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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Friday, May 22, 2015

The Crispus Attucks Teapot

Among the artifacts in the “We Are One” exhibit at the Boston Public Library is a teapot linked to Crispus Attucks, now owned by Historic New England. (And shown here thanks to a Harvard course on material culture.)

I read about this teapot years ago, but I’d never seen it before. It’s smaller than I expected, about the size of one of those little individual pots a restaurant with airs brings out when one orders tea. It‘s pewter, plain, and poorly made. In short, it was a cheap teapot.

But is it Attucks’s?

The evidence from 1770 suggests that Attucks was working as a sailor under an assumed name, at least while he was in Massachusetts. Documents from the coroner’s inquiry immediately after he died in the Boston Massacre called him “Michael Johnson.” The Thursday newspapers identified him as:
A Mollatto Man, named Johnson, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonging to New-Providence [Bahamas], and was here in order to go for North-Carolina, killed on the Spot, two Balls entering his Breast.
That day was both market day and the day of the funeral for Attucks and three other shooting victims. It’s conceivable those events brought people into Boston with new information. Alas, the Boston Gazette on Monday offered no explanation for identifying that same man as “Crispus Attucks,” and the legal system followed suit. Every source from 1770 agrees that Attucks was a sailor.

In the 1850s, after Attucks had become a touchstone for American abolitionists, a Framingham family named Brown came forward to claim part of his memory. In 1857 that family published a small anniversary book titled The Golden Wedding of Col. James Brown and His Wife. It included a “Speech of Mr. Wm. D. Brown” about his ancestors’ Revolutionary history, including this:
In the month of March 1770, a collision occured between the people of Boston and a portion of the King’s troops, then quartered in the town. The soldiers were very obnoxious to the citizens and a slight provocation was sufficient to raise a mob against them. The old school books tell us, that at this time the mob was led on by a stout negro whose name was Attucks. The mob pressed close up to the troops who received them with leveled muskets! Attucks beat down the guns with a heavy club and cried “they dare not fire!” They did fire, and Crispus Attucks, our great grandfather[ William Brown]’s slave, was shot dead!

Attucks was a well informed and faithful negro. He was a good judge of cattle and was allowed to sell and buy upon his own judgment. Crispus was sensible of the oppressions of Great Britain, and as indignant as the most patriotic, at the presence of hireling soldiers in the country, to enforce unjust laws.
It’s a curious passage, setting down family lore yet apparently relying on “old school books” for information about Attucks’s actions on 5 Mar 1770. In this description of a “faithful negro,…sensible of the oppressions of Great Britain,” there’s no hint that Attucks had become a sailor or used the name Michael Johnson.

TOMORROW: The Brown family and William C. Nell.

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