Golden Nuggets from U. S. History

The Blue Quill Series
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The Boston Massacre

Boston and Rhode Island were unique among the early colonies. These were the only areas along the eastern coast which did not have close access to large areas suitable for farming. The soils are rich but rocky and the growing seasons short. As a result the earliest settlers were trappers who did not stay in one place very long.

American Indians had never been exposed to the diseases of Europeans. As trappers moved among the tribes diseases were spread and from 1615 to 1617, an epidemic of measles, scarlet fever, smallpox and other diseases killed about 2,500 of the 3,000 Indians in the area where Boston was later founded. The natives where not capable of understanding the source of these maladies and placed the blame on the land, the air, and the water. The survivors soon fled the area making it more attractive for settlement than the rest of the American coast line.

Boston began as a tightly knit village of craftworkers, farmers, and ministers. The settlers had been persecuted in England for their Puritan beliefs. Yet the town's leaders tried to drive out of Boston any new settlers who did not share their beliefs. Only Puritans could vote or hold public office. Laws forbade the staging of plays and the celebration of Christmas. The Puritans considered cooking on Sunday a sin. Many Puritan women prepared baked beans every Saturday and served them for Sunday dinner. This custom earned Boston the nickname "Beantown."

In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required the colonists to pay a tax on newspapers, legal documents, and various other items. Angry citizens violently protested against this "taxation without representation." Mobs rioted and looted the homes of British officials.

On March 5, 1770, a street fight between a Boston mob and British soldiers resulted in what became known as the Boston Massacre. Soldiers fired into the mob, killing five men and wounding six others. The first man killed, according to an anonymous account, was "Crispus Attucks, killed on the spot, two balls entering his breast." Attucks was an escaped slave who had been in Boston some months and had been arrested on several occasions as a trouble maker.

Among the other four dead were a man shot twice in the back and a seventeen year old youth named Samuel Maverick. Two other seventeen years old were severely wounded.

It is clear from various accounts that the Bostonians were roaming the streets when the initial fights broke out, apparently caused by confrontations between a small mob and individual soldiers. As the soldiers retreated to their barracks, they were followed and further harassed. The mob grew to over one hundred before the soldiers finally reacted by firing their weapons.

The soldiers involved were under the command of a Captain Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment. On March 12, the "Boston Gazette and Country Journal" reported the event with a lead in of, "On the evening of Monday, being the fifth current, several soldiers of the 29th Regiment were seen parading the streets with their drawn cutlasses and bayonets, abusing and wounding numbers of the inhabitants."

The newspaper account is not supported by the facts. Nevertheless, other publications picked up the story and for the next few years the incident was referred to as the "massacre" and later the "Boston Massacre." The Sons of Liberty rebel organization who's membership included John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere, kept the story alive and used it to effect public opinion about the British. On March 5, 1774, in Boston, John Hancock made a public speech about the "massacre" and said, "...let every parent tell the shameful story to his listening children until tears of pity glisten in their eyes, and boiling passions shake their tender frames; and whilst the anniversary of that ill-fated night is kept a jubilee in the grim court of pandemonium, let all America join in one common prayer to heaven that the inhuman, unprovoked murders of the fifth of March, 1770, planned by Hillsborough, and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston, and executed by the cruel hand of Preston and his sanguinary coadjutors, may ever stand in history without a parallel..."

There is little doubt that the colonist had ample justification for resisting the British and for proceeding toward a Declaration of Independence. The Boston Massacre is not one of those justifications.

The facts omitted from Hancock's speech and other accounts are:

The first incident of that day occurred when a colonist challenged a soldier to a boxing match and won.

The beaten soldier returned to his barraks and returned with several more soldiers who were challenged by the colonist and the soldiers lost again.

When the mob approached the barracks in front of the Boston Customs House the soldiers threw snowballs, not rocks or sticks.

But the major omission by Hancock and others is the failure to mention that Captain Preston and the eight soldiers who fired into the crowd were all court martialed and sent to prison.

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