Crispus Attucks

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Crispus Attucks
Crispus Attucks.jpg
Speculative posthumous portrait of what Attucks may have looked like
Born Crispus Attucks
Framingham, Massachusetts, British America
Died March 5, 1770 (approximately aged 47)
Boston, Massachusetts, British America
Occupation Dock worker[1]

Crispus Attucks (c.1723 – March 5, 1770) was an American stevedore and sailor, thought to be the first person killed in the Boston massacre.[2] He is widely referred to as the first American killed in the American Revolution and the first martyr to the cause of American patriotism.[3] Circumstantial evidence suggests that his father may have been Prince Yonger, an African-born slave and his mother, Nancy Peterattucks, a Natick Native American.[4]

Despite the lack of clarity, Attucks became an icon of the anti-slavery movement in the mid-19th century. In the 1850s, as the abolitionist movement gained momentum in Boston, supporters lauded Attucks as an African American who played a heroic role in the history of the United States.[5][6]

Historians disagree on whether Crispus Attucks was a free man or an escaped slave, but most 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 . . ."[7] Because of his mixed heritage, his story is also significant for Native Americans.[8]

Early life[edit]

Attucks was supposed to have been born in Framingham, Massachusetts. While nothing is known with certainty about Attucks's family, some sources speculate that his father married a woman who originated from the Natick Tribe.[9] Framingham had a small population of black inhabitants from at least 1716. Attucks was almost certainly of mixed African and Native American parentage and many assume he was descended from John Attuck (or Uktuck) of Massachusetts, who was hanged during King Philip's War.[10][11]

In 1750 William Brown, a slave-owner in Framingham, advertised for the return of a runaway slave named Crispas. In the advertisement, Brown describes Attucks and his clothing when he was last seen. He also 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 either a free black or a runaway slave has been a matter of debate for historians. What is known is that Attucks became a sailor and he spent much of the remainder of his life at sea or working around the docks along the Atlantic seaboard. Many historians also believe he went by the alias Michael Johnson in order to avoid being caught. 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.[12][13]

Boston Massacre[edit]

This 19th-century lithograph is a variation of the famous engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere. Produced soon before the American Civil War and long after the event depicted, this image emphasizes Crispus Attucks, who had become a symbol for abolitionists. (John Bufford after William L. Champey, ca. 1856)[14]

In the fall of 1768, British soldiers were sent to Boston in an attempt to control growing colonial unrest, which had led to a spate of attacks on local officials following the introduction of the Stamp Act and the subsequent Townshend Acts. Radical Whigs had coordinated waterfront mobs against the authorities. The presence of troops, instead of reducing tensions, served to further inflame them.

After dusk on March 5, 1770, a crowd of colonists confronted a sentry who had chastised a boy for complaining that an officer did not pay a barber bill. Both townspeople and a company of British soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot gathered. The colonists threw snowballs and debris at the soldiers. A group of men including Attucks approached the Old State House armed with clubs. A soldier was struck with a piece of wood, an act some witnesses claimed was done by Attucks. Other witnesses stated that Attucks was "leaning upon a stick" when the soldiers opened fire.[15]

Five colonists were killed and six were wounded. Attucks took two ricocheted bullets in the chest and was believed to be the first to die.[16] County coroners Robert Pierpoint and Thomas Crafts Jr. conducted an autopsy on Attucks.[17] Attucks' body was carried to Faneuil Hall, where it lay in state until Thursday, March 8, when he and the other victims were buried together in the same grave site in Boston's Granary Burying Ground. He had lived for approximately 47 years.

Reaction and trials[edit]

John Adams successfully defended most of the accused British soldiers against a charge of murder. Two 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."[18] 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."[19]

Two years later United States Founding Father Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams, named the event the "Boston Massacre," and helped ensure it would not be forgotten.[20] Boston artist Henry Pelham (half-brother of the celebrated portrait painter John Singleton Copley) created an image of the event. Paul Revere made a copy from which prints were made and distributed. Some copies of the print show a dark-skinned man with chest wounds, presumably representing Crispus Attucks. Other copies of the print show no difference in the skin tones of the victims.[21]

The five who were killed were buried as heroes in the Granary Burying Ground, which also contains the graves of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and other notable figures.[22] Custom of the period discouraged the burial of black people and white people together, with "black burials relegated to the rear or far side of the cemetery.[23] Such a practice was not completely unknown, however. Prince Hall, for example, was interred in Copp's Hill Burying Ground in the North End of Boston 39.[24]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Crispus Attucks' grave in the Granary Burying Ground

In popular culture[edit]

  • "First man to die for the flag we now hold high was a black man" is a line from Stevie Wonder's song "Black Man".
  • "Crispus Attucks, the first blasted" is a line from Nas's song "You Can't Stop Us Now".
  • The poet John Boyle O'Reilly wrote the following poem when the monument was finally unveiled:

    And to honor Crispus Attucks who was the leader and voice that day: The first to defy, and the first to die, with Maverick, Carr, and Gray. Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd as you may, such deaths have been seeds of nations, such lives shall be honored for aye...

