Early Portrait of Crispus Attucks (c) Learning CompanyHistorians know little about Crispus Attucks, and they have constructed accounts of his life more from speculation than facts. Most documents described his ancestry as African and American Indian. His father, Prince Yonger, is thought to have been a slave brought to America from Africa and that his mother, Nancy Attucks, was a Natick Indian. The family, which may have included an older sister named Phebe, lived in Framingham, Massachusetts.
Apparently, young Attucks developed a longing for freedom at an early age. According to The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, historians believe that an advertisement placed in the Boston Gazette on October 2, 1750, referred to him:
“Ran away from his Master William Brown from Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of age, named Crispas, 6 Feet two Inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common: had on a light colour’d Bearskin Coat.”
The owner offered a reward of ten pounds for the return of the slave and warned ship captains against giving him refuge. Biographers believe that Attucks escaped to Nantucket, Massachusetts, and sailed as a harpooner on a whaling ship. Some writers proposed that he was using the name Michael Johnson.
Attucks’ occupation made him particularly vulnerable to the presence of the British. As a seaman, he felt the ever-present danger of impressment into the British navy. As a laborer, he felt the competition from British troops, who often took part-time jobs during their off-duty hours and worked for lower wages. Historians definitely place Attucks in Boston in March of 1770. Assuming that the Boston Gazette advertisement did refer to him, he would have been about 47-years old.
A fight between Boston rope makers and three British soldiers on Friday, March 2, 1770 set the stage for a later confrontation. 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 rang, which drew people out of their homes. The British soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot were called to duty. In turn, townspeople responded by hurling snowballs and debris at the soldiers. A group of men led by Attucks approached the vicinity of the government building 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 wounded in what came to be called the Boston Massacre. Attucks was the first one killed; he took two bullets in the chest. Rope maker Samuel Gray and sailor James Caldwell also died in the incident. Samuel Maverick, a 17-year-old joiner’s apprentice, died the next day. Irish leather worker Patrick Carr died nine days later. 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.
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, provided a potent message of moral courage.
In an unsourced book that appealed to a wide audience, James Neyland wrote his 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.
Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution when he was shot and killed. Although Attucks was credited as the leader and instigator of the event, debate raged for over a century as to whether he was a hero and a patriot, or a rabble-rousing villain. The debate notwithstanding, Attucks, immortalized as “the first to defy, the first to die,” has been lauded as a true martyr, “the first to pour out his blood as a precious libation on the altar of a people’s rights.”