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8 Things We Know About Crispus Attucks

February 3, 2020 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

Crispus Attucks, a multiracial man who had escaped slavery, is known as the first American colonist killed in the American Revolution.

On the evening of March 5, 1770, British troops fired into a crowd of angry American colonists in , Attucks initially was identified in coroners’ documents as “Michael Johnson,” and may possibly have used that alias to avoid detection.

He was a seaman.

After his escape, Attucks made his way to Boston, where according to the New England Historical Society, he became a sailor, one of the few trades open to a non-white person. (Around the time of the American Revolution, one-fifth of the 100,000 sailors employed on American ships were African American.) Attucks worked on whaling ships, and when he wasn’t at sea, he found work as a rope-maker. On the night that he died, Attucks had just returned from the Bahamas, and was on his way to North Carolina.

He was a big man.

Attucks was six inches taller than the average American man of the Revolutionary War era, and testimony at the trial of the British soldiers indicted for his death depicted him as having a robust physique. John Adams, the future U.S. president who acted as one of the soldiers’ defense attorneys, used Attucks’ musculature—and his mixed-race lineage—in an effort to justify the British troops’ fear of him. Adams described Attucks as “a stout mulatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person,” according to the trial transcript.

Crispus Attucks is shown after being shot in the Boston Massacre, along with four other colonists.

He was angry at the British over competition for work.

As Douglas R. Egerton writes in his book Death Or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America, Great Britain paid its soldiers so poorly that many of the found it necessary to take part-time jobs when they were off-duty. Competition from the influx of troops threatened to depress the wages of American workers such as Attucks. Additionally, as an experienced seaman, Attucks faced the danger of being seized by one of the British press gangs that Parliament authorized to forcibly draft sailors into the Royal Navy. His ire toward the British apparently was intense.

According to Egerton’s book, on the evening of the massacre, Attucks was drinking at a pub with other seamen at a local tavern when a British soldier wandered in and inquired about …read more