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9 AHMP Two Sides to the Boston Massacre

9 AHMP Two Sides to Every Massacre. British and Colonial Portrayals of the Boston Massacre, and Crucial Information Not Often Taught in School.

How did the Quartering Act of 1765 lay the unfortunate ground work for the Boston Massacre? What is a crucial piece of information about the Boston Massacre that you probably never learned about in school?  What happened during that incident on Kings Street? How was the incident described differently by a colonial newspaper and a British officer? We will explore all of these questions in this episode.

In last week’s episode, I said that I would discuss why did John Adams choose to represent the British officers involved in the Boston Massacre, and how his cousin, Samuel Adams, reacted to John’s decision. However, I have so much interesting information about the Boston Massacre that I decided to feature the trial after discussing the event in some depth.  In fact, there is so much information I would like to share with you that this episode will focus on the events leading up to the Massacre, as well as how it was described in a current Boston broadside of the time. You will hear how a British officer described the incident as well. The purpose of hearing the primary sources is not necessarily to lay blame, or besmirch one side, rather it is important to understand hear the growing anger and division that occurred because of policies and laws that were thrust upon the people by the British Parliament.  In the next episode, I will focus on what happened in the minutes, hours, days, and months after the event, as well as how it was depicted and used to inflame those angered by the deaths of their fellow colonists, or those who had empathy for the soliders, and how it ultimately feuled the growing anger held that the colonists and British had for one another.

In my mind, this episode is illustrative of the lack of depth regarding the US Founding that is taught in the public school system. The problem has escalated over the past few decades, and it is time for us as adults to deepen our own knowledge base, and then pass the information along to younger Americans. Why do I say that?  If mentioned at all, the Boston Massacre is glossed over in a single paragraph in most text books. At best, it is depicted as a riot with dire consequences that occurred on March 5th, 1770. Yet, the primary sources we will learn from today all view it as a continuation of conflict that began on March 2nd. In the next episode, we will examine how this “single incident” reverberated in the community for years, and had a lasting impact in the minds of many colonists. Let’s get started.

As we learned in the last episode, there was an increasing amount of tension in Boston because troops were stationed in the town. The Quartering Act of 1765 allowed for troops to be housed on property owned by colonists. Two regiments of British soldiers had entered the town in 1768 to maintain the peace after increasing conflict over customs duties had led the Royal Governor, Francis Bernard, to request that troops be brought in to restore calm. It should be noted that we are not talking about just a few troops in the city mind you. There were approximately 4000 troops in a town with only about 15,000 residents. Boston was not only a key port that the British wanted to protect, but it was home to many of the colonists, such as Samuel Adams and James Otis, who openly spoke out against the increasing level of tyranny inflicted on the American Colonists by the British Parliament. Colonists were further upset that the soldiers often took away jobs by seeking part-time employment for themselves. Moreover, under British law, an “impress service” had been created. In something akin to a mandatory draft, the impress service allowed for men between the ages of 15 and 55, with experience on some type of vessel, to be unwillingly bound into service of the Royal Navy. In 1757, 400 New Yorkers had been held over for service in just one sweep of the city. Boston had a large number of residents with sea faring experience, and the practice of impressment, of course, was highly unfavorable to colonists and only served to heighten the tension in the area. Needless to say, the British had a significant interest in maintaining control of the city and the colonists who lived in it.

Now, let’s learn about the information that I referenced above. You have probably never heard about it, but your entire perspective of the Boston Massacre may change when you understand that the crowd was not just standing around biding their time. Both the colonists on that street, as well as the British soldiers, were much like smoldering embers just waiting to erupt into an inferno. There had been street brawls between colonists and soliders for several days. When you understand the context of the situation, there is no doubt that Boston was a town waiting to explode! We can also learn about the differing perceptions of the situation by listening to the differing versions of what happened to Private Patrick Walker of the 29th Regiment on March 2, 1770. Although you may have never heard about this incident when you learned about the Boston Massacre in school, it is consistently described as a precursor to the events on King’s Street by accounts which are sympathetic to the British officers and local colonists alike.

