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Crispus Attucks: The First to Defy, the First to Die

Crispus Attucks: The First to Defy, the First to Die


By J. Michael Sharman


On March 5th, 1770, British soldiers in Boston seized John Hancock's ship Liberty for his failure to comply with British revenue laws. A group of Americans began heckling and  throwing sticks, snowballs, and oyster shells at the soldiers who were standing guard at the port's Customs House.

When the smoke from the redcoat muskets cleared, five Americans were dead.

A murder trial was brought against those British soldiers, and the trial documents record the five as: Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell, and Patrick Carr.

Perhaps because on the indictment he is the first named victim or maybe because he was the leader of the group, Crispus Attucks is credited with being the first casualty of the American Revolution: "the first to defy, the first to die."

His father, Prince Yonger, was brought from Africa as a slave. His mother was Nancy Attucks, a Natick Indian. (The word "attuck" in the Natick language means deer.)

Crispus Attucks' maternal grandfather, John Attucks, was one of the "Praying Indians" who had been converted to Christianity by missionary John Eliot. During the British-Indian conflict in 1676 known as "King Philip's War", Grandfather John Attucks was hanged for treason along with another Natick Christian Indian, Captain Tom Tray, because the British did not believe they would remain loyal to the British against other Indians.

When Crispus Attucks was 27 years old, he offered to buy his freedom with money he had saved from buying and selling cattle. After his master refused, Crispus ran away and for the next 20 years came and went from American ports as a whaling ship sailor.

Crispus Attucks was described as 6'2", stout, light skinned with short curly hair. In one account, he was said to be leading 20 to 30 men to the Customs House. Perhaps that is why it is assumed the British soldiers shot him first.

On the fourth anniversary of the Boston Massacre, in what might one might call the first Memorial Day speech, John Hancock spoke to a large crowd in Boston proclaiming a bold plan for the future in which the American people would hold the power, not the British Parliament or king.

John Hancock had quite a different life than his fellow patriot, Crispus Attucks. Hancock was born near Quincy, Massachusetts, the son and grandson of ministers. His father died when John was still an infant, leaving him in the care of a wealthy uncle.

John graduated from Harvard at age 17 and went to work for his uncle, first as a counting room clerk, and then on a business mission to England. Shortly after John returned to America, his uncle died and left his fortune to John, making him at age 26 one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts.

John almost immediately began putting his energies into politics, being chosen first as selectman in the town of Boston, then as representative for Boston in the General Provincial Assembly, and in 1774 the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts unanimously chose him as their president. Also in 1774, he was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress.

Hancock's Boston oration called for a well-regulated militia of the whole people who would fight "for their liberty, and for themselves, and for their God. " He called for a convention of representatives from all the colonies which would form a Congress to establish a Union. He called on Americans to fight and die for "our Jerusalem" against the "Philistines".

It is no wonder that when the British offered a general pardon to revolutionaries in 1775 they singled out John Hancock and said he would not eligible.

John Hancock ended his speech, in which he eulogized Crispus Attucks and the other men from the Boston Massacre, with words that we still need to hear today:

And let us play the man for our God, and for the cities of our God; … let us humbly commit our righteous cause to the great Lord of the universe, who loves righteousness and hates iniquity. And…by a faithful and unwearied discharge of our duty to our country, let us joyfully leave our concerns in the hands of HIM who raises up and pulls down the empires and kingdoms of the world as HE pleases and with cheerful submission to HIS sovereign will.









·         Library of Congress, "Today in History",

·         Library of Congress, "American Treasures of the Library of Congress: The Murder of Crispus Attucks"

·         "Capt. Tom Tray and the Tragedy of Natick's Praying Indians", Drawn from: The History of Natick, Mass. by Florence Lovell Macewen, notes written in 1938 to 1941, and When Deer Island was Turned into Devil's Island by Jill Lepore. (Bostonia, Boston University, Summer 1998)

·         "Africans in America",

·         AfricaWithin .com,

·         "The Boston Massacre Trials", Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, February 6, 2002

·         Hart, Albert Bushnell, ed., American Patriots and Statesmen from Washington to Lincoln, Volume One: Patriotism of the Colonies 1492-1774, P.F. Collier & Son (1916), p.351 ff.