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This Day in History: Crispus Attucks, first casualty of the American Revolution

On this day in 1770, a casualty of the Boston Massacre lies in state at Faneuil Hall. Some argue that Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the American Revolution.

“He is one of the most important figures in African-American history,” Attucks biographer James Neyland writes, “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.”

Nevertheless, many details of Crispus Attucks’s life remain shrouded in mystery.

It’s thought that his lineage was mixed: He potentially had one parent who was African American and one who was Natick Indian. Was he a free man or a runaway slave? Historians again disagree, but an October 1750 advertisement in the Boston Gazette suggests that he may have been the slave of a man named William Browne, who lived in Framingham.

In that advertisement, Browne sought the return of a runaway slave, “a mulatto fellow about 27 years of age, named Crispas.”

Either way, Attucks was in Boston by March 1770. He’d been living the life of a sailor and working around the docks of Boston. The city was in turmoil. Parliament had passed a series of much-hated taxation measures, and British soldiers patrolled the streets. The tension was palpable.

All hell broke loose on March 5, 1770.

The scene that day was chaotic, and we may never know exactly what happened. By all accounts, however, Attucks was at the front of the crowd facing off against the British soldiers in front of the King Street Customs House. That crowd was taunting the soldiers and throwing snow and ice.

“[This Attucks] appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night,” John Adams later said, “and to lead this army with banners, to form them in the first place in Dock square, and march them up to King street with their clubs.”

Adams was then serving as defense attorney for the British soldiers. In that capacity, he was understandably scornful of “Attucks, to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night is chiefly to be ascribed.” Perhaps just as understandably, the citizens of Boston viewed Attucks as a hero. He’d taken the lead in confronting the much-hated British soldiers—and he’d been the first to fall when they started firing. “He had been foremost in resisting,” one early historian recounts, “and was first slain. As proof of a front engagement, he received two balls, one in each breast.”

Attucks’s body was later carried to Faneuil Hall, where he lay in state until March 8. He was then buried at Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.

The Boston Massacre became a rallying cry for Americans in the months that followed. Indeed, just six years later, General George Washington would be outside Boston, holding the British under siege. The night of March 4th to 5th proved critical to his effort. Washington’s men were seeking to fortify Dorchester Heights. “Remember it is the fifth of March,” Washington reportedly said as he strode amongst his men, “and avenge the death of your brethren!”

They must have been motivated. In what has been called “one of the most stupendous feats of logistics” of the Revolution, Washington’s men managed their task in one night. On March 5, the British awoke to find American cannon staring down at them from the newly fortified Dorchester Heights. They evacuated Boston soon afterwards.

Don’t you think Attucks was smiling down on Boston as they left?

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