In his deposition, which occurred several months after the incident, Private Walker described what happened to him in the following manner: “That about the latter end of February Last, Deponant having Occasion to go by the Ropewalkes in Boston, he was assaulted, knocked Down, trod under feet, Cut in several places, and Very much bruised, without any Provocation Given, by about twelve of the Inhabitants of Boston, (supposed Rope makers) and Left in Danger of his Life.” Puportedly, one of the rope makers, named William Green, asked Walker if he was looking for part-time work. When Walker answered in the affirmative, Green hurled vulgar insults at him which  escalated into a fight.

Nicholas Feriter, one of the rope makers, had a very different description of the same incident. As he recalled, “about half past 11 o’clock, A.M., a soldier of the 29th Regiment came to Mr. John Gray’s ropewalks, and looking into one of the windows, said, by God I’ll have satisfaction! with many other oaths; at the last he said he was not afraid of any one in the ropewalks. I stept out of the window and speedily knock’d up his heels. On falling, his coat flew open, and a naked sword appeared.”

Regardless of how it started, a fight between dozens of rope makers and soldiers quickly ensued. Testimony was even taken from a nine year old apprentice, named Peter Slater, who had taken part in the brawl! A Justice of the Peace, named John Hill, gave the following testimony: “in the forenoon of Friday the second of March current, I was at a house the corner of a passage way leading from Atkinson’s-street to Mr. John Gray’s rope-walks, near Green’s barracks so called, when I saw eight or ten soldiers pass the window with clubs. I immediately got up and went to the door, and found them returning from the ropewalks to the barracks. Whence they again very speedily re-appeared, now increased to the number of thirty or forty, armed with clubs and other weapons. In this latter company was a tall negro drummer, to whom I called, you black rascal, what have you to do with white people’s quarrels ? He answered, I suppose I may look on, and went forward. I went out directly and commanded the peace, telling them I was in commission ; but they not regarding me, knock’d down a ropemaker in my presence, and two or three of them beating him with clubs, I endeavoured to relieve him; but on approaching the fellows who were mauling him, one of them with a great club struck at me with such violence, that had I not happily avoided it might have been fatal to me. The party last mentioned rushed in towards the rope-walks, and attacked the rope-makers nigh the tar-kettle, but were soon beat off, drove out of the passage-way by which they entered, and were followed by the rope-makers, whom I persuaded to go back, and they readily obeyed. And further I say not.”

Evidentially, there was more fighting the next day, which would have been March 3rd. On that day, John Gray, himself, whose brother was the provincial treasurer, met with officers from the 29th Regiment.  It was agreed that Green would be dismissed in exchange for the soldiers agreeing to remain off of Gray’s property. It was hoped that the situation would calm down. How wrong they were!

Just in the way that the incident was named gives us insight into the differing perspectives on just what took place two days later on the night of March 5, 1770. The British referred to it as “The incident on King’s Street.” Bostonians, and others in the American Colonies, referred to it as “The Boston Massacre.”

On that evening, James Caldwell, Samuel Gray, and Crispus Attucks were gunned down. Samuel Maverick died the next day, and Patrick Carr died two weeks later as a result of the same incident. A sixth man, Chrstopher Monk, was shot in the abdomen, and suffered for more than ten years before his death. The incident began when a crowd formed around John Goldfinch and a young man, Edward Garrick, accused Goldfinch of not paying a bill. The situation quickly escalated, and Hugh Montgomery fired the first shots into the crowd.

