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From the Archive: The Erasure of Crispus Attucks from the Collective Memory of the Boston Massacre

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Authored by Abbie Fray
Published on 30th November, 2023 21 min read

From the Archive: The Erasure of Crispus Attucks from the Collective Memory of the Boston Massacre

On 5 March 1770 British soldiers fired into a crowd of American colonists in Boston.[1] This act of violence became known as the “Boston Massacre” and was a key event that preceded the American Revolution. Crispus Attucks was the first victim of the Boston Massacre.[2] Yet collective memory regarding Attucks has been distorted and adapted because of the political motivations of the time. Collective memory is the story accepted by society about a certain event. It is flexible, susceptible to political changes, and constructed by those with power.[3] This article will analyse these power imbalances within the narrative of the Boston Massacre. It will draw on pamphlets from British Online Archives’ collection The American Revolution from a British Perspective, 1763–1783. These sources give a unique insight into how those in power have manipulated the presentation of the revolution. As Keith Jenkins has quite rightly argued, “history is never for itself it is always for someone”. In American history the memory of Attucks has been used continually by those in power.[4]

Remembering is always an active process involving purpose and motivation. This is important to bear in mind when analysing Attucks and his legacy. As a working-class man of African American and Native American descent he lacked a voice whilst living. Indeed, political actors have repeatedly fought over his story since his death.[5] It is paramount that we challenge the role of power in his story so as to uncover how he has been portrayed in collective memory. His story and identity have been manipulated to align with depictions of the American Revolution advanced by various political groupings. This article will separate collective memory regarding Attucks into three key areas of his identity which were erased following the Boston Massacre. This is done in order to explore the different motivations that those in power have had for ignoring the different aspects of Attucks. Firstly, Attucks’ race was erased as it highlighted the hypocrisy of the revolution. In the American Revolution, white colonists fought for liberty and equality, yet they did not intend for these ideals to apply to African American or Native American individuals. Despite Attucks’ contribution to the revolution and the cause of “liberty” through his participation in the Boston Massacre, he would never have benefitted from the fight for independence himself. Secondly, Attucks’ working-class status was erased because of the threat it posed to the middle-class. Finally, Attucks’ recourse to violence was erased. The aim, here, was to present the Boston Massacre as a respectable, political act. Existing historiography has addressed the different aspects of Attucks’ identity in relative isolation. This approach has failed to generate a balanced image of Attucks, nor has it fully explored how he has been envisaged within collective memory. These factors are necessarily intertwined as identity is always multifaceted. 

The Boston Massacre saw an outbreak of fighting between civilians and British soldiers. It resulted in the deaths of five colonists and the conviction of two British soldiers,  whilst seven other soldiers were acquitted.[6] Soon after the event conflicting narratives and depictions naturally emerged. The Whigs aimed to control collective memory through prints and pamphlets that highlighted British cruelty. It was soon seen as a massacre by unjust, criminal British soldiers from the point of view of the colonists. This article focuses on the significance of how those in power depicted the Boston Massacre, rather than the actual events. 

Attucks’ Race            

Attucks’ African American descent shaped presentations of him within collective memory. This was due to the political motivations of those shaping it. Attucks’ race exposed the hypocrisy of the revolution. The Boston Massacre came to be perceived as a symbol of the colonists’ resistance to British oppression. Yet Attucks, owing to his heritage, would never have benefitted from the liberties cherished by his fellow revolutionaries.[7] As those in power saw no imminent end to slavery, they erased this aspect of Attucks from collective memory.[8]

