What Happened at the Boston Massacre?

“The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King-Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt.” Paul Revere, 1770. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.

The image to the left is probably the most famous image of the Boston Massacre. It was engraved by Paul Revere about two weeks after the Boston Massacre happened. From looking at the engraving, how would you summarize what happened at the Boston Massacre?

If you said, “A British soldier urged his men to fire into a crowd of peaceful Bostonians (and a dog!),” that would be a great summary of the image!

What you need to know before going any further is why the soldiers were in Boston in the first place and what led up to this specific moment. First, it was unusual for British soldiers to be in Boston. So, why were they there? Bostonians had violently rioted after the Stamp Act was passed in 1765. So when the Townshend Acts were passed in 1767, British officials decided to send troops to Boston to enforce tax collection. Starting in about 1768, 1,000 British soldiers lived in the town of Boston alongside residents to act as a sort of police force. Another 1,000 troops were stationed nearby on an island in Boston Harbor. Soldiers sometimes got along with Bostonians, but there was plenty of tension between the two groups as well. The tension built for about a year and a half before the occasional altercations led to all-out brawls, and eventually the Boston Massacre.

While the town was tense, the square in front of the Custom House started out calm on the night of the Boston Massacre. Hugh White, a private in the British army, stood guard outside the building. Various Bostonians passed through the square.

The mood in front of the Custom House changed quickly. Arguments in nearby areas of Boston meant that Hugh White could hear distant yelling. Edward Gerrick, an apprentice, walking past the Custom House with friends, taunted Hugh White. White then struck Gerrick in the head with his musket. Gerrick loudly cried in pain, drawing the attention of other Bostonians. Around that time, bells started ringing. In colonial Boston, church bells were a signal that a fire had started and Bostonians’ needed to come together to contain it. The church bells brought more people into the streets, some good Bostonians with buckets looking for the source of the fire, and others, who thought the bells were a sign of trouble, with weapons. The area in front of the Custom House had become the center of the conflict in town.

“A view of part of the town of Boston in New-England and British ships of war landing their troops! 1768,” Alfred L. Sewell, 1770. Courtesy of the Norman B. Levanthal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

As more people swarmed the streets, the number of people in the square in front of Hugh White grew. White called for help, and Captain Thomas Preston with six of his men came to help. The men wove their way through the crowd to join White and form a semi-circle in front of the Custom House. While accounts of what happened next vary, evidence shows that the soldiers tried to keep the growing crowd back. Preston reportedly told at least one townsperson that he did not plan to order the soldiers to fire. Meanwhile, the crowd threw objects at the soldiers, yelled insults and threats, and dared the soldiers to fire. As the minutes ticked on, the crowd grew, the confusion grew, and the soldiers’ fear grew.

If we only look at Paul Revere’s print, what happened next seems clear: Preston held his sword up and ordered his men to fire, which they all did at once. However, Paul Revere didn’t witness what happened on the night of the Boston Massacre. Let’s see what some people who actually were there said happened in their own words:

Paul Revere’s plan of the scene of the Boston Massacre: used at the trial of Capt. Preston and soldiers. Paul Revere, 1770. Courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

The Boston Massacre happened on a cold snowy night in March of 1770. There were quite a few people there, it was dark, and loud, and confusing. That might be why different people reported seeing different things that night. What are some other reasons the accounts might be so different from each other?

One account was written by Thomas Preston himself. Maybe he was lying, and maybe he wasn’t. It’s hard to tell, because we can expect he would say whatever made him look innocent. That might be why some people who were in the crowd said that nobody was throwing things. People also could have been motivated by emotions, or politics, or both. People who were angry at the soldiers being there and for firing into the crowd might have stretched the truth to make the Bostonians seem less aggressive. The varying testimonies make it hard to figure out what happened on the night of the Boston Massacre!

One theory of what happened, is that in the confusion, a soldier named Edward Montgomery was hit with a club or snowball, fell over, then stood back up and angrily fired into the crowd. Some witnesses swore they heard Captain Thomas Preston order his men to fire. More shots followed. Those shots killed five people and injured six more. The first man to die was Crispus Attucks, a sailor and ropemaker of African and Native American ancestry.

While we don’t know for sure why the soldiers fired, the trial nine months later found Preston not guilty of ordering his men to fire. The rest of the soldiers, except two, were found not guilty.

The Boston Massacre trial didn’t start until nine months after the event. In the meantime, Bostonians took their case to the court of public opinion. Within two weeks of the event, Paul Revere created his now famous engraving, depicting what he called the “Bloody Massacre,” which showed an officer standing behind his men, sword up, giving the order to fire. The soldiers were doing just that, as colonists lay bloody on the ground. Revere’s powerful image spread throughout the colonies as propaganda, influencing colonists’ perspective of what happened and their relationship with Great Britain. To many Americans, the Boston Massacre was an inexcusable example of British abuse of power and it helped break the ties that bound Americans to their British identity.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. How can reading or viewing primary sources from different perspectives change your view of an event?

2. Why is it so difficult to know exactly what happened on the night of the Boston Massacre?

3. Why is the Boston Massacre important? Is it important because of the details surrounding the event or because of how Patriot leaders portrayed the event at the time? Please explain your answer.


INTERACTIVE

Click the image below to access an interactive version of Paul Revere’s print of the Boston Massacre.


TEACHER ANSWER KEY

Click to Download the Teacher Answer Key


SOURCES & ADDITIONAL READING

Neil L. York, The Boston Massacre: A History with Documents (New York: Routledge, 2010).

Serena Zabin, The Boston Massacre: A Family History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020).

Hiller B. Zobel, The Boston Massacre (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970).