But these were not just a collection of people on a street. They were a group of colonists and British soldiers. Samuel Gray worked at the rope walk where the fighting broke out on March 2nd. He was known to be a street “brawler.” Crispus Attucks, was a fugitive slave who had worked as a merchant seaman for more than 20 years. James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Christopher Monk were all 17 years old. Caldwell was a sailor. Maverick was having dinner at a friend’s house when the bells indicating a fire had broken out. It seems that his participation in the incident was accidental. Patrick Carr was a leatherworker.  John Goldfinch was actually Captain John Goldfinch and Hugh Montgomery was Private Montgomery.
Let’s begin to learn about the specifics of the incident by reviewing the article that you might have read about it if you were a local resident. It was printed in the Boston Gazette and Country Journal on March 12, 1770. Notice how the introduction is sympathetic toward the crowd. I will then continue to read the article, so you will have a description of what occurred (of course from the colonial perspective).

“The Town of Boston affords a recent and melancholy Demonstration of the destructive Consequences of quartering Troops among Citizens in a Time of Peace, under a Pretense of supporting the Laws and aiding Civil Authority. Every considerate and unprejudic’d Person among us was deeply impressed with the Apprehension of these Consequences when it was known that a Number of Regiments were ordered to this Town under such a Pretext, but in Reality to enforce oppressive Measures, to awe & control the legislative as well as executive Power of the Province, and to quell a Spirit of Liberty which, however it may have been basely oppos’d and even ridicul’d by some, would do Honor to any Age or Country. A few Persons amongst us had determin’d to use all their Influence to procure so destructive a Measure with a View to their securely enjoying the Profits of an American Revenue, and unhappily both for Britain and this Country they found Means to effect it. . . .

The Evidences already collected show that many Threatenings had been thrown out by the Soldiery, but we do not pretend to say that there was any preconcerted Plan, when the Evidences are published, the World will judge¾We may however venture to declare that it appears too probable from their Conduct that some of the Soldiery aimed to draw and provoke the Townsmen into Squabbles, and that they then intended to make Use of other Weapons than Canes, Clubs or Bludgeons. . . .

On the Evening of Monday, being the 5th 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

A few minutes after nine o’clock four youths, named Edward Archbald, William Merchant, Francis Archbald, and John Leech, jun., came down Cornhill together, and separating at Doctor Loring’s corner, the two former were passing the narrow alley leading Mr. Murray’s barrack in which was a soldier brandishing a broad sword of an uncommon size against the walls, out of which he struck fire plentifully. A person of mean countenance. armed with a large cudgel bore him company. Edward Archbald admonished Mr. Merchant to take care of the sword, on which the soldier turned round and struck Archbald on the arm, then pushed at Merchant and pierced through his clothes inside the arm close to the armpit and grazed the skin. Merchant then struck the soldier with a short stick he had; and the other person ran to the barrack and brought with him two soldiers, one armed with a pair of tongs, the other with a shovel. He with the tongs pursued Archbald back through the alley, collared and laid him over the head with the tongs. The noise brought people together; and John Hicks, a young lad, coming up, knocked the soldier down but let him get up again; and more lads gathering, drove them back to the barrack where the boys stood some time as it were to keep them in. In less than a minute ten or twelve of them came out with drawn cutlasses, clubs, and bayonets and set upon the unarmed boys and young folk who stood them a little while but, finding the inequality of their equipment, dispersed.

On hearing the noise, one Samuel Atwood came up to see what was the matter; and entering the alley from dock square, heard the latter part of the combat; and when the boys had dispersed he met the ten or twelve soldiers aforesaid rushing down the alley towards the square and asked them if they intended to murder people? They answered Yes, by G-d, root and branch! With that one of them struck Mr. Atwood with a club which was repeated by another; and being unarmed, he turned to go off and received a wound on the left shoulder which reached the bone and gave him much pain. Retreating a few steps, Mr. Atwood met two officers and said, gentlemen, what is the matter They answered, you’ll see by and by. Immediately after, those heroes appeared in the square, asking where were the boogers? where were the cowards? But notwithstanding their fierceness to naked men, one of them advanced towards a youth who had a split of a raw stave in his hand and said, damn them, here is one of them. But the young man seeing a person near him with a drawn sword and good cane ready to support him, held up his stave in defiance; and they quietly passed by him up the little alley by Mr. Silsby’s to King Street where they attacked single and unarmed persons till they raised much clamour, and then turned down Cornhill Street, insulting all they met in like manner and pursuing some to their very doors.

