In March of 1770, there was a heavy presence of British soldiers in colonial Boston (population about 20,000). About 4,000 troops had
been dispatched in response to attacks on British customs officials sent to enforce the Townshend Acts. Ironically, the British repealed the Townshend acts (except for the tax on tea) the very day of the Boston Massacre.
British soldiers tended to treat colonists with contempt, and the situation was somewhat aggravated when moonlighting soldiers competed with locals for scarce employment. The Boston wharf area with its grog houses and pubs was the scene of much hostile interaction between American sailors and laborers and off-duty British soldiers looking for work.
The Boston Massacre
Fueled by rumors that a British sentry at the Custom House had clubbed a local merchant, an angry crowd of converged on the Custom House and began taunting and pelting the sentry with rocks and sticks. British reinforcements arrived, and the crowd continued to taunt the soldiers, knowing that the soldiers were under orders not to fire without permission.
Someone in the crowd threw a club and knocked down one of the soldiers and someone else — no one knows for certain — yelled “Fire!" A few soldiers fired into the crowd. When the smoke cleared, two lay dead and three mortally wounded. Six others would recover from their wounds.
First Casualty of the American Revolution
One of the dead was Crispus Attucks, an African American (and possibly Native American mixed) sailor. Attucks was part of a rough group of sailors and laborers who resented the British on two levels: American sailors were always subject to being pressed into involuntary service in the Royal Navy; laborers had to compete with off-duty British soldiers, who often worked for less.
Attucks was part of a group whom John Adams later described as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs." The group headed towards the Customs House, where Attucks was one of the first shot down.
A Watershed and a Lull
As “massacres" go, the incident fell somewhat short in the usual number of casualties associated with the term. However, as a symbol of growing American resentment of British rule, the incident was ideally suited for patriot propagandists. The dead became instant “martyrs," and the symbols of liberty.
Historians agree that the incident tended to radicalize many colonists’ views and increase resentment of British control and authority. On the other hand, the three years following the trials of the British soldiers were a period of relative calm as many recognized that the British troops had actually exercised restraint during the incident.
Crispus Attucks, on the other hand, became a part of the slavery abolitionist movement when “Crispus Attucks Day" was inaugurated during the pre-Civil War days of 1858. His monument stands on the Boston Common despite late 19th century opposition by the Massachusetts Historical and New England Historical Genealogical Societies.
Regardless of Attucks’ actual role — either as a villainous instigator or as first casualty in the American Revolution — he remains a potent symbol for those who believe that African-American heritage, in the words of James Neyland, “is not only African but American and is a heritage that begins with the beginning of America."
Classroom Activities/Suggested Discussion Areas
Divide the class into two sections: Boston Citizens and British Troops
♦ Boston Citizens –
◊ Discuss why the presence of so many British troops (4,000 in a city of only 20,000) was such an irritation.
◊ Answer the following:
→ Were Crispus Attucks and his group trouble makers, or were they patriots resisting British oppression?
→ Should the British troops have held their fire?
→ In the trial of the British soldiers after the incident, the British officer and five of the seven British soldiers were acquitted. Was this a fair verdict?
♦ British Troops –
◊ Why would the British soldiers generally hold colonials in contempt?
◊ Why would an off-duty British soldier want to compete with local citizens for menial labor jobs?
◊ If you were a British soldier, would you try to exercise restraint or be more inclined to fire your musket at the crowd?
◊ Two of the soliders were convicted of manslaughter for firing into the crowd. Do you agree with that verdict?
Resources and Further Reading
This post is part of the series: Causes of the American Revolution
- High School History Lesson Plans: The Proclamation of 1763
- History Lesson Plan: The Stamp Act of 1765
- High School History Lesson Plan: The Townshend Acts of 1767
- Lesson Plan for History: Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre
- History Lesson Plan: The Boston Tea Party