A Brief History
On March 5, 1770, in an incident then known as “The Incident on King Street” British soldiers gunned down 5 American patriots and wounded another 6. The British Army soldiers had been stationed in Boston to protect British authorities believed to be in danger from rebellious Americans upset with arbitrary laws passed by the British Parliament.
In 1768 the British Chief Customs Officer asked Colonial Secretary, Lord Hillsborough, to send the soldiers to Massachusetts for the protection of government officials due to unrest over tariffs and other laws perceived as unfair by the colonists. Heavy handed British tactics that attempted to bully Americans into submission, such as seizing John Hancock’s sloop, the Liberty, only made matters worse. At first 4 British regiments were stationed in Massachusetts, and 2 of those remained in February of 1770 when an American boy, age 11 was killed by a British Customs employee.
This offense was apparently enough for the American colonists who were outraged by this latest act of brutality and a confrontation between a British soldier and a colonist resulted in the soldier butt stroking the colonist with the soldier’s musket. A crowd developed and tensions rose. Church bells were rung, calling out citizens which gathered outside the Customs office and insults went back and forth between soldiers and Americans. The crowd, possibly led by a mulatto runaway slave named Crispus Attucks escalated the incident by throwing things at the soldiers, eventually knocking a musket from the hands of a Private Montgomery who was himself knocked down as well. As the soldiers had already loaded their muskets as tensions escalated, Montgomery fired into the crowd, causing an American innkeeper, Richard Palmes, to slug Montgomery with a stick Palmes was carrying. In the following confusion, shots were fired into the crowd of Americans, killing 5 men and wounding another 6.
After the slaughter, the crowd moved back somewhat, giving the soldiers some respite, but numerous other Americans joined the crowd and danger loomed ominously over the scene. The British Acting governor Thomas Hutchinson managed to convince the crowd that a fair inquiry would be held and the crowd reluctantly dispersed, though tensions remained high.
The next day 8 British soldiers and their officer, Captain Thomas Preston, were arrested for murder, along with 4 civilian Customs workers alleged to have fired into the crowd as well. Under heavy pressure from the colonists, the troop garrison was moved just outside of Boston. Tensions remained high and a fierce propaganda war was waged by American Patriots.
At the trial of the soldiers and Customs agents, Loyalist lawyers refused to take the case for the defense, and British authorities contacted American patriot John Adams to defend the accused. Adams accepted and a relatively fair trial was conducted in which 6 of the soldiers were acquitted (mostly due to self-defense) and 2 soldiers were convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter, as they had more clearly fired into the crowd with deadly intent. Due to circumstances of feeling threatened, the convicted soldiers were given the reduced sentence of having their thumb branded right there in court. Capt. Preston was acquitted in a separate trial which found he had not ordered the troops to fire.
The 4 civilians were also acquitted.
The martyrdom of mixed race Crispus Attucks has been portrayed by abolitionists as fodder for their movement, and later depictions of the scene have portrayed Attucks as a dark skinned Black man instead of as the lighter skinned man he actually was. Regardless, Attucks and his fellow martyrs are remembered and honored as early victims who sacrificed their lives in the interest in American freedom. The Bostonian Society conducts a reenactment of the event each year on March 5.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were the British soldiers justified in firing on the Americans? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Barnett III, Charles, Michael Burgan, et al. The Boston Massacre (Graphic History). Capstone Press, 2006.
York, Neil L. The Boston Massacre. Routledge, 2010.
Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. W.W. Norton & Co., 1996.