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, May 24, 2015

More Information about the Attucks Family

In 1860 the historian and activist William C. Nell addressed a crowd at the ninetieth anniversary of the Boston Massacre. That event took place in an auditorium called the Meionaon, part of the Tremont Temple. [Why don’t we have a Meionaon anymore?]

As part of his speech, Nell shared some new information he had gathered about the family of Crispus Attucks, by then a symbol of African-American patriotism. Nell’s speech was printed in The Liberator, the abolitionist newspaper.

Later that year, a writer in the Boston Transcript argued that Attucks was an Indian rather than a black man. (He in all likelihood had both African and North American ancestry.) Nell drew on the same new information when he wrote into that mainstream newspaper to refute that claim.

First, a Massachusetts legislator from Framingham named James W. Brown wrote to Nell on 18 Feb 1860 to say:
He (Crispus) was the slave of my great grandfather, Deacon William Brown, of Framingham. He returned after his runaway excursion, and was a faithful servant. He was allowed to buy and sell cattle on his own judgment. It was probably upon one of these trading tours that he was drawn into the affray of March 5th. He pressed close upon the British troops, who received him and the other people with loaded muskets.

Attucks beat down their guns with a heavy stick, and shouted, “They dare not fire!” They did fire, and with what effect was known to all. Of stout and vigorous frame, athletic, bold and patriotic, had he lived, he would, doubtless, have acted a conspicuous and useful part in our great revolutionary struggle.
That was basically the same thing the Brown family had published three years before, down to the statement that their ancestor had let Attucks trade cattle “on his own judgment.” This letter made explicit that Attucks had returned to Framingham after the months in late 1750 when William Brown had advertised him as a runaway, and was still working for the Brown family when he died.

We should expect that story to reflect what the Browns wanted to believe, or wanted people to believe about them. It portrays William Brown as a lenient master, and Attucks as “faithful” and “patriotic.”

Nell didn’t name the person who had sent him a second letter from Natick dated 17 Feb 1860. It said in part:
Several persons are now living in Natick, who remember the Attucks family—viz., Cris, who was killed March 5th; Sam, whose name was abbreviated into Sam Attucks, or Smattox; Sal, also known as Slattox; and Peter, called Pea Tattox.

My mother, still living, aged 89, remembers Sal in particular, who used to be called the gourd-shell squaw, from the fact that she used to carry her rum in a gourd shell.

The whole family are described as having been uncommonly large, and are said to have been the children of Jacob Peter Attucks, who lived with Capt. Thomas Buckminster, of Framingham.

It has been conjectured that Jacob and Nanny were of Indian blood; but all who know the descendants, describe them as negroes. Crispus lived in many different places in Natick and Framingham.

When the inhabitants were detained in Boston, he used to smuggle their horses out of the town. He brought out three or four horses, which he took to Framingham, and then returned to kill the red-coats. His sister used to say that if they had not killed Cris, Cris would have killed them. Cris is said to have been in every street fight with the soldiers for some time previous to March 5th, 1770.
In addition, in writing to the Transcript Nell said, “Crispus Attucks was born in Framingham. A portion of his early life was passed in Sutton (now Millbury).” I’m not sure what the basis for that last statement is. Of course, all this information was second- or third-hand, about a man who had died ninety years before and had been born nearly a half-century before that.

But some parts seem to check out. There was indeed a prominent Thomas Buckminster (1698-1795) in Framingham. William Barry’s 1847 History of Framingham reported that Jacob Peterattucks “was in F[r]am., 1730, and worked for Col. Buckminster,” and that in May 1737 Nancy Peterattuck married Prince Yongey, a man enslaved to the Buckminster family. At that date Crispus Attucks was evidently in his teens. Was he indeed a son of Jacob Peterattucks? Was Nanny/Nancy his mother, remarrying? Or was this a more extended family?

Other parts of Nell’s new information raise questions, however. Though Framingham and Natick are next to each other, Sutton is twenty miles away. How did young Crispus go from one area to the other and back as Nell described?

Usually the phrase “inhabitants were detained in Boston” refers to the siege of 1775-76, but Attucks was dead by then. I know of no reason for people to “smuggle horses out of town” earlier.

Finally, all these stories about Crispus Attucks working steadily for his Framingham master until 1770 don’t square with the newspaper reports after his death that he was a sailor, nor with how Boston officials at first called him “Michael Johnson.” Those contemporaneous details fit better with the picture of a man who escaped from slavery by going to sea and then protected himself from recapture through an alias while back in Massachusetts.

TOMORROW: The teapot finally surfaces. You remember the teapot, right?

[My great thanks to Boston 1775 readers Joe Bauman and Liz Loveland for giving me the resources to transcribe the 16 Mar 1860 Liberator items fully and accurately. With their help I’ve revised this posting. Folks can find images of all Liberator issues here.]

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