp in Boston. These soldiers made life difficult for the Bostonians with their drunken brawls and rowdy, spiteful ways. They often terrorized the streets at night or disrupted church services with their riotous singing. At last, Samuel Adams called for the sailors and dockworkers of Boston to demonstrate against the British troops planted by the king. Crispus Attucks, well knowing the value of freedom, was quick to answer this call.

On March 5, 1770, about 40 to 50 colonists, armed with sticks, clubs, and snowballs, were gathered at King Street. Tensions had finally reached a boiling point. Scattered fights and rumors of beatings had flown throughout the city that day until a small crowd had begun taunting the British sentry on duty at the Customs House. When the sentry called for backup, the mob refused to be daunted. The townspeople gathered snowballs from the thick drifts at their feet, and tossed them angrily at the British troops. Suddenly, a British musket fired and three men lay dead in the snow. Others were wounded; two were wounded fatally. Crispus Attucks was the first to fall.  This tragedy became known as the Boston Massacre, and it was one of the biggest sparks to light the fire of the impending Revolution.

Boston honored these men as martyrs for the cause of liberty. Crispus’s body lay in honor at Faneuil Hall, awaiting burial. On the day of the funeral, much of the city closed. Bells were rung, and thousands of people joined the solemn march to the Old Granary Burial Ground, where the bodies were lain in a common grave. This was one of the oldest cemeteries in Boston and other notables such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere were later buried here.

Crispus Attucks has been remembered throughout American history in a number of ways. He was a hero and a martyr during the Revolutionary War. The abolitionists of the mid-nineteenth century lauded him as a great African-American hero and patriot, and declared a “Crispus Attucks” day on March 5. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote of him as an example of moral courage. A monument on Boston Commons bears his name and the names of the other four men who died. Poet John Boyle O’Reilly wrote a poem for the unveiling of this monument, calling Crispus “the leader and voice that day.” The United States Treasury minted a special commemorative coin in 1998 called “The Black Revolutionary War Patriots Silver Dollar”, which bears the image of Crispus Attucks on one side and a family of African-American patriots on the other. James Neyland wrote this of Attucks:

 

“He is one of the most important figures in African-American history, not for what he did for his own race but for what he did for all oppressed people everywhere. He is a reminder that the African-American heritage is not only African but American and it is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America.”

As long as history is told, the first fallen fighter in America’s struggle for independence will be remembered. His story is all the more remarkable because Crispus Attucks began life as a slave. His African and Wampanoag heritage make him a hero to Americans whose skin is not white; reminding them that they, too, have a birthright in this nation. But in truth, he is a hero to all of us. Without letting bitterness towards the country that had enslaved him overrule his convictions, Crispus Attucks gave his life for the cause of freedom. And in doing so, he gave the freedom he loved to a nation. His was the first sacrifice for liberty, and after it was made, there would be no looking back.

Resources:

  1. “Crispus Attucks” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crispus_Attucks
  2. Crispus Attucks Association: “About Crispus Attucks” by Robin N. http://www.crispusattucks.org/Crispus_Attucks.html
  3. Africans in America: “Crispus Attucks c. 1723-1770” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p24.html
  4. “Crispus Attucks” http://www.africawithin.com/bios/crispus_attucks.htm
  5. “Crispus Attucks: American Revolution Hero” http://www.bridgew.edu/hoba/attucks.htm
  6. “The Murder of Crispus Attucks” American Treasures of the Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr046.html
  7. “All American History” Student Reader by Celeste W. Rakes, Bright Ideas Press, © 2006, Chapter 19, p. 226-227 “The Boston Massacre (1770) – Seventh Step to War”
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