The Hidden Life of Crispus Attucks


March 5, 2014
by Jerome J. Palliser Also by this Author


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Crispus Attucks (c.1723-1770) is often remembered as the first casualty of the American Revolution. In fact, others had died in previous incidents, but Attucks’s death during the King Street riot of March 5, 1770—later referred to as the Boston Massacre—earned him a place in the national narrative of America. In that skirmish between soldiers and citizens, Attucks was, as one poet later wrote, “the first one rent apart that liberty’s steam might flow; for our freedom now and forever, his head was the first laid low.” He was indeed among the “first to defy, and the first to die,” but it is equally important to examine his life.[1] Who was this man? Beyond how he was labeled a “Mulatto” and sometimes identified by witnesses as “Indian,” what do we know about the life of Crispus Attucks?

Much can be learned from Attucks’s name alone. In 1643, theologian Roger Williams published a journal regarding his experiences with Native tribes, most notably the Narragansetts of the similarly named bay in Rhode Island. Included in his writings are helpful translations from English to that Native language and vice versa. His journal notes that “Auttuck” means deer.[2] One “John Auttuck, Indian” was named in a warrant during King Philip’s War in 1676, and was subsequently captured and executed in Framingham, Massachusetts.[3] The surname “Petterattuck” can also be found in William Barry’s history of Framingham.[4] We can safely conclude that Native people of Massachusetts, and specifically in Framingham, used “Attucks” (or a variation of it) as a surname.

It is believed that Attucks was born into slavery due to his African ancestry. His first name “Crispus” refers to Flavius Julius Caesar of fourth-century Rome, and was almost certainly given to him by his master since it was common for owners to name slaves after Roman nobility or gods. However, Crispus was not a common name by any means.

In his 1887 town history of Framingham, J.H. Temple tried to fill in big gaps in Attucks’s biography by collecting traditions from townspeople. With so much time having passed, the information Temple gathered might not be fully reliable, but he wrote that an Attucks family lived at the site of a cellar-hole near the edge of town, still visible as of 1887. According to a descendant of William Brown, Attucks was “well informed” and such a good judge of cattle he was “allowed to buy and sell upon his own judgement of their value.” Temple reported that Col. Joseph Buckminster sold Attucks to William Brown sometime around 1747.[6]

Attucks next appears in an October 2, 1750, advertisement in the Boston Gazette:

Ran away from his master William Brown of Framingham, on the 30th of Sept. last, a Molatto Fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispas, 6 Feet 2 Inches high, short curl’d Hair, his Knees nearer together than common; had on a light colour’d Bear-skin Coat, plain brown Fustian Jacket, or brown all-Wool one, new Buckskin Breeches, blue Yarn Stockings, and a checked woolen Shirt.

Whoever shall take up said Run-away, and convey him to his abovesaid Master, shall have ten 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 the Law.[7]

The advertisement appeared twice more, on November 13 and 20.[8] Because the name “Crispas/Crispus” is so rare, and because this description of an unusually tall man matches testimony from the Massacre, historians believe this runaway was Crispus Attucks.

Brown’s caution to “masters of Vessels” shows that he worried that Attucks would take to the sea once he reached Boston. Strong young men could easily find work on ships, on the docks, or in waterfront industries like ropemaking. Going to sea offered a certain level of anonymity. “Northern ports…served as a magnet to runaway slaves and free blacks throughout the colonial era and well into the 19th and 20th centuries. Many found work as laborers and seamen.”[9]

While offering more freedom than slavery, the life of a sailor was nearly as oppressive. One of the most dreaded fates was impressment, or being forced into labor on a Royal Navy ship. Despite being poor and often illiterate, sailors organized early against such mistreatment. In fact, three years before the Gazette ran that search ad, a Boston mob “led by laborers and seamen, black and white, armed with clubs, swords, and cutlasses,” attacked Charles Knowles of the H.M.S. Lark in what came to be known as the Knowles Riot of 1747.[10] Similar small rebellions instigated by sailors, usually of all races, continued for the next thirty years. Protesting ongoing impressment after 1763, “armed mobs of whites and negroes repeatedly manhandled captains, officers, and crews, threatened their lives, and held them hostage for men they pressed.”[11]

During the late 1760s New England ports became even more politicized with protests against Parliament’s new taxes. Fueled more by the Stamp Act of 1765, “some 500 seamen, boys and negroes” rioted in Newport, Rhode Island.[12] Similar mobs appeared in 1767 Norfolk, 1768 Boston, and 1770 New York a mere six weeks before the King Street riot.[13] Sailors were at the forefront of those protests. Whether working on the waterfront or sailing back into port occasionally, Attucks would have been aware of the political arguments about liberty, oppression, and taxation without representation.[14]