This erasure is evident in Revere’s engraving The Bloody Massacre in James Bowdoin’s pamphlet A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston (1770).[9] Attucks appears in the bottom left of the engraving. Yet the fact that he was of mixed race is not obvious. Revere altered the true nature of the massacre to make an engraving that could be used as Whig propaganda. Bowdoin’s pamphlet and Revere’s engraving presented the colonists as law-abiding citizens unjustly abused by British rule. A Short Narrative was sent to London with the aim of influencing imperial policy. It was hoped that it would encourage the Crown to remove troops from Boston.[10] Both Fitz and Rediker agree that Revere’s engraving was a crucial moment in the erasure of Attucks’ race with collective memory.[11]Fitz only used sources representing the “visual memory” of Attucks, assuming that these are indicative of collective memory in its entirety.[12] This approach is limited because artwork represents only the perspective of the artist. Through The Bloody Massacre we can only see Revere’s white, anti-British, upper-class aims and position. Nevertheless, the engraving soon became a ubiquitous image of the Boston Massacre.[13] Revere influenced and thus represented the views of many others, shaping the legacy and collective memory of the massacre. The manipulation of Attucks’ race is evident in written sources as well as in artwork. For instance, John Hickling’s testimony of the massacre also sought to manipulate collective memory. Hickling reported that “I saw another gun fired, and the man since called Attucks fall” and that he “went to Attucks, and found him gasping, pulled his head out of the gutter and left him".[14] This was taken to be a truthful account of the Boston Massacre in contrast to the more subjective nature of artwork. Nevertheless, much like Revere, Hickling likewise neglected to mention Attucks’ race. Instead, Hickling highlighted Attucks’ victimhood and thus passivity, as he watched him “fall”. Collectively, these sources demonstrate how those in power ignored Attucks’ race and, moreover, his importance within the massacre.



Paul Revere's The Bloody Massacre, in The American Revolution from a British Perspective, 1763–1783, Pamphlets for the Years 1769–1770, 1770, Part 01, img 84.

Over time, Attucks’ Native American background has likewise been erased or distorted. As Foucault has observed, power promotes some narratives whilst suppressing others.[15] For instance, in A Short Narrative Bowdoin wrote of “Crispus Attucks, a molatto, killed on the foot, two balls entering his breast”.[16] Here, “molatto” refers to Attucks’ mixed race. Yet — and this is crucial — the terminology does not directly reference his African American and Native American background. Thus, Bowdoin silenced Attucks’ heritage. Moreover, the racist nature of this description discredited his background. Bowdoin did this to empower himself, making his presentation of the Boston Massacre more credible and sympathetic to white, British readers. Similarly, John Adams, in a court case defending the British soldiers against accusations of murder following the Boston Massacre, stated that the colonists were under “the command of a stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person”.[17] Despite the differing perspectives of Bowdoin and Adams — Bowdoin supporting the colonists, Adams supporting the British — they are united by the fact that they both erased Native American influence and power within the massacre. Both sources illustrate how the lack of Native American power in American society at the time meant that Native Americans were not able to take control of the popular narrative and so determine collective memory of Attucks. We must challenge the damaging silencing of Native Americans in collective memory and appreciate Attucks’ Native American descent. 

John Hodgson's The trial of William Wemms, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, soldiers in His Majesty's 29th Regiment of Foot in The American Revolution from a British Perspective, 1763–1783, Pamphlets for the Years, 1771–1772, 1771, img 856.

Attucks’ Class

The second aspect of Attucks’ identity that was distorted and erased was his class. Attucks and many other colonists were dockworkers.[18] The desire of the working-class for change in the social order threatened middle-class power. Thus, the conservative middle-class dominated, used, and adapted collective memory of Attucks in order to perpetuate their own hegemony. Indeed, Bodnar has argued that the middle-class controlled collective memory to preserve social hierarchy.[19] With regard to the Boston Massacre, those in power favoured the conservative outcome of the revolution. They did not wish to highlight its more radical, working-class origins. Therefore, as Kachun has argued, collective memory has tended to ignore the contribution of the working class to the revolution.[20] We can see this from the initial lack of interest in Attucks and the victims of the Boston Massacre. In The Bloody Massacre (Figure 1), Revere changed the story of events. He portrayed the colonists as respectable, middle-class men rather than as an uncontrollable, working-class mob.[21] This crucial change increased the likelihood of the Boston Massacre being celebrated in collective memory, as the colonists were respected rather than scorned for their social status. In A Short Narrative, Bowdoin likewise ignored the occupations of the victims other than “Mr. Edward Payne, merchant”.[22] Payne evidently held a more respectable position than the other colonists who were sailors. Highlighting Payne’s occupation gave the impression that the other colonists shared similar, artisanal jobs. Thus, instead of being viewed as a rowdy mob, they were presented as respectable individuals. For the pamphlet to shape public memory this change was essential. It ensured that all groups in society respected and supported those involved, rather than looking down on them as a result of their class. In erasing the backgrounds of those involved to make the Boston Massacre a respectable piece of Whig propaganda, the pamphlet also erased its chaos. No snowballs, coal, or sticks were in The Bloody Massacre despite the colonists using them.[23] In contrast to this, a man peacefully holds up his hand as if asking the British to stop their attack. Whilst Bowdoin stated that “this occasioned some snow balls to be thrown” at British soldiers, he quickly reassured the reader that they “seem to have been the only provocation that was given”. This belittled the use of violence by the colonists.[24]These changes ensured that the pamphlet harmonised with the Whig portrayal of innocent, peaceful colonists striving against tyrannical British rule. This strengthened Whiggish collective memory of events, whilst ignoring the contributions of ordinary people.

