ATTUCKS, CRISPUS Of the many incidents which preceded and to some extent "caused" the American Revolution, the Boston Massacre ranks as one of the more dramatic. British troops had been sent to Boston in 1768 to protect unpopular customs officials from colonial harm and harassment. On March 5, 1770 a group of American demonstrators confronted a squad of men from the 29th British Regiment. The Americans taunted and jeered the "lobsterbacks" and, in a moment of panic, the British troops fired their muskets into the crowd, killing five and wounding six others. Among the five fatalities and reportedly the first to fall was Crispus Attacks.
Contemporary accounts refer to Attucks as a "mulatto" and despite periodic attempts to disprove it, there seems little doubt that Crispus Attucks was indeed an African American. [A late-nineteenth century historian, J. B. Fisher, asserted that Attucks was a full-blooded Indian, maintaining that the terms mulatto and Indian were used interchangeably in colonial New England. A more recent appraisal has been offered by noted historian Benjamin Quarles, who depicts Attucks as "a Negro of obscure origin, with some admixture of Indian blood."]
Although the exact story may never be known, most modern historians believe that Attucks was a runaway slave from Framingham, Massachusetts, who had settled in Boston in the early 1750's. In 1750, for example, his alleged "master," William Brown of Framingham, published a reward advertisement in the Boston Gazette for "a mulatto fellow, about 27 years of age, named Crispus; 6 feet 2 inches high, short, curl'd hair, his knees together than common."
Similar to the question of Attucks' identity, historians have differed in regard to his motivation (and that of the other colonists) on the day of the "massacre." Nineteenth century black historian George Washington Williams, for example, portrayed Attucks as a conscious martyr who poured "out his blood as a precious libation on the altar of a people's rights.' On the other hand, modern historian Nathan Huggins has suggested that Attucks "and his white comrades were more motivated to harass the British military than to strike a blow for liberty and independence." Whatever the motivation, the death of Crispus Attucks did assume the status of martyrdom to thousands of American colonists in the immediate period preceding the Revolution. His sacrifice (be it deliberate or an accident of folly) has long since been recognized and his place as an African American "hero" will undoubtedly persevere.