What exactly did Attucks do on the night of his death? While some inconsistencies exist in the records of the Boston Massacre trials, we can piece together a fairly comprehensive scene. Before joining the confrontation, Attucks (often referred to by witnesses as “the Molatto”) was seen with a “large cordwood stick” at the head of “twenty or thirty sailors.” Patrick Keaton testified, “I saw a tall Molatto fellow, the same that was killed, he had two clubs in his hand, and he said, here take one of them, I did so.” Other witnesses, including Jedediah Barr, John Danbrooke, and a slave named Andrew, also testified about that stick.[15] We can be certain that Attucks was not simply a bystander caught in crossfire, but a large (in both stature and importance) leader in this skirmish.

William L. Champney. (fl. 1850-1857). Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770. Boston, Published by Henry Q. Smith, 1856. Source: The Boston Athenæm
William L. Champney. (fl. 1850-1857). Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770. Boston, Published by Henry Q. Smith, 1856. Source: The Boston Athenæm

Arguing for the soldiers on trial for murder, John Adams asserted that Attucks “with his myrmidons,” many with clubs, marched to the sentry box on King Street where the soldiers had gathered. Adams said that Attucks “appears to have undertaken to be the hero of the night,” and, “If this was not an unlawful assembly, there never was one in the world.” In the span of a few minutes, the situation escalated into a riot. According to Adams, “It is plain the soldiers did not leave their station, but cried to the people stand off: now to have this reinforcement coming down under the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person, what had not the soldiers then to fear?”[16]

Andrew described Attucks going close enough to grab one soldier’s bayonet: “This stout man held the bayonet with his left hand, and twitched it and cried kill the dogs, knock them over.”[17] The crowd was throwing snowballs, ice, and occasionally sticks at the soldiers. One of these sticks knocked down a private, who shouted an order to fire. Most of the soldiers fired into the crowd. Eleven men and boys were hit by the volley, four of whom died within hours.[18] Attucks and two other men close to the muskets were killed instantly.

A coroner’s jury was convened to determine how Attucks died. In an interesting development, that jury’s paperwork refers to him as “Michael Johnson,” suggesting that the runaway slave had created an alias to protect himself. The inquest, witnessed by the fourteen jurors, concluded that Johnson was “wilfully and feloniously murdered at King street in Boston” with two bullets through his body caused by “the discharge of a musket or Muskets.”[19]Three days after the shooting the Boston News-Letter reported the death of “A Mollatto man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, and [in Boston] in order to go for North-Carolina.”[20]

The Boston Gazette of March 12, 1770, published extensive coverage of the shooting and the funeral of the four fallen men, reprinted in the London Gazette weeks later. That newspaper identified one victim as: “A mulatto man, named Crispus Attucks, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonged to New-Providence [in the Bahamas] and was here in order to go to North-Carolina, also killed instantly; two balls entering his breast, one of them in special goring the right lobe of the lungs, and a great part of the liver most horribly.”[21] In death Attucks was no longer “Michael Johnson,” but now known by his real name. He was the only grown man among the victims not given the title of “Mr.”—a sign of racial discrimination. Yet all four of the dead were deposited in one cemetery vault.[22]

The article described Boston during the funeral ceremony: “On this occasion most of the Shops in Town were shut, all the Bells were ordered to toll a solemn Peal. . . . two of the unfortunate Sufferers, viz. Mess. James Caldwell and Crispus Attucks, who were Strangers, borne from Faneuil-Hall, attended by a numerous Train of Persons of all Ranks. . . . The several Hearses forming a Junction in King-street, the Theatre of that inhuman Tragedy! proceeded from thence thro’ the Main-Street, lengthened by an immense Concourse of People, so numerous as to be obliged to follow in Ranks of six.” The Gazette claimed that there were more people present for the funeral procession “than were ever together on this continent on any occasion.” In an attempt to link the tragedy to a London audience, the newspaper concluded by relating it to the St. George’s Fields Massacre two years prior.[23]

The Boston Evening-Post adorned the fallen with these words, later inscribed in stone:

In Freedom’s cause the wise contend,
Dear to your country shall your fame extend;
While to the world the lettered stone shall tell
Where Caldwell, Attucks, Gray, and Mav’rick fell.[24]

As a fugitive, waterfront worker, and person of color, Attucks had nothing to gain from making his stand. He might have remained hidden and free. Yet he laid down his life in front of the Customs house for the good of his new life and the collective lives of all who followed.


[1] James Jeffrey Roche and Mary Murphy O’Reilly, Life of John Boyle O’Reilly Together with His Complete Poems and Speeches (New York: Cassell Publishing Company, 1891), 410.

