Crispus Attucks was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre—and became known as the first fatality in the fight for American independence. In a poem memorializing the massacre, poet John Boyle O'Reilly wrote, "Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd, as you may, such deaths have been seed of nations." Attucks was America's first seed.
1. HE WAS LIKELY AN ESCAPED SLAVE—AND PART-NATIVE AMERICAN.
We don't know much about Attucks's early life. His father is said to have been an enslaved man named Prince Yonger. His mother was likely named Nancy Attucks and was a Native Indian. There's evidence that Attucks escaped slavery in 1750: That same year, the Boston Gazette contained an ad offering 10 pounds to anybody who could find a runaway slave named "Crispas."
2. AFTER ESCAPING SLAVERY, HE BECAME A SAILOR.
Attucks is thought to have joined whaling ships and worked as a harpooner and, possibly, a ropemaker. To avoid being sent back into slavery, he went by the alias "Michael Johnson." (A newspaper reporting the massacre refers to him as a "mulatto man named, Johnson" [PDF].) At the time of the massacre, Attucks had been planning to stay in Massachusetts only briefly: He had just returned from a voyage to the Bahamas and was preparing to set sail for North Carolina.
3. ATTUCKS ARRIVED IN BOSTON AT A TUMULTUOUS TIME.
Years earlier, the Stamp Act of 1765 required that all printed materials—from playing cards to magazines—be taxed. Colonists resented it and riots became widespread. The Townshend Acts followed and Samuel Adams penned a famous letter against them, leading to even more troops in Boston. (The city of 15,000 contained a whopping 4000 British soldiers.) In fact, just days before the Boston Massacre, a brawl had broken out between British soldiers and the city's ropemakers.
4. THE MASSACRE WAS SPARKED BY A DISPUTE OVER A BARBER BILL.
On March 5, 1770, a young boy began complaining that a British officer had failed to pay his barber bill. (The officer denied this.) When a British sentry began harassing the boy, a crowd of colonists—including Attucks—gathered at Boston's Dock Square and began harassing the officer in return. British reinforcements arrived. Tensions escalated. The colonists began tossing snowballs, pebbles, and wood at the soldiers. Suddenly, gunshots rang out. Six colonists were wounded, and another five died. Attucks is believed to have been the first to fall.
5. NOBODY KNOWS WHAT, EXACTLY, ATTUCKS DID DURING THE ALTERCATION.
Some witnesses claimed that Attucks was the leading protestor and attacked the soldiers with a piece of wood. Others say he was simply watching, leaning on a stick. Regardless of his actions, two bullets ricocheted and lodged in Attucks's chest, killing him instantly.
6. HIS FUNERAL ATTRACTED THOUSANDS.
Attucks, along with the four other victims—Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr—were buried at Boston's Granary Burying Ground. The funeral procession attracted up to 10,000 people. As one contemporary wrote, "A greater number of persons assembled on this occasion, than ever before gathered on this continent for a similar purpose."
7. JOHN ADAMS DEFENDED THE BRITISH SOLDIERS IN COURT, CALLING ATTUCKS THE INSTIGATOR.
Every British soldier involved faced the prospect of hanging, and John Adams—later America's second president—was tasked with defending them. During his defense, Adams claimed that the soldiers were acting in self-defense and called the protestors "a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars. And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can't conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them." Adams claimed that Attucks was the instigator. The argument worked: Nobody was convicted of murder. (Two soldiers were, however, convicted of manslaughter. As punishment, their thumbs were branded [PDF].)
8. THE RULING INFLAMED THE PUBLIC, AND ATTUCKS AND THE MASSACRE WERE THUSLY COMMEMORATED.
The public outcry after the massacre forced the British troops to temporarily withdraw from the city and caused Adams to lose half of his law practice. Three weeks after the massacre, Paul Revere made and distributed a print depicting the event; today, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History calls the illustration "probably the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history." In Boston, March 5 became a day of remembrance. According to the abolitionist and historian William Wells Brown, "The anniversary of this event was publicly commemorated in Boston, by an oration and other exercises, every year until after our national independence was achieved, when the Fourth of July was substituted for the fifth of March." More than a century after the event, in 1888, a massive monument was erected at Boston Common to commemorate Attucks and the four other men who died. It, and the location of the massacre, are now prominent locations on Boston's Freedom Trail.