The Boston Massacre: A Family History


June 15, 2020
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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The Boston Massacre:  A Family History by Serena Zabin. (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020)

The significant other of this particular reviewer saw him reading yet another book about the Revolution, and still another book about the Boston Massacre. “Haven’t you learned enough about it?” she asked. This reviewer honestly did not jump into Serena Zabin’s recent book The Boston Massacre: A Family History with any inkling that there would be anything new about the incident. Luckily, Zabin delivered an astounding “YES!” to the former question by writing an entirely original perspective on the famous incident.

The Prologue begins with the famous engraving by Paul Revere and describes how he created propaganda for the Sons of Liberty. The picture and Revere’s poetic verse beneath it makes the sides very clear: British soldiers versus innocent Bostonians, who are bleeding in front of the Customs House. Historians know obviously that the picture is a false representation of the event (the soldiers did not fire in order, Captain Preston never ordered them to fire their weapons, the crowd was larger and closer than depicted, etc.). Zabin then goes back to the coast of Ireland in 1765 to describe the importance of women in the typical British regiments. Women were necessary to the success of the regiment, and therefore soldiers brought their families to North America. It was this situation of the soldiers of the 29th Regiment that made their existence in Boston unique, for there really were no definite “sides” in the street riot of March, 1770.

The Boston Massacre: A Family History is an examination of the family atmosphere created by the British soldiers in Boston.  The focus on the 29th Regiment allows the reader to learn about the various struggles of the young British soldiers and their families. The Regiment was stationed in the unpopular city of Halifax, and when Governor Bernard of the colony of Massachusetts requested help to deal with the many anti-tax riots and demonstrations in Boston, the soldiers were sent there.  Once in Boston, the soldiers had to find quarters for themselves and their families (one interesting picture Zabin includes shows a typical military barracks, complete with wives and children living a communal life with their husbands/fathers). The experience of the soldiers becomes a description of sexual mores in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, slavery, drinking, courtships, marriage, children, and baptism. Zabin spends time on each of these topics, creating a unique perspective.

Before the story of the Massacre, it is clear that the soldiers of the 29th had become a part of the close-knit community that was colonial Boston. Recruits worked alongside the citizens of the city and the surrounding towns. The soldiers courted young women in Massachusetts who saw marrying into the military as a step up the social ladder. Bringing soldiers into the community paid dividends for those who wanted to desert. Occasionally townspeople went out of their way to protect soldiers who were absent without leave. Regimental commanders knew that they could pursue runaway regulars only for so long. Only one deserting soldier was executed in Boston for his offense, and punishments gradually either lessened considerably or were abandoned all together.

Chapter 7, “A Deadly Riot:  March 1770,” is devoted to the shootings. Witnesses testified to speaking to the sentries they knew in front of the Customs House before the commotion. What was truly interesting was the fact that the soldiers were not strangers to most of the people in the crowd. Some of the soldiers had eaten dinner at their homes and sometimes drank with them in local taverns. Although the presence of the Regiment in Boston was a recipe for a disaster, the shooting took everyone in Boston by surprise. But it did not create an atmosphere of anger and suspicion. Instead, people were mostly saddened by the event.  They understood that the killings meant that the soldiers would surely need to leave Boston. And with them would be their families, including the local women who were able to marry members of the Regiment. Chapter 8, “Gathering Up:  March 6, 1770-August 1772,” explained the logistics involved with moving the soldiers, their wives and their children to the barracks of Castle William, in Boston Harbor.

The trial and John Adams’ role in acting as the defense attorney for the accused soldiers (Chapter 9 “From Shooting to Massacre, October-December 1770”) demonstrated how important the connections between the defendants and the accused were for jury selection during Capt. Thomas Preston’s trial.  It was the courtroom situation that turned the incident into an “us versus them” situation:

Yet it seems that neither [Robert Treat] Paine nor anyone else who spoke in the courtroom mentioned these friendships or their likely effect on the outcome of the trial. Perhaps they were too obvious to need mentioning. Perhaps, however, this silence was an intentional part of the strategy of each side. To ignore the connections between civilians and soldiers, to play down the long-established relationships between Preston and his civilian colleagues, allowed prosecution and defense alike to emphasize the separation between what had in fact been two intermingled elements of one society. [p. 103-104]

Serena Zabin continues to explore journals, newspapers, and official records, as she did in her previous books, Dangerous Economies:  Status and Commerce in Imperial New York (2001) and The New York Conspiracy Trials: Daniel Horsmanden’s Journal of the Proceedings, with Related Documents (2004). Her book on the Boston Massacre also includes research from marriage records, trial testimonies, military orders, and the famous diary of John Rowe. Several maps are included, but the colorful paintings Zabin adds certainly establishes both the importance and acceptance of women to the travelling regiments.

The Boston Massacre: A Family History is an excellent and unique social history of a major event prior to the American Revolution. It is not what readers will expect: they will learn about the famous tragedy, but also the community created by both the soldiers and the people of Boston.

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One thought on “The Boston Massacre: A Family History

  • Read this book recently and it was fantastic – examines the “everyday life” of soldiers who lived with the inhabitants of Boston and then found themselves increasingly enemies if the people.

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