Thirty or forty persons, mostly lads, being by this means gathered in King Street, Capt. Preston with a party of men with charged bayonets, came from the main guard to the commissioner’s house, the soldiers pushing their bayonets, crying, make way! They took place by the custom house and, continuing to push to drive the people off pricked some in several places, on which they were clamorous and, it is said, threw snow balls. On this, the Captain commanded them to fire; and more snow balls coming, he again said, damn you, fire, be the consequence what it will! One soldier then fired, and a townsman with a cudgel struck him over the hands with such force that he dropped his firelock; and, rushing forward, aimed a blow at the Captain’s head which grazed his hat and fell pretty heavy upon his arm. However, the soldiers continued the fire successively till seven or eight or, as some say, eleven guns were discharged.

By this fatal manoeuvre three men were laid dead on the spot and two more struggling for life; but what showed a degree of cruelty unknown to British troops, at least since the house of Hanover has directed their operation, was an attempt to fire upon or push with their bayonets the persons who undertook to remove the slain and wounded!

Mr. Benjamin Leigh, now undertaker in the Delph manufactory, came up and after some conversation with Capt. Preston relative to his conduct in this affair, advised him to draw off his men, with which he complied. The dead are Mr. Samuel Gray, killed on the spot, the ball entering his head and beating off a large portion of his skull.

A mulatto man named Crispus Attucks, who was born in Framingham, but lately belonged to New-Providence and was here in order to go for North Carolina, also killed instantly, two balls entering his breast, one of them in special goring the right lobe of the lungs and a great part of the liver most horribly.

Mr. James Caldwell, mate of Capt. Morton’s vessel, in like manner killed by two balls entering his back.

Mr. Samuel Maverick, a promising youth of seventeen years of age, son of the widow Maverick, and an apprentice to Mr. Greenwood, ivory-turner, mortally wounded; a ball went through his belly and was cut out at his back. He died the next morning.

A lad named Christopher Monk, about seventeen years of age, an apprentice to Mr. Walker, shipwright, wounded; a ball entered his back about four inches above the left kidney near the spine and was cut out of the breast on the same side. Apprehended he will die.

A lad named John Clark, about seventeen years of age, whose parents live at Medford, and an apprentice to Capt. Samuel Howard of this town, wounded; a ball entered just above his groin and came out at his hip on the opposite side. Apprehended he will die.

Mr. Edward Payne of this town, merchant, standing at his entry door received a ball in his arm which shattered some of the bones.

Mr. John Green, tailor, coming up Leverett’s Lane, received a ball just under his hip and lodged in the under part of his thigh, which was extracted.

Mr. Robert Patterson, a seafaring man, who was the person that had his trousers shot through in Richardson’s affair, wounded; a ball went through his right arm, and he suffered a great loss of blood.

Mr. Patrick Carr, about thirty years of age, who worked with Mr. Field, leather breeches-maker in Queen Street, wounded; a ball entered near his hip and went out at his side.

A lad named David Parker, an apprentice to Mr. Eddy, the wheelwright, wounded; a ball entered his thigh.”

Imagine the outrage you would have felt if you have heard about the conflict at the rope walks and then read the account in the Boston Gazette! We will learn how the Gazette and another source went on to describe the events that followed the incident on King’s Street, as well as the reaction of a local residents in the next episode.

