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.


Unknown said...

Enjoying your series. Please see wikipedia article.

My belief is the following:

1) John Attuck (usually this, not Auttuck), died 1676 in Framingham, hung in King Phillip's War, Narragansett Indian. Attuck = deer in Narragansett language. See Rogers Williams 'A Key into the American Languages.'

2) Another generation we don't know about. Perhaps a Peter Attucks? Either that or Jacob Peter was born/conceived ca. 1676. and had children late, hence his claimed disability in 1723 (age 46-47 or older). There are anecdotes of Crispus looking younger than his age, so perhaps longevity/youth ran in the family. Jacob was still alive in 1740, when he was working for Thomas Buckminster. TB was put in charge of a commission for the preservation of deer in the Framingham area in 1739.

3) Nanny Peterattucks is either Attucks mother, perhaps born around 1705 and a much younger wife of Jacob; that or she is his sister or aunt, born around 1715-1720. There could be two Nanny/Nancy Peterattucks, mother and daughter. Your stepfather theory seems to make the most sense, where a very young Nanny married an older Jacob, then they split up when Jacob was older (would have been around 60) and she married Price Yonger when she was in her early 30s and he was 40. Prince and Nanny had children: 'a son who died young, and Phebe, who never married,' but Crispus is never mentioned among them; very conspicuous, given his outsized fame in comparison. Bottom line: Prince Yonger is not Attuck's father. He did not even arrive in Massachusetts until around 1723-1724, when Attucks was already born. As for the Peterattucks name, they were apparently playful/casual with their names, hence 'Smattox' 'Slattox' and 'Pea Tattox,' so my guess is that either she or historians/archivists melded the two names, while Crispus decided to leave it as is. My assumption is Moses Peter Attucks ('negro slave') must have been related and decided not to alter the name, or perhaps avoided it by having lived away from Framingham in Leicester.

An interesting tidbit: in Volume 3 of the Loyal Publication Society published 1864, Judge William D. Kelley refers to Crispus Attucks as Peter Attucks. Could it be that he was referring to the last name and that Crispus was a nickname, and that his full name was Cris Peter Attucks - Cris P. Attucks - Crisp Attucks - Crispus Attucks. Again, they played around with their names.

J. L. Bell said...

That would be the Wikipedia article on Crispus Attucks that you just spent some hours substantially editing, right, PSmith85?

This posting is ten years old. I’ve posted more recently about Crispus Attucks as I’ve found additional sources.

In general, I’m wary about making firm assumptions about Attucks’s name based on English naming patterns and reports.

Unknown said...

J.L. Bell, where is your newer posting about Crispus Attucks based on additional sources?

J. L. Bell said...

I wrote a series of postings on Attucks in 2015 that starts here and continues for a few days. So you can click on that link and then hit “Newer Post” at the bottom of each posting until they stop being about Attucks.

I expect to keep posting about Attucks as new information, questions, or other pertinent items arise, and those postings will always be tagged with his name. Clicking on that name in a tag list will bring up the posts in reverse chronological order.