The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre was a major event on the road to the American colonies’ violent break with the British government. John Adams, future President of the United States, said, “On that night the foundation of American independence was laid.” Echoes of the Boston Massacre are evident in the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Constitution of the United States (1787), and the Bill of Rights (1791). Its memory has shaped American history and mythology for over two hundred years. Its legacy can be felt even today.

On October 1, 1768, two regiments of British troops—the 14th and 29th—arrived in Boston. Many Bostonians were no longer content to pay taxes to a country that did not allow them a say in the approval of those taxes. The troops had been sent to Boston to maintain order in an increasingly rebellious and violent town. The troops disembarked at the end of Long Wharf and marched up King Street (now State Street). As many as 2,000 soldiers would eventually be absorbed into a town of about 15,000 inhabitants. With soldiers encamped and posted throughout the town, disputes and fights broke out almost immediately.

Two such outbreaks occurred in the weeks prior to the Boston Massacre, and increasingly strained the relationship between the soldiers and Boston’s inhabitants. On February 22, 1770, a rowdy and violent crowd gathered outside the shop of a known loyalist and informer. When a neighbor, Ebenezer Richardson, tried to break up the crowd, the crowd turned on him and began throwing rocks at his home. From his window, Richardson fired his gun into the crowd and killed Christopher Seider, an 11-year-old. Radical patriots turned the tragedy into a political rally, and over 2,000 people attended the boy’s funeral. About a week later, on March 2, 1770, a fight broke out at the ropewalks between a soldier looking for work and the ropewalk workers. A large group of soldiers joined the fight, but the ropewalk workers ultimately drove them off. This conflict further escalated the already heightened tension in Boston.

Boston in 1770 had no street lamps. Monday, March 5th, was a cold and moonlit night. Snow covered the ground. Private Hugh White was the lone sentry on guard at the Custom House on King Street. What began as taunting between White and several young apprentices soon escalated to violence. After striking one of the young boys on the head with his musket, White found himself surrounded, pelted with curses, snowballs, and chunks of ice.

At about the same time, bells began to ring throughout the town. Bells at night meant fire, a disaster for the wooden-built town. Men and boys poured into the streets as shouts of “Fire” were heard. As more colonists gathered on King Street, taunting the sentry and daring him to fight, White began to fear for his life and called for the main guard in the barracks beside the Town House (Old State House). Although the troops could not forcefully disperse the gathered townspeople without civilian authority, they could defend themselves. Captain Thomas Preston marched out a party of seven Grenadiers, the biggest men in the Regiment. 

Preston, Corporal William Wemms, and six privates – Carroll, Kilroy, Warren, Montgomery, Hartigan, and McCauley – marched to the sentry box with fixed bayonets. White joined the ranks. Preston was unable to march the eight soldiers back to the barracks because of the threatening crowd, armed with sticks, swords, rocks, ice, and snow. The troops formed a defensive semi-circle in front of the Custom House stairs. While some among the crowd pleaded with Captain Preston to keep his soldiers calm and not to fire, others dared the soldiers to fire. Sticks and bayonets dueled. The taunting colonists thought the soldiers would not fire.

Private Hugh Montgomery was hit with a stick and fell; on rising he fired his musket. Someone shouted, “Fire,” and more shots rang out in an uncontrolled volley. Private Kilroy fired and hit ropemaker Samuel Gray in the head. Crispus Attucks, a former slave of mixed African and Native American descent, was shot in the chest. Sailor James Caldwell was killed in the middle of King Street. Samuel Maverick, an apprentice to an ivory turner, was near the Town House when he caught a ricocheting bullet; he would die several hours later. Patrick Carr, an Irishman and maker of leather breeches, was shot in the hip. He would die on March 14th, the fifth person to die as a result of the Massacre. Six other colonists were wounded.

Rushing from his North End home, acting Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson arrived and addressed the crowd from the balcony of the Town House. He urged everyone to go home, stating, “The law shall have its course; I will live and die by the law.”


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