Adams influenced collective memory when he referred to the colonists as a “motley rabble”, thus betraying his disdain for the working-class.[25] By referring to the colonists collectively, Adams indicated that Attucks was not important enough to be mentioned individually. A “rabble” is associated with chaotic, working-class violence.[26] The victorious in history gain control of the narrative and this is evident in their control of collective memory of the Boston Massacre. Here, Adams was writing to empower himself, enabling him to win the court case defending the British soldiers. 

Unlike Kachun and Jelin, Rediker and Egerton have observed a more positive use of Attucks’ class.[27] Egerton has emphasised Attucks’ class, arguing that he fought “in the cause of sailors’ and workmen’s rights”.[28] Rediker has highlighted the impact of the rise of histories from below during the 1960s and the impact of this historiographical trend upon scholarship on the Boston Massacre.[29] An approach influenced by Marxism and E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963), history from below encourages scholars to explore the impact of the working-class on the development of society.[30] Thus, since the 1960s there has been a more neutral or positive analysis of Attucks and his class. That said, Egerton and Rediker are overly positive in their analysis of Attucks’ class. Egerton’s conclusion is unconvincing as there are few sources about Attucks’ life before the Boston Massacre, except those that evidence the fact that he was a fugitive from slavery. This makes it difficult to show his motivations for participating in the massacre. Egerton’s belief in these class-based motivations relies only on assumptions of a quintessentially working-class outlook.[31] Arguably, Rediker has overemphasised the influence of Marxism on collective memory. We can see this through continuing negative views surrounding Attucks’ class. Danker suggests that in 2000 many people viewed Attucks as a “rabble rouser”.[32] Such commentary recalls Adams’ pessimistic portrayal of a “rabble” 230 years earlier. It would seem, then, that perception of Attucks’ class remains unchanged within collective memory.  

Attucks’ Use of Violence

Finally, the issue of violence has played a vital role in the formation and development of collective memory of Attucks. Many have not wanted to remember his violent acts, meaning (arguably) that those in power have altered, distorted, or erased it. To date, there has been little agreement on whether his violent acts in the Boston Massacre should be remembered. This controversy was initially dealt with by erasing his recourse to violence. As Fitz has rightly indicated, in The Bloody Massacre (Figure 1), Revere erased the use of violence by the colonists so as to blame the aggression on the British.[33] Revere portrayed the soldiers as the aggressors, diminishing the agency and violence of the colonists. Revere depicted Captain Preston ordering the troops to fire into the crowd.[34] This is in the foreground of the engraving, implying Revere wanted this to be seen first. The straight lines of the British guns then lead the eyes of the viewer towards the suffering colonists, thereby placing the blame for the massacre upon the British. Indeed, the engraving portrays a line of British soldiers shooting innocent colonists, insinuating that the British initiated the violence. Furthermore, the British coats and the blood of the colonists are the same vivid red colour, encouraging viewers to condemn the British for the colonists’ deaths. By depicting the British as the aggressors, Revere distorts the narrative to fit the Whig ideology. A Short Narrative likewise depicted a chaotic massacre of innocent colonists thus juxtaposing this image with British control and order. For instance, Bowdoin highlighted how “Capt. Preston is said to have ordered them to fire, and to have repeated that order” .[35] The repetition of “order” suggests that Captain Preston had complete control and power. This benefitted the Whigs by spreading anti-British propaganda. As Knauer and Walkowitz have suggested, collective memory uses amnesia to perpetuate social peace.[36] In the case of the Boston Massacre, engineering collective amnesia with regard to the violent actions of the colonists made it easier to generate widespread support for their opposition to British rule.

