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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Monday, February 25, 2008

What We Know About Crispus Attucks

Aside from legal documents and newspaper reports surrounding the Boston Massacre, the only information we have about Crispus Attucks from the eighteenth century is an advertisement that ran in the Boston Gazette on 2 Oct 1750.

It reads:

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 13 and 20 November, Brown bought space in the Gazette again, shortening the ad by four lines. He dropped the pro forma warning to sea captions, as well as a few more words here and there. He added that Crispas was “well set.”

Of course, in the middle of the 1700s the Boston newspaper ran many notices for runaway slaves, apprentices, and indentured servants. Why do most historians accept that this ad referred to Crispus Attucks, killed on 5 Mar 1770? Because that dead man was also said to be an unusually tall, husky “mulatto” from Framingham, and Crispas/Crispus was not a common name. The odds that two men met that description seems small. Of course, we also want more information about Attucks.

Researchers spotted this ad in the mid-1800s, part of a burst of new interest in Attucks as the nation fought over rights for African-Americans. As writers noted right away, Brown’s estimate of his enslaved worker’s age meant that Attucks was in his mid-forties when he was killed, and not a rowdy young man.

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