The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, foreshadowed the American War of Independence of 1776 and set in motion great unrest in the Thirteen Colonies against King George III (1738-1820) and the British in general. Other events would contribute to the rise of revolutionary spirit in Massachusetts, but the massacre in Boston was certainly an important spark. The Boston Massacre was not always known as such, leading to many modern misconceptions and popular myths associated with the event. The massacre was first popularized by Paul Revere (1735–1818) – an American folk hero who famously partook in the Boston Tea Party alerting the approach of the British in 1775 – who made early reference to the Boston Massacre as the “Bloody Massacre in King Street”. By the early 1800s the event was known as the State Stree Massacre and, by the time of Frederic Kidder’s epic retelling of the Boston tale, the event was commonly known as the Boston Massacre.

Three years before the Boston Massacre a set of import levies (taxes) on items such as tea, paper, glass, etc. was enshrined by the British Parliament in 1767 as the Townshend Acts. These acts greatly upset the colonists and so many in Boston began advocating and protesting for the nonimportation and nonconsumption of British goods, as well as a halt to trading of goods within the colonies. Protests in Boston reached such a fevered pitch that the Customs Commissioner – fearing for the safety of himself and his employees – call on the British Parliament to guarantee their safety by dispatching troops to Boston. The demand for troops was answered in October of 1768 when troops began arriving in the city. Bostonians did not welcome these new troops and calls for British soldiers to be housed in civilian homes (as a result of limited space in forts and barracks) sparked outrage among citizens. A few months after the arrival of troops, agitation against soldiers, store vandalism, and growing protest put Boston on edge. Soldiers were stationed at public offices and often harassed civilians. The murder of eleven-year-old Christopher Seider by irate customs informer Ebenezer Richardson gave Boston the young martyr they needed to escalate actions against the British.      

Although a number of myths have been perpetuated about how the massacre began, what we do know is that insults were hurled at Hugh White, a soldier of the 29th Regiment on sentry duty in front of the Customs House ( which was a symbol of royal authority) by a small grouping of rambunctious youth. After several verbal confrontations, the crowd soon swelled to over 400 people.  The officer on duty at the time, Captain John Preston, soon assembled additional soldiers (roughly 6-8 extra soldiers) with fixed bayonets around Hugh White as a show of strength. The crowd began to pelt the soldiers with snow, pieces of ice and continued verbal threats in hopes of edging them into action. Although Captain Preston’s men had initially assembled with unloaded guns, the soldiers proceeded to load their weapons. Without warning, and without orders from Preston, several soldier fired their weapons into the crowd after some projectile struck a fellow soldier. When the smoke dissipated, 5 men would lay dead and about a half a dozen others were injured but survived. The first casualy was an African-American dock worker named Crispus Attacks (it is important to realize that an African American would become a hero of the American struggle against British rule). The other fatalities were Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Coldwell and Patrick Carr.

Governor Thomas Hutchison appears on the scene and had Captain Preston restore order by ordering his men to stop firing their weapons and removed them from the area around the Customs House. Hutchison announced to the crowd that Preston and his men would be immediately arrested and tried in court. The crowds dispersed and Hutchison ensured that all British troops were moved out of Boston to Castle William. Having been arrested, Preston and his men were indicted for murder and held in prison pending trial in the Massachusetts Superior Court. Several months went by before the trial could begin in hopes of quelling any tension in Boston.  When the trial did begin in October and November of 1770, Samual Quincy was appointed as special prosecutor, and John Adams and Josiah Quincy agreed to defend Preston and his men. Captain Preston and four men were eventually acquitted, while two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter and released after being branded with an “M” on their hands – thereby designating them as murderers. 

The trial appears to have calmed Bostononians, and my the final months of 1770 the British Parliament repealed the Townshend Acts, with the exception of the tax on tea (which, as we know, led to the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773). British troops retreated and relative peace was restored in Boston. The Boston Massacre would however serve as a spark to a greater struggle for American independence in 1776. The events that transpired in Boston created great fear among Americans to the power of standing armies in suppressing their liberties. The Boston Massacre therefore became a rally cry – a paramount anti-British propoganda tool – of which revolutionaries would use to considerable success during the American War of Independence. If history can be described as a connection of dots, the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770 was the first of many dots that would challenge and dismantle British rule in America. 

Please feel free to consult some of the sources below for additional information on the Boston Massacre.

History of the Boston Massacre by Frederic Kidder

The Boston Massacre Trials: An Account

Depiction of Crispus Attucks and the Boston Massacre, lithograph

“The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, on Mar. 5, 1770”

Copy of chromolithograph by John Bufford after William L. Champney, circa 1856.

An oration delivered April 2d, 1771. At the request of the inhabitants of the town of Boston; to commemorate the bloody tragedy of the fifth of March, 1770

Chromolithograph by John Bufford after William L. Champney, circa 1856.
Chromolithograph by John Bufford after William L. Champney, circa 1856.

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