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On the Trail of Crispus Attucks: Investigating a Victim of the Boston Massacre

J. L. Bell

Proprietor, Boston 1775 website

If American history students can name any victim of the Boston Massacre, it is almost certainly Crispus Attucks. He became a symbol of African-American patriotism for the Abolitionists of the 1800s and for civil rights activists of the 1900s. Yet Attucks' name doesn't appear in the first newspaper reports about British soldiers shooting into a violent crowd on March 5, 1770. That's just one of the mysteries that students can explore by using the Archive of Americana to examine the Boston Massacre.

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In colonial Boston, some newspapers were published on Mondays and some on Thursdays. Because the shootings on King Street occurred on the evening of Monday, March 5, the first press reports didn't appear until Thursday, March 8. The Boston Chronicle stated that among the dead was "A Mollatto man named, Johnson."

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The same day's Boston News-Letter provided more information about this victim:

A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.

British colonists would have understood that language to mean that Johnson had some African ancestry, but also some European or Native American. He had left the town of Framingham, become an inhabitant of the Bahamas, and was waiting to sail to North Carolina when he died. A coroner's report now held by the Old State House Museum in Boston gives a full name for this dead man: "Michael Johnson."

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Something changed over the next four days, as revealed (but not explained) in the Boston Gazette for March 12, 1770. It described the dead mulatto man using the same language as in the News-Letter, with two differences. The Gazette offered more gory detail about his wound, and it identified him as "Crispus Attucks."

From then on, Crispus Attucks was listed among the shooting victims. The coroner's report was relabeled. And only the most detailed accounts of the Massacre note that most Bostonians had once known of Attucks as Michael Johnson. Thus, the only way for students to spot this mystery and explore it is by looking in documents from that first week after the shooting.

In Boston: 1689-1776, G. B. Warden suggested that the name "Michael Johnson…perhaps was a John Doe alias used at that time." Until recently, testing that hypothesis would have taken months of reading legal records or newspapers to see if the same alias turns up in connection to other corpses. But with the Archive of Americana, it takes only a minute to determine that "Michael Johnson" appears rarely, and not in that context.

The Archive offers other ways to gather facts about Attucks. There are two major sources of eyewitness testimony about the Boston Massacre, both published in 1770 and both accessible through the Archive's Early American Imprints series.

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The first was a report commissioned by the town of Boston called A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre. (Its title hints at the local reaction.) The report contains over a hundred depositions from locals about conflicts with the soldiers and what the townsfolk saw on March 5.

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The second source is the published record of the soldiers' trial in late November; its very long title starts The Trial of William Wemms.… Some participants in the trial complained about the accuracy of this transcription, but it's the most complete documentation of any colonial trial.

Students can skim and search those accounts to see how witnesses referred to Attucks. There are over a dozen references to him as a "mulatto" or "molatto," and one each as an "Indian," a "tall man," and a "stout [i.e., muscular] man." No one in those publications referred to Attucks as a "Negro" or "black man," terms used for other men in that period. Americans in later centuries remembered Attucks because of his African heritage, but Bostonians of 1770 did not view him as a typical African.

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In 1859, C. H. Morse found an 18th-century newspaper advertisement that he took to reveal more about Attucks, and the Archive of Americana lets students examine it themselves. The notice appeared in the Boston Gazette on October 2, 1750:

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 two Inches high, short curl'd Hair, his Knees nearer together than common; had on a light colour'd Bearskin Coat, plain brown Fustian Jacket, or brown all-Wool one, new Buckskin Breeches, blue Yarn Stockings, and a check'd woollen 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 caution'd against concealing or carrying off said Servant on Penalty of the Law. Boston, October 2, 1750.

On November 13 and 20, Brown bought space in the Gazette to run the ad again, shortening it by four lines.

Given the eighteenth century's relaxed standards for spelling, "Crispas" and "Crispus" are the same name. Both the escapee and the dead sailor were tall mulatto men from Framingham. If Crispus Attucks escaped from slavery in 1750, that explains why he adopted the "Michael Johnson" alias when he was back in Massachusetts, even twenty years later.

But is it safe to assume that Crispas in 1750 and Crispus Attucks in 1770 were the same? If Crispus was a common name for enslaved men in New England—as Pompey, Caesar and Cuffe were—then the runaway and the sailor could have been different people. How would you guide students to investigate that question using the Archive of Americana?

J. L. Bell offers history, analysis and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England on his website Boston 1775. He contributed the chapter “From Saucy Boys to Sons of Liberty: Politicizing Youth in Pre-Revolutionary Boston” to the book Children in Colonial America (NYU Press, 2006), and articles to several journals and magazines. Bell speaks about Revolutionary history at teachers’ workshops, schools and museums in the Boston area.

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