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Crispus Attucks
c. 1723 – March 5, 1770
Matyr of the American Revolution


Crispus Attucks (c. 1723 – March 5, 1770) was one of five people killed in the Boston Massacre in Boston, Massachusetts. He has been frequently named as the first martyr of the American Revolution and is the only Boston Massacre victim whose name is commonly remembered. He is regarded as an important and inspirational figure in American history.

Little is known for certain about Attucks beyond his involvement in the massacre. Fragmentary evidence suggests that he may have been of African American and Native American ancestry. Importantly, two major sources of eyewitness testimony about the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770 never once refer to Attucks as a "Negro," or as a "black" man. The first source was a report commissioned by the town of Boston, "A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre," which contained over one hundred depositions from locals about what Bostonians saw on March 5th, 1770. The second source is "The Trial of William Wemms." In it, there are over one dozen references to Attucks as a “mulatto” or “molatto,” one as an “Indian,” another as a “tall man,” and yet another citation as a “stout [i.e., muscular] man.” Not once did any of the Bostonians

who gave their deposition refer to Attucks as a “Negro” or “black man,” terms certainly used for those of almost entirely African-descent in that period. Americans in later centuries remembered Attucks because of his African heritage, but Bostonians of 1770 did not view him as a typical African. Thus, it was only in the early 19th century, as the Abolitionist movement gained momentum in Boston, that Attucks was lauded as an example of a black American who played a heroic role in the history of the United States -- thereby entirely transforming Attucks' identity. To this day however, because Crispus Attucks had Wampanoag ancestors, his story also holds special significance for many Native Americans.

Very few facts are known about Crispus Attucks prior to his involvement with the Boston Massacre. Because slavery and racial discrimination were conditions of life in the 18th century, few detailed accounts of black Americans from that era survive. The name "Crispus" is mentioned in some records from the period, although without a surname, it is impossible to determine if they refer to Attucks. Thus, historians have speculated whether an October 2, 1750, advertisement placed in the Boston Gazette referred to Crispus Attucks:
"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. Whoever shall take up said runaway and convey him to his aforesaid master shall have 10 pounds old tenor reward, and all necessary charges paid. And all masters of vessels and others are hereby cautioned against concealing or carrying off said servant on penalty of law."

A Wampanoag named John Attucks was executed for treason in 1676 during King Philip's War. In the 19th century, the surname “Attucks” was used by some Praying Indians around Natick and Framingham. Given the anthropological research of Frank Speck, as well as the work of Algonquian linguistics specialists Ives Goddard, Kathleen Bragdon, and Jessie Little Doe Baird, "Attucks" is most likely an Anglicisation of the Wôpanââk word ahtuq meaning deer in combination with ees meaning "little." Native people and African-descent people frequently had children together in Colonial times. Attucks, in all likelihood had both Wampanoag and African ancestry.

Boston Massacre

In the fall of 1768, British soldiers were sent to Boston to help control growing colonial unrest, but this only increased tensions with those colonists who opposed the presence of troops. After dusk on Monday, March 5, 1770, a crowd of colonists confronted a sentry who had struck a boy for complaining that an officer was late in paying a barber bill. As anger escalated, a church bell was rung (as it would in case of fire or other emergency), drawing people out of their homes. The British soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot were called to duty in response. Townspeople began hurling snowballs and debris at the soldiers. A group of men led by Attucks approached the vicinity of the government building (now known as the Old State House) with clubs in hand. Violence soon erupted and a soldier was struck with a thrown piece of wood. Some accounts named Attucks as the person responsible. Other witnesses stated that Attucks was "leaning upon a stick" when the soldiers opened fire.

Five Americans were killed and six were mortally wounded. Court documents state that Attucks was the first one killed and that he took two bullets in the chest. 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.

Based on the premise of self-defense, John Adams successfully defended the British soldiers against a charge of murder. Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter. As soldiers of the King of England, they were given the choice of hanging or being branded on their thumb. They both chose to be branded. In his arguments, Adams called the crowd "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negros and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs".

Samuel Adams, a cousin of John Adams, named the event the Boston Massacre two years later and helped assure that it would not be forgotten. 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 of the image 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 tone of the victims. The five who were killed were buried as heroes in the Granary Burying Ground, which contains the graves of John Hancock and other notable figures. While custom of the period discouraged the burial of black people and white people together, such a practice was not completely unknown. Prince Hall, for example, was interred in Copp's Hill Burying Ground in the North End of Boston 35 years later.

Folklore

The above-mentioned clues and other circumstantial evidence of the period have given rise to speculation which has, over many decades, become much-repeated folk-history. In popular versions of his narrative, Attucks was born to an Africa-born black slave father named Prince Yonger and a Native American mother named Nancy Attucks who was from either the Natick-Framingham area of Middlesex County just west of Boston or from the island of Nantucket south of Cape Cod. He grew up in the household of Colonel Buckminster, his father’s master, until sold to Deacon William Brown of Framingham. Unhappy with his situation, he escaped and became a ropemaker, a manual laborer and/or a whaler. His quarrel with the British soldiers on March 5, 1770 was righteous indignation regarding the effect of the Townshend Acts on the local economy, as well as the incidents that had taken place earlier that day.

Legacy

Attucks has often been praised in writing meant to inspire Americans to work toward the ideals of freedom and racial equality. In 1858, Boston-area Abolitionists established "Crispus Attucks Day." In 1886, the spots where Crispus Attucks and Samuel Gray fell were marked by circles on the pavement. Within each circle there was a hub with spokes leading out to form a wheel. Two years later, a monument honoring Attucks was erected on Boston Common. It is a large structure, over 25 feet high and a little over 10 feet wide. The bas-relief, or raised portion on the face of the main part of the monument portrays the Boston Massacre with Attucks lying in the foreground. Under the scene is the date, March 5, 1770. Above the bas-relief stands a female figure, "Free America." With her left hand she clasps a flag about to be unfurled, and in her right hand she holds the broken chain of oppression. Beneath her right foot she crushes the royal crown of England, which lies torn and twisted on the ground. At the left of the figure, clinging to the edge of the base, is an eagle. Thirteen stars are cut into one of the faces of the monument. Beneath these stars in raised letters are the names of the five men who were killed that day; Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr. The poet John Boyle O'Reilly wrote the following poem for the unveiling of the monument:
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...

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, though much-overlooked by standard histories, could be revered as a source of moral courage. One author wrote this appraisal of Attucks’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.

In 1888, leaders of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Historic Genealogical Society opposed the creation of the Crispus Attucks memorial on Boston Common. Today, both organizations use Crispus Attucks’s name to foster interest in black history and genealogy.

In 1998, the United States Treasury released "The Black Revolutionary War Patriots Silver Dollar" featuring Attucks' image on the obverse side. The reverse side of the commemorative coin shows a family of African-American patriots. Funds from sales of the coin were intended for a proposed Black Revolutionary War Patriots Memorial in Washington, DC. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Crispus Attucks on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

Places named for Attucks include the Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, the Attucks Middle School in Hollywood, Florida, the Crispus Attucks Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri, the Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia, The Crispus Attucks Association in York, Pennsylvania, and the Crispus Attucks Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts

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