One man’s death, 250 years ago this month, became a great symbol of U.S. independence. That man was Crispus Attucks, and he’s considered the first person killed in the American Revolution.
He died March 5, 1770, in the Boston Massacre, an event that fueled rebellion among American colonists who were getting fed up with British authorities.
The Brits had sent soldiers to Boston to help England keep its thumb on the colonists. That was bad enough, but making it worse, since the British paid their soldiers so badly, the soldiers also took second jobs to get by — jobs that otherwise would have gone to Americans. The night of March 5, Attucks was one of a group of Bostonians who began pestering British soldiers in the street. Taunts and insults began getting physical as soldiers and colonists got increasingly more annoyed and upset with each other. Before long, some of the soldiers began firing on the Americans. Five people were killed, and Attucks was the first to die. He was about 47 years old.
Compared to some of the battles that would soon follow in the Revolutionary War, the Boston Massacre might seem like a small incident, with only five dead. But to the colonists of America, it was one step too far. The Boston Massacre was widely publicized, and as unrest grew over the next few years — the Gaspee Affair, the Boston Tea Party — it came to be considered the beginning of the revolution. John Adams said that “the foundation of American Independence was laid” when Attucks and the others were killed that day.
Attucks’ status as a symbol of that independence is especially remarkable because he was a free black man. Not a lot is known about Attucks’ history — the court transcripts from the soldiers’ trial afterwards suggest he may have been of mixed African and Native American heritage, and historians aren’t sure whether he was legally free at the time of his death or if he had escaped slavery. Evidence suggests he had been working as a sailor and a whaler before the Boston Massacre.
After Attucks was killed, his body lay in state at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and he was then buried along with the other victims — all of whom were white — at the Granary Burying Ground. In the years after the Boston Massacre, Attucks continued to be honored. He was depicted front and center in a famous 19th-century illustration of the event that was popular among abolitionists, who took pride in Attucks’ bravery and made him a symbol of their movement. He’s remembered with a monument in Boston Common, and with schools and other structures named after him across America.
When the monument was erected in Boston Common, more than a century after the Boston Massacre, poet John Boyle O’Reilly wrote an ode to Attucks that includes:
And honor to Crispus Attucks, who was leader and voice that day;
The first to defy, and the first to die, with Maverick. Carr, and Gray.
Call it riot or revolution, his hand first clenched at the crown;
His feet were the first in perilous place to pull the king’s flag down;
His breast was the first one rent apart that liberty’s stream might flow;
For our freedom now and forever, his head was the first bid low.