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Crispus Attucks, ‘The First Martyr of Liberty’

In 1855, William Cooper Nell published the first historical tome acknowledging the African Americans who fought in the American Revolution. The “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” according to its author, was “an attempt…to rescue from oblivion the name and fame of those who, though ‘tinged with the hated stain,’ yet had warm hearts and active hands in the ‘times that tried men’s souls.’”

An illustrated page from “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” William Nell, 1855. On loan from the Special Collections Research Center, William & Mary Libraries.

While the roles of African Americans, both free and enslaved, had largely been left out of the nation’s founding narratives, Nell invited his readers to shift their gaze to African Americans’ roles, contributions and sacrifices in pursuit of America’s independence and, often, their own pursuit of freedom and liberty.

Forgotten Soldier” – the special exhibition on view at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown – invites you to shift your gaze and see the history of the American Revolution and those who lived it through a new lens that illuminates the forgotten stories of African Americans.

The exhibition begins exactly where William Cooper Nell began his history, with Crispus Attucks, “the first martyr of liberty.”

On the evening of March 5, 1770, an angry crowd clashed with soldiers from the 29th Regiment of Foot near Boston’s Old State House. Crispus Attucks was among those gathered at that contentious moment.

A formerly enslaved man of African and American Indian descent from Framingham, Massachusetts, Attucks found work in Boston as a sailor. While the exact details of what happened during the Boston Massacre are still being debated, by many accounts Attucks himself was an active participant in the crowd that jeered the British soldiers, frustrated by their occupation of the city. The situation intensified and perhaps out of fear or confusion, the soldiers fired into the close crowd of civilians – Attucks was struck in the chest. He, along with two other men, lost their lives on the night of March 5, and two others would perish in the following days.

Paul Revere included Crispus Attucks in his scene of “The Bloody Massacre,” March 5, 1770. Shown is a detail from a film in the “Forgotten Soldier” special exhibition, based on the engraving  “The Bloody Massacre” in the collection of The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

Look closely, and you can see that Paul Revere included Attucks in his scene of “The Bloody Massacre.” By many accounts, Crispus Attucks was the first victim of the Boston Massacre. He, along with Samuel Gray, Samuel Maverick, James Caldwell and Patrick Carr are buried in Boston’s Granary Burial Ground under a single stone, memorialized as the first patriots who sacrificed their lives in what would become the American Revolution.

Despite the importance of the Boston Massacre in the history of America’s war for independence, Crispus Attucks remains shrouded in ambiguity. Attucks is not mentioned in the first published history of the Revolution, written by David Ramsay in 1789. Attucks does, however, appear in Carlo Botta’s 1837 “History of the War of American Independence,” in which Botta seemed to glean much from John Adam’s defense of the British soldiers to construct his account of the evening’s events, but Adams painted Attucks as an instigator of what transpired on March 5, 1770 – a villain, rather than a patriot.

Conscious of nearly a century of gross injustice to Crispus Attucks’ character, William Cooper Nell began his “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution” with a chapter on Attucks and his position in the collective memories of Massachusetts residents, noting that in 1851, seven citizens of Boston petitioned for a monument to be erected “to the memory of Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution.” The petition was denied. Nell, himself among the petitioners, expected the outcome but “asked only for justice, and that the name of Crispus Attucks might be honored as a grateful country honors other gallant Americans.”

In “Colored Patriots,” Nell continues, “the same session of the Legislature which has refused the Attucks monument, granted one to Isaac Davis, of Concord. Both were promoters of the American Revolution, but one was white, the other was black; and this is the only solution to the problem why justice was not fairly meted out.”

View a copy of William Cooper Nell’s “Colored Patriots of the American Revolution” on display in the “Forgotten Soldier” special exhibition at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown through March 22, 2020.

Katherine Egner Gruber is the special exhibition curator for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

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