For now, let’s hear a very different account of the incident. Consider the different conclusions you might draw if the first you heard of the conflict came by reading a supplement that appeared in the Boston Evening-Post on June 25, 1770 entitled: “The Case of Captain Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment.” Although it may or may not have caused many Bostonians, and others in the American Colonies, to reconsider their opinions, think about how this statement would have been interpreted as it appeared in newspapers, or broadsides as they were often called at the time, in London. The Captain’s statement read as follows:

“IT is Matter of too great Notoriety to need any Proofs, that the Arrival of his Majesty’s Troops in Boston was extremely obnoxious to it’s Inhabitants. They have ever used all Means in their Power to weaken the Regiments, and to bring them into Contempt, by promoting and aiding Desertions, and with Impunity, even where there has been the clearest Evidence of the Fact, and by grossly and falsly propagating Untruths concerning them. On the Arrival of the 64th & 65th, their Ardour seemingly began to abate ; it being too expensive to buy off so many ; and Attempts of that Kind rendered too dangerous from the Numbers. — But the same Spirit revived immediately on it’s being known that those Regiments were ordered for Halifax, and hath ever since their Departure been breaking out with greater Violence. After their Embarkation, one of their Justices, not thoroughly acquainted with the People and their Intentions, on the Trial of the 14th Regiment, openly and publicly, in the Hearing of great Numbers of People, and from the Seat of Justice, declared, ‘ that the Soldiers must now take Care of ‘ themselves, nor trust too much to their Arms, for they were but a Handful ; that the Inhabitants carried  Weapons concealed under their Cloaths, and would destroy them in a Moment if they pleased.’ This, considering the malicious Temper of the People, was an alarming Circumstance to the Soldiery. Since which several Disputes have happened between the Towns- People and Soldiers of both Regiments and the former being encouraged thereto by the Countenance of even some of the Magistrates, and by the Protection of all the Party against Government. In general such Disputes have been kept too secret from the Officers.”

In order to focus on the events of March 5th, I will bypass his description of the fight at Gray’s Rope Walk, but you can read his statement in its entirety on my website,  After describing the incident at Gray’s Rope Walk, Captain Preston went on to describe the occurrences of weekend before the Massacre as follows:

“the Inhabitants constantly provoking and abusing the Soldiery. The Insolence, as well as utter Hatred of the Inhabitants to the Troops, increased daily ; insomuch, that Monday and Tuesday, the 5th and 6th instant, were privately agreed on for a general Engagement ; in consequence of which several of the Militia came from the Country, armed to join their Friends, menacing to destroy any who should oppose them. This Plan has since been discovered. On Monday Night about Eight o’Clock two Soldiers were attacked and beat. But the Party of the TownsPeople, in order to carry Matters to the utmost Length, broke into two Meeting-Houses, and rang the Alarm Bells, which I supposed was for Fire as usual, but was soon undeceived. About Nine some of the Guard came to and informed me, the Town-Inhabitants were assembling to attack the Troops, and that the Bells were ringing as the Signal for that Purpose, and not for Fire, and the Beacon intended to be fired to bring in the distant People of the Country. This, as I was Captain of the Day, occasioned my repairing immediately to the Main-Guard. In my Way there I saw the People in great Commotion, and heard them use the most cruel and horrid Threats against the Troops. In a few Minutes after I reached the Guard, about an hundred People passed it, and went towards the Custom-House, where the King’s Money is lodged. They immediately surrounded the Sentinel posted there, and with Clubs and other Weapons threatened to execute their Vengeance on him. I was soon informed by a Townsman, their Intention was to carry off the Soldier from his Post, and probably murder him. On which I desired him to return for further intelligence ; and he soon came back and assured me he heard the Mob declare they would murder him. This I feared might be a Prelude to their plundering the King’s Chest.