[2] Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America: or An Help to the Language of the Natives in that part of America, called New-England (London: Gregory Dexter, 1643), 167.

[3] J. H. Temple, History of Framingham, Massachusetts, Early Known as Danforth’s Farms, 1640-1880 (Framingham, 1887), 61.

[4] William Barry, A History of Framingham, Massachusetts: Including the Plantation from 1640 to the Present Time (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1847), 451.

[5] For more information on slave naming, see Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origin of the Deep South (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[6] Temple, History of Framingham, 254-5.

[7] Quoted in George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1882), 330.

[8] Antonio Bly, Escaping Bondage: A Documentary History of Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century New England, 1700-1789 (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012), 92.

[9] Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 198.

[10]Jesse Lemisch, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3. (1968): 200, quoted in Rediker and Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra, 197.

[11] Lemisch, “Jack Tar,” 391.

[12] Lemisch, “Jack Tar,” 386.

[13] Rediker and Linebaugh, The Many-Headed Hydra, 201. “The Battle of Golden Hill,” Boston Gazette, February 5, 1770, accessed December 25, 2013.

[14] Williams, History of the Negro Race, 332.

[15] John Hodgson, The Trial of William Wemms, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, Soldiers in His Majesty’s 29th Regiment of Foot, For the Murder of Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr (Boston: Fleeming, 1770), 176, 101, 31-33. This text can also be accessed digitally at For a detailed study of this event, see Hiller Zobel’s The Boston Massacre (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970).

[16] Hodgson, Trial of William Wemms, 176.

[17] Hodgson, Trial of William Wemms, 114.

[18] Another man died days later.

[19] John S. H. Fogg, “Inquest on Michael Johnson alias Crispus Attucks,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Vol. 45 (1890), 382.

[20] Quoted in J.L. Bell, “On The Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating the Victim of the Boston Massacre,” The Readex Reader, Vol. 4, Issue 1, which can be found at

[21] Quoted in John Almon, Political Register and Impartial Review of New Books (London: J. Dodsley, 1771), 284. This issue of the Boston Gazette can also be read online in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s “Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr.” at

[22] Williams, History of the Negro Race, 331.

[23] Almon, Political Register, 287.

[24] Williams, History of the Negro Race, 332.


  • This is a wonderful and thought-provoking article, not only for it’s discussion of Attucks’s background but also for revealing that he was not simply a hapless bystander in the 5 March riot.
    The runaway ad refers to him as a servant, rather than a slave, which is interesting.
    It “bears” noting that the “Bear-skin coat” Attucks wore was not made from the hide of an animal, but of a coarse, heavy woolen fabric with a shaggy nap that was widely used for outer garments during the era.
    The caution to masters of vessels was standard verbiage in runaway ads, appearing almost universally in advertisements for able-bodied men of all races.

  • Don,

    Gordon S. Wood in his book “Radicalism of the American Revolution” notes that the term “servant” or “servants” was widely used in colonial America to refer to slaves.

  • An excellent piece of research, Jerome! As an occasional substitute teacher, I’ve learned Crispus Attucks is an iconic figure in eighth grade and high school American history classes. Your article should be examined in depth by those grades and teachers, as much is to be gained in knowing the big picture. Great job!

  • It is a mystery that Attucks, who had everything to lose, appears to have led the main thrust of the mob. What could have been running through his mind? Did he think his actions would benefit his situation? Was he genuinely in support of the Cause? Were his actions a form of revenge for serving on British ships? Was he caught up in the moment as most other rioters were? Was he emboldened by drink? These questions may be unanswerable, lost in history. If Adams is to be believed, Attucks “with one hand took hold of a bayonet, and with the other knocked the man down: This was the behaviour of Attucks; to whose mad behaviour, in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed.” Advocating lawyers always try to displace blame away from their clients so Adams’ condemnation is understandable, albeit perhaps racist in 21st C thinking. Nevertheless, the last paragraph of the article appears to ascribe a noble motive to Attucks’ incitement of the mob and would like to see a bit more of the author’s viewpoint on this. As noted, however, a very interesting article on an important event preliminary to the outbreak of war.

  • I just toured the freedom trail..their narration supports much of this research. They state there were two distinct volleys, the first when Attucks seized the weapon and the second was when the British officer walked over and asked who gave the order two fire. This statement was misconstrued by the soldiers and hearing the word fire, shot into the crowd.

  • Please forgive me for my absurd disrespectful personality. But a review of the facts that I read, lead me to believe that Crispus Attucks, and his gang of Sailors that evening of March the 5th 1770, were likely Drunk on Rum,
    And Looking for Trouble. Its possible.
    And leans toward Credible, due to the omission evening’s activity. et al.

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