James Bowdoin's A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston (1770) in The American Revolution from a British Perspective, 1763–1783, 1770, Part 01, img 111.

Revere utilised different art styles to enhance the contrast between the colonists and the British. The soldiers are portrayed with sharp, severe lines, whilst those used to portray the colonists are softer, giving the impression of innocence. The harsh faces of the soldiers appear to be enjoying the violence in contrast to the panicked expressions of the colonists —the latter evoke sympathy for them and anger towards the British. This sympathetic presentation served to erase the agency of the colonists. By appealing to emotions, Revere was more able to exert influence over the readers of the pamphlet. He likewise did so through his limited use of text. The “Butcher’s Hall” sign was placed above the “Custom House” directly above the British, implying that the soldiers “butchered” the colonists. Moreover, this “butchering” of colonists was also insinuated by the sight of the gun from the window in the Custom House. This was further emphasised by Bowdoin who stated that “these depositions show clearly that a number of guns were fired from the Custom House”.[37] Here, viewers and readers did not need to understand the political theory behind the events. What was important was that this depiction made them angry at the unjust nature of the massacre and so at the British. This was reinforced by legal testimonies about the massacre. For example, Benjamin Church testified that Attucks was “murdered by the soldiers”, where “murder” assigned all blame, agency, and violence to the British.[38]

Whilst artists and pamphleteers aimed to shape collective memory, they were not necessarily always successful. Kauchun has suggested that people viewed the colonists as a violent mob rather than legitimate revolutionaries, thus making them reluctant to commemorate Attucks despite how he was portrayed by artists.[39] Adams played into this view of the colonists in the trial of the British soldiers. He portrayed Attucks as a criminal “whose mad behaviour in all probability, the dreadful carnage of that night, is chiefly to be ascribed”. Adams therefore placed the blame for the massacre solely upon Attucks.[40] Adams used the idea of a “mad”, violent, uncontrollable person to criminalise Attucks.  That said, we must question if Adams and those in power demonised Attucks only because of his recourse to violence. There is good cause for thinking that they utilised his violent acts as a front for the erasure of — in their view — disagreeable aspects of his identity, namely his race and class.  


We must remember Crispus Attucks by challenging harmful silences that have become ensconced within collective memory. Danker has contended that Attucks was an “unlikely hero” of the American Revolution as he was a working-class, violent martyr of African American and Native American descent.[41] Thus, Attacks’ biography differs from that of the typical white, elite hero.[42] Since Attucks’ death, political actors have distorted and adapted the memory of him to serve their political motivations. As has been observed, Whig propagandists continued to tolerate slavery, thus they sought to erase Attucks’ race. Similarly, conservative middle-class revolutionaries silenced the radical working-class composition of the mob that formed during the Boston Massacre. Finally, those in power ignored Attucks’ use of violence. This was done so as to make the Boston Massacre appear a far more respectable event that it actually was. The results of this article indicate that without addressing and challenging power imbalances in the narrative of Attucks, collective memory will continue to hold a flawed image of him. His identity as a working-class, violent man of African American and Native American descent must be acknowledged and celebrated. Indeed, in all areas of history we must challenge the narratives created by those in power and recover those that have been repressed or erased. It is our obligation and duty to explore, but also to challenge, collective memory.

[1] Eric Hinderaker, Boston’s Massacre (London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017), 1.

