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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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

New Myths of the Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre occurred 244 years ago today. From the start that was a controversial event with different participants seeing it quite differently. It’s been mythologized in many ways, and myths and misconceptions continue to crop up. Here are some that I’ve seen repeated recently.

Did Crispus Attucks work at Gray’s ropewalk?

Boston’s official report on the shooting, titled A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre…, gave a lot of attention to a brawl between soldiers and workers at John Gray’s rope-manufacturing facility on 2 March. That fight involved two soldiers, Mathew Kilroy and William Warren, and one ropemaker, Samuel Gray, who faced off on King Street three days later. Another soldier, John Carroll, was part of a follow-up brawl on 3 March. Thus, the town suggested, those soldiers had not shot in self-defense but out of anger at townspeople, and perhaps at Samuel Gray in particular.

In all that attention to the ropewalk fight, however, no witness identified Crispus Attucks as being involved. Testimony does put a big man of African descent in the brawl: Drummer Thomas Walker of the 29th Regiment. But justice of the peace John Hill recalled shouting at Walker, “you black rascal, what have you to do with white people’s quarrels?” That suggests that no man of color like Attucks had been prominent in the fights before. Newspapers described Gray as a ropemaker but Attucks simply as a sailor.

In 2008 I noted a Boston Globe essay that said, “According to lore, Attucks reappeared [in Boston] just before the massacre, likely finding dock work as a rope maker.” But there’s no evidence for that guess and some to suggest it was mistaken. I suspect people trying to find a tight link between the ropewalk fight and the shooting on King Street assumed Attucks was involved in both, but historical events aren’t always so neat.

Did Attucks work on a whaling ship?

In Traits of the Tea-Party, published in 1835, Benjamin Bussey Thatcher cited an old barber named William Pierce as his source that Attucks “was a Nantucket Indian, belonging on board a whale-ship of Mr. Folger’s, then in the harbor…” But Pierce also told Thatcher that he’d never seen Attucks before the night of the Massacre, so he didn’t have inside information.

Boston’s 1770 newspapers directly contradict Pierce. They said Attucks was from Framingham, not Nantucket. They reported Attucks was “lately belonging to New-Providence [in the Bahamas], and was here in order to go for North-Carolina”—meaning he worked on trading voyages to the south rather than hunting whales.

I suspect that Pierce’s memory of Attucks from sixty-five years before had gotten mixed with his memory of the Prince Boston legal case, which did involve a man of African and Native descent, whalers from Nantucket, and a captain named Folger.

TOMORROW: The myth of the tombs.


Joanq said...

I have often wondered why an escaped slave (as Attucks was called) would bring attention to himself by attacking a British soldier.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that seems like the biggest mystery of Attucks's life: why someone who was so oppressed within the North American society that Boston’s Whigs were trying to preserve, and had such a strong reason to remain in the shadows, took such a prominent role in the anti-Crown riot on King Street.