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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Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Brown Family Memories of Crispus Attucks

As I quoted yesterday, in 1857 the descendants of William Brown of Framingham published a claim that he had been the owner of Crispus Attucks, victim of the Boston Massacre.

They made that statement in a small book published to celebrate a wedding anniversary; it’s unlikely that any historian outside the family would have challenged it, or even seen it. So how credible was their claim?

And yet, two years later both the New England Historical and Genealogical Register and The Liberator reprinted an advertisement that William Brown had placed in the Boston Gazette on two dates in 1750. As quoted here, Brown was seeking an escaped slave named Crispas.

Because Crispas/Crispus was a rare name, and because both the escapee in 1750 and the man who died in 1770 were unusually tall mulatto men from Framingham, most readers then and now have assumed that notice described Attucks. The ad thus offers contemporaneous evidence to support the Brown family’s claim.

By the 1850s, Attucks was a significant figure in the American past. After decades of being largely forgotten, he had become a symbol of African-American patriotism and martyrdom. That was principally the work of William Cooper Nell, Boston’s leading black historian and abolitionist (shown above). Nell organized commemorations of the Boston Massacre that put Attucks front and center.

A member of the Brown family attended one of those ceremonies, as Nell wrote in that Liberator item from 1859:
It will be remembered that, at the Faneuil Hall commemoration of the Boston massacre, (March 5th, 1858,) Samuel H. Brown, Esq., a grandson of the above William Brown, was present, and narrated to several persons the traditions extant in the family relating to Crispus Attucks—of his goblet, powder-horn, &c.
That same year C. H. Morse of Cambridge wrote in the N.E.H.G.R.: “The descendants of Mr. Browne have a pewter drinking cup, worn by Attucks when he fell, which I have seen. They have also his powder horn.”

Those are the earliest mentions I’ve found of any objects said to be linked to Attucks. In 1860 Nell’s broadside announcing the ninetieth-anniversary commemoration of the Massacre promised a look at “a GOBLET, which belonged to CRISPUS ATTUCKS,” and a copy of the Boston Gazette with William Brown’s ad. (No teapot, though.)

TOMORROW: More information gathered by W. C. Nell.


Anonymous said...

i have a crazy theory that the bucks of america http://www.masshist.org/database/viewer.php?item_id=788 which no one seems to know about, took their name from (in tribute to) attucks which i think means deer (algonkin). what do you think? the rest of the symbolism is straight forward. why would the deer represent a negro unit?

J. L. Bell said...

I’m working on the Bucks of America myself, though my theory goes against what Nell believed about those emblems. Unfortunately, there’s no documentation from the 1780s about what the founders of that group intended.

It wasn’t until generations later that white scholars connected the name Attucks with the Massachusett word “auttuck” found in seventeenth-century dictionaries, but that doesn’t mean people in the 1780s (particularly African-Americans who had formed families with Native Americans) didn’t already know.