  • Melvin Tolson begins his poem "Dark Symphony" with the lines: "Black Crispus Attucks taught / Us how to die / Before white Patrick Henry’s bugle breath / Uttered the Vertical / Transmitting cry: / 'Yea, give me liberty or give me death.'”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to Crispus Attucks in the introduction of Why We Can't Wait (1964) as an example of a man whose contribution to history provided a potent message of moral courage.
  • In an unsourced, popular book about Attucks, James Neyland wrote his appraisal of the man's significance:

    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.[27]

  • In February 2012, Wayne Brady, J. B. Smoove, and Michael Kenneth Williams, as well as Keith David appeared in a satirical rap music video about Crispus Attucks.[28]
  • Attucks is mentioned prominently in the book "Rush Revere and the First Patriots" by Rush Limbaugh. The book is second in a series celebrating Exceptional Americans.[29]
  • In the Netflix series Luke Cage based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, there is a housing development called the Crispus Attucks Complex, named in honor of Attucks. Cage also explains Attucks' role in the Boston Massacre at the end of the second episode of the series.[30]


  1. ^ "Africans in America – Part 2 – Crispus Attucks". Retrieved 1 November 2011. 
  2. ^ Lowery, Malinda Maynor. "African and Native Americans in Colonial and Revolutionary Times." Accessed 13 July 2011.
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ Attucks, Crispus. "Folk Hero". Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  5. ^ Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010);
  6. ^ Mitch Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon: Crispus Attucks, Black Citizenship, and Collective Memory, Journal of the Early Republic 29:2 (Summer 2009), 249-86. See also: Mitch Kachun, First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017),
  7. ^ "Boston, March 12," Pennsylvania Gazette (March 22, 1770), p. 2
  8. ^ W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997); David J. Silverman, Faith and Boundaries: Colonists, Christianity, and Community among the Wampanoag Indians of Martha's Vineyard, 1600–1871 (Cambridge University Press, 2005); as well as two histories by Daniel Mandell, Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780–1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008); and Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).
  9. ^ Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon"
  10. ^ Parr & Swope, p. 44.
  11. ^ Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon"
  12. ^ Parr & Swope, p. 45.
  13. ^ Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon."
  14. ^ Thomas H. O'Connor, The Hub: Boston Past and Present (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001), p. 56.
  15. ^ The Trial of William Wemms, James Hartegan, William M'Cauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, soldiers in His Majesty's 29th Regiment of Foot, for the murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr, on Monday-evening, the 5th of March,1867 at the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Goal Delivery, held at Boston, the 27th day of November, 1770, by adjournment, before the Hon. Benjamin Lynde, John Cushing, Peter Oliver, and Chris Metzler, Esquires, justices of said court (Boston: J. Fleeming, 1770); and A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston (New York: John Doggett, Jr., 1849).
  16. ^ The Trial of William Wemms; and A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.
  17. ^ Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre. (W. W. Norton and Company, 1970).
  18. ^ The Murder of Crispus Attucks.
  19. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Attucks, Crispus". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  20. ^ Fradin, Dennis B. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998. p 63-66
  21. ^ "Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770,", description of item in collection of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed August 22, 2016 at
  22. ^ "Granary – City of Boston". Boston, Massachusetts: City of Boston. Retrieved 4 August 2011. The gravestones' original haphazard configuration was rearranged into straighter rows over to [sic] the years to accommodate both nineteenth-century aesthetics and the modern lawnmower. 
  23. ^ Knoblock, Glenn (2016). African American Historic Burial Grounds and Gravesites of New England. McFarland. p. 91. ISBN 9781476620428. 
  24. ^ "Copp's Hill | Historic Burying Grounds | City of Boston". Retrieved 2017-06-08. 
  25. ^, United States Mint: "Plinky's Coin of the Month February 2000"
  26. ^ Molefi Kete Asante, 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002).
  27. ^ James Neyland, Crispus Attucks, Patriot (Holloway House, 1995).
  28. ^ Brady, Wayne. "Crispus Attucks 'Today Was a Good Day' with Wayne Brady, JB Smoove & Michael Kenneth Williams". Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  29. ^ "Rush Revere and the First Patriots; Rush Limbaugh, Thresholds Editions 2014
  30. ^ Schremph, Kelly. "Is The Crispus Attucks Complex A Real Place? 'Luke Cage' Is Putting An Important Figure In The Spotlight". Retrieved 30 September 2016. 

External links[edit]