Documenting the life of Crispus Attucks
Records of slaves during the colonies were poorly kept and little of Crispus Attucks’ life is known for a fact. Most of what is written is from witnesses’ accounts from the Boston Massacre and from newspaper articles of the time.
Attucks was born in 1723 but his exact birth date is not known. His father was from Africa and his mother a Wampanoag or Natick Indian, both were slaves. We do know, from a 1750 notice in the Boston Gazette, that his master was William Brown, who owned slaves in his plantation in Framingham, Massachusetts. From the same notice we identify the date of his escape as September 30th, 1750 and he was 27 years old when he ran away.
Three newspaper notices in the Boston Gazette about a run-away slave were the last documentation we have about Crispus until his death on March 5, 1770. The first notice was published on Tuesday, October 2, 1750, two days after his escape. It offered a 10 pound reward for the return of a ran-away mulatto slave named “Crispas”. Historians consider “Crispas” and “Crispus” to be the same name with different spelling as in the eighteen century the standards for spelling were more relaxed than today. A second and a third notice in the same newspaper appeared on November 13 and November 20, 1750.
The following is a transcription of the first notice that appeared in the Boston Gazette.
“Ran-away from his Master William Brown of Framingham, on the 30th of September, last, a Mulatto Fellow, about 27 years of age, named Crispas, six feet, two inches high, short curl’s Hair, his Knees nearer together than common; had on a light colour’d Bearskin Coat, plain brown Fustian Jacket, or brown all-Wool one, new Buckskin Breeches, blue Yarn Stockings, and a checked woolen Shirt.
Whoever shall take up said Run-away, and convey him to abovesaid Master, shall have ten pounds, old Tenor Reward, and all the necessary Charges paid. And all Masters of Vessels and others, are herby cautioned against concealing or carrying off said Servant on Penalty of the Law. Boston, October 2, 1750.”
From the day of his escape on September 30th, 1750 until his death on March 5th, 1770 nothing was know of Crispus Attucks. Initial records of the Boston Massacre by witnesses and the Inquisition on a person legally known as Michael Johnson on March 6th do not mention the name of Crispus Attucks. Subsequent newspaper articles and court documents show the name of Crispus Attucks and not Michael Johnson. Historians believe that Attucks was using Michael Johnson as an alias since his escape from slavery. It is not clear why legal documents referring to the same person did so under different names.
The following is a transcription of the Inquisition of Michael Johnson’s death that took place one day after his death on March 6th, 1770. Note the coroner’s jury referring to Michael Johnson and not Crispus Attucks.
SUFFOLK,ss. An Inquisition Indented, taken at Boson within the said County of Suffolk the Sixth Day of March in the tenth Year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, George the third by the Grace of God, of Great-Britain, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, & c. Before Robert Pierpont gent” one of the coroners of our said Lord the King, within the County of Suffolk aforesaid; upon the View of the Body of Michael Johnson then and there being Dead, by the Oaths of Benjamin Waldo Foreman, Jacob Emmon, John McLane, William Fleet, John Wise, John How, Nathaniel Hurd, William Baker junior, William Flagg, William Crafts, Enoch Rust, Robert Duncan, William Palfrey & Samuel Danforth, good and lawful Men of Boston aforesaid, within the County aforesaid; who being Charged and Sworn at enquire for our said Lord the King, When and by what Means, and how the said Michael Johnson came to his Death: Upon their Oaths do say that the said Michael Johnson was willfully and feloniously murdered at King Street in Boston in the County aforesaid, on the Evening of the 5th instant, between the hours of nine & ten by the discharge of a Musket or Muskets leaded with Bullets, two of which were shot thro’ his body, by a party of Soldiers to us unknown, then and there headed and commanded by Captain Thomas Presto of his Majesty’s 29th Regiment of foot, against the peace of our Sovereign Lord the King his Crown and dignity, and so by that means he came by his death as appears by evidence.
In witness whereof, as well I the Coroner aforesaid, as the Jurors aforesaid, to this Inquisition have interchangeably put our Hands and Seals, the Day and year aforesaid.
Source: The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, pg.382, Volume 44, Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Later newspaper articles and legal documents showed the name of Crispus Attucks and not his alias Michael Johnson. As the newspapers of the time found out more information on the victims of the Massacre, Crispus Attucks was identified as the run-away mulatto slave from Framingham. The Boston Gazette referred to Attucks as a mulatto, born in Framingham, Massachusetts who belonged to New-Providence and was on his way to North Carolina. During the twenty years since his escape Attucks became a sailor on a whaler and also worked as a ropemaker in Boston Harbor.
According to the Library of Congress, among the five newspapers published in Boston in 1770, The Boston Gazette and Country Journal gave the most comprehensive account of the Boston Massacre, it was published on March 12, 1770, one week after the historical event. The article was illustrated with the image of four coffins from a plate made by Paul Revere.
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