J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Mysteries of Crispus Attucks

As we look ahead to this year’s anniversary and reenactment of the Boston Massacre (announcements to come), today’s Boston Globe ran an article headlined “Two towns claim Crispus Attucks.” Its main point is how very little we know about Crispus Attucks, the best known victim of the Massacre. We can’t even be sure whether he lived in what is now Framingham or Natick.

In fact, I think we know even less than the article states. Michele Morgan Bolton reported:

historians continue to debate the historic role of this son of an African slave father and Natick Praying Indian mother in the bloody skirmish with the British.
I don’t believe we have any solid evidence about Attucks’s parents. Because he was apparently enslaved as a young man, he was probably born into slavery. That would mean that his mother was enslaved, but his father may have been free. If young Crispus inherited the surname Attucks from his father, the man was likely a Natick Indian—the word means “little deer” in the native language. However, some enslaved children with surnames inherited them from their mothers, as in the case of Sally Hemings’s children.

It seems significant that this description of Attucks’s parents—African father, Native Christian mother—matches what’s in Dharathula Millender’s biography of Crispus Attucks. Many eager readers have taken that book as genealogically reliable, but it’s fictionalized biography for young readers.

The article continues:
A 1972 “Negro History Bulletin” stated that Attucks was believed to have been a slave in Framingham who lived with his family in a cellar hole on what is now Route 9, near Route 30.
This refers to Bill Belton’s article “The Indian Heritage of Crispus Attucks,” which in turn cites J. H. Temple’s 1887 History of Framingham. That book states:
Crispus Attucks...was a mulatto, born near the Framingham town line, a short distance to the eastward of the state Arsenal. The old cellar-hole where the Attucks family lived is still visible. He was probably a descendant of John Auttuck, an Indian, who was taken prisoner and executed at the same time with Capt. Tom, in June, 1676. Probably the family had intermarried with negroes who were slaves, and as the offspring of such marriages were held to be slaves, he inherited their condition, although it seems likely that the blood of three races coursed through his veins. He had been bought by Dea. William Brown of Framingham, as early as 1747.
Note the repeated use of “probably.” Temple felt Attucks was “probably” descended from John Auttuck. But can we assume his family used surnames the same way English colonists did, passing them down along male lines? Was Attucks a rare name in the community? (There were people in Framingham surnamed “Peterattucks” in the early 1700s.) Why assume Crispus was a direct descendant of John, except that both were recorded by the authorities?

As for Temple’s date of 1747, The Negro in the American Rebellion, published in Boston in 1867 by William Wells Brown (no relation to the Framingham deacon), also said that Brown owned Attucks in that year. But neither book offered documentation. We do have clear evidence that Brown claimed Attucks in 1750, when he placed an advertisement in the Boston Gazette reporting that his enslaved worker “Crispas” had freed himself.

The Globe article continues:
All accounts agree Attucks excelled as a cattle and horse trader and was a valued employee of William Brown, a grist-mill owner. But after attempts to buy his freedom failed, Attucks, at 27, is believed to have fled to sea in 1750. Some believe he sailed on a whaler off Nantucket. Or was it the China trade, by way of the Bahamas?

According to lore, Attucks reappeared just before the massacre, likely finding dock work as a rope maker. But trouble was already flaring between the British “lobster backs” and colonists, culminating in the deadly confrontation outside the Customs House on March 5, 1770, that kicked off the American Revolution.
Our only account of Attucks’s skill as a livestock trader comes from an unidentified descendant of William Brown whom Temple questioned in 1887. There’s no record of him trying to buy his freedom or working in Boston’s rope-making industry. The “China trade” didn’t exist until after the Revolution, when American merchants needed to find markets outside the British Empire. The term “lobster backs” appears to be an anachronism.

There is one indication that Attucks worked on a New Bedford whaling ship, but that account raises as many questions about the man as it answers. Traits of the Tea-Party (1835) credits a Boston barber named William Pierce with this information:
Attucks..., he says, was a Nantucket Indian, belonging on board a whale-ship of Mr. Folger’s, then in the harbor...
Pierce also told the author that he had never seen Attucks before the night of the Massacre, so he was recalling secondhand information. In 1770, Boston’s newspapers reported that Attucks was “lately belonging to New-Providence, and was here in order to go for North-Carolina”—nothing about Nantucket. So Pierce might have heard the wrong facts or become confused over sixty-five years.

American culture has come to see Crispus Attucks as a hero, martyr, and very important person. But he had to live his life in the shadows—as a slave, a runaway, and a hard-working sailor. Now we’re almost desperate for information about him, and grasp at almost any statement as if it were reliable. But we still know very little.

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