[2] Karsten Fitz, “Commemorating Crispus Attucks: Visual Memory and the Representations of the Boston Massacre, 1770–1857”, Amerikastudien / American Studies 50, no. 3 (2005), 468.

[3] David Thelen, “Memory and American history”, The Journal of American History 75, no. 4 (1989), 1119.

[4] Keith Jenkins, Rethinking history (New York: Routledge, 2003), 21.

[5] Marcus Rediker, “The Revenge of Crispus Attucks; or, The Atlantic Challenge to American Labor History”, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 1, no. 4 (2004), 35.

[6] Neil L. York, The Boston Massacre: A History with Documents (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2010), 3.

[7] Rediker, “The Revenge of Crispus Attucks”, 38.

[8] John Craig Hammond, review of Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865, P. Rael, Reviews in History 1994 (2016), 3.

[9] Paul Revere, The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regiment, in James Bowdoin, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston (1770). 

[10] Neil Longley York, “Rival Truths, Political Accommodation, and the Boston Massacre”, Massachusetts Historical Review 11 (2009), 73.

[11] Fitz, “Commemorating Crispus Attucks”, 64; Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 233.

[12] Fitz, “Commemorating Crispus Attucks”, 463.

[13] Ibid., 468.

[14] John Hickling’s testimony 16 March 1770 in James Bowdoin, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston (1770), 60. 

[15] Michel Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977–1984 (London: Routledge, 2013), 103.

[16] Bowdoin, A Short Narrative, 11.

[17] John Hodgson, The trial of William Wemms, James Hartegan, William McCauley, Hugh White, Matthew Killroy, William Warren, John Carrol, and Hugh Montgomery, soldiers in His Majesty's 29th Regiment of Foot (Boston: T. Evans, 1770), 176. 

[18] Sam Wineburg, “The silence of the ellipses: Why history can’t be about telling our children lies”, Phi Delta Kappan 102, no. 5 (2021), 9.

[19] John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century (Chichester: Princeton University Press, 1992), 13.

[20] Mitch Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder to Indispensable Icon: Crispus Attucks, Black Citizenship, and Collective Memory, 1770–1865”,  Journal of the Early Republic 29, no. 2 (2009), 259.

[21] Revere, The Bloody Massacre.

[22] Bowdoin, A Short Narrative, 12.

[23] Revere, The Bloody Massacre.

[24] Bowdoin, A Short Narrative, 27–28. 

[25] Hodgson, The trial of William Wemms, 174. 

[26] Jędrzej, Brzeziński, Michał Pospiszyl, and Bartosz Wójcik., “The Images of the Rabble”, Praktyka Teoretyczna 36, no. 2 (2020), 7.

[27] Rediker, “The Revenge of Crispus Attucks”, 38; Douglas R. Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 55.

[28] Egerton, Death or Liberty, 55.

[29] Rediker, “The Revenge of Crispus Attucks”, 38.

[30] James R. Barrett, History from the Bottom Up and the Inside Out (London: Duke University Press, 2017) 1; E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin Books, 2013).

[31] Egerton, Death or Liberty, 55.

[32] Anita Danker, “A Bridge for Crispus Attucks?”, Historical Journal of Massachusetts 36, no. 1 (2008), 64.

[33] Fitz, “Commemorating Crispus Attucks”, 464.

[34] Revere, The Bloody Massacre.

[35] Bowdoin, A Short Narrative, 28.

[36] Lisa Maya Knauer and Daniel Walkowitz, “Introduction”, in Memory and the Impact of Political Transformation in Public Space, ed. Lisa Maya Knauer and Daniel Walkowitz (London: Duke University Press, 2004), 8.

[37] Bowdoin, A Short Narrative, 16. 

[38] Benjamin Church’s testimony 22 March 1770 in James Bowdoin, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston (1770), 60. 

[39] Kachun, “From Forgotten Founder”, 282. 

[40] Hodgson, The trial of William Wemms, 176.

[41] Danker, “A Bridge”, 61.

[42] Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010),43.

Authored by Abbie Fray

Abbie Fray

Abbie Fray is an undergraduate student studying History at Durham University. She has a particular interest in the histories of gender and sexuality.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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