I immediately sent a non-commissioned Officer and twelve Men to protect both the Sentinel and the King’s Money, and very soon followed myself, to prevent (if possible) all Disorder; fearing lest the Officer and Soldiery by the Insults and Provocations of the Rioters, should be thrown off their Guard and commit some rash Act. They soon rushed through the People, and, by charging their Bayonets in half Circle, kept them at a little Distance. Nay, so far was I from intending the Death of any Person, that I suffered the Troops to go to the Spot where the unhappy Affair took Place, without any Loading in their Pieces, nor did I ever give Orders for loading them. This remiss Conduct in me perhaps merits Censure ; yet it is Evidence, resulting from the Nature of Things, which is the best and surest that can be offered, that my Intention was not to act offensively, but the contrary Part, and that not without Compulsion. The Mob still increased, and were more outrageous, striking their Clubs or Bludgeons one against another, and calling out, ‘come  ‘ on, you Rascals, you bloody Backs you Lobster  ‘ Scoundrels ; fire if you dare, ‘G-d damn you, fire’ and be damn’d ; we know you dare not;’ and much more such Language was used. At this Time I was between the Soldiers and the Mob, parleying with and endeavouring all in my Power to persuade them to retire peaceably ; but to no Purpose. They advanced to the Points of the Bayonets, struck some of them, and even the Muzzles of the Pieces, and seemed to be endeavouring to close with the Soldiers. On which some well-behaved Persons asked me if the Guns were charged : I replied, yes. They then asked me if I intended to order the Men to fire ; I answered no, by no Means ; observing to them, that I was advanced before the Muzzles of the Men’s Pieces, and must fall a Sacrifice if they fired ; that the Soldiers were upon the Half-cock and charged Bayonets, and my giving the Word fire, under those Circumstances, would prove me no Officer. While I was thus speaking, one of the Soldiers, having received a severe Blow with a Stick, stept a little on one Side, and instantly fired, on which turning to and asking him why he fired without Orders, I was struck with a Club on my Arm, which for sometime deprived my of the Use of it; which Blow, had it been placed on my Head, most probably would have destroyed me. On this general Attack was made on the Men by a great Number of heavy Clubs, and SnowBalls being thrown at them, by which all our Lives were in imminent Danger ; some Persons at the same Time from behind calling out, ‘Damn your Bloods, why don’t you fire? Instantly three or four of the Soldiers fired, one after another, and directly after three more in the same Confusion and Hurry. The Mob then ran away, except three unhappy Men who instantly expired, in which Number was Mr. Gray, at whose Rope-Walk the prior Quarrel took Place ; one more in since dead, three others are dangerously, and four slightly wounded. The Whole of this melancholy Affair was transacted in almost 20 Minutes. On my asking the Solidiers why they fired without Orders, they said they heard the Word “Fire,” and supposed it came from me. This might be the Case, as many of the Mob called out “Fire, fire,” but I assured the Men that I gave no such Order, that my Words were, ‘Don’t fire, stop your Firing:’ In short it was scarce possible for the Soldiers to know who said fire, or don’t fire, or stop your Firing. On the People’s assembling again to take away the dead Bodies, the Soldiers, supposing them coming to attack them, were making ready to fire again, which I prevented by striking up their Firelocks with my Hand.”

Quite a different depiction of the events of the night of March 5th, isn’t it? I find it fascinating that, rather than “The incident on King Street” being described as a brief skirmish, both accounts cite an ongoing history of conflict between the soldiers and colonists. The Gazette opined that the troops were really in Boston “to enforce oppressive Measures, to awe & control the legislative as well as executive Power of the Province, and to quell a Spirit of Liberty.” Captain Preston stated the townspeople had: “used all Means in their Power to weaken the Regiments, and to bring them into Contempt, by promoting and aiding Desertions, and with Impunity,… grossly and falsly propagating Untruths concerning them.”  The Gazette reported “several Soldiers of the 29th Regiment were seen parading the Streets with their drawn Cutlasses and Bayonets, abusing and wounding Numbers of the Inhabitants.” Captain Preston stated that colonial militia members had arrived in the town for the specific purpose of attacking the soldiers. Both accounts noted the captain had been struck with a club, and both reporting hearing the words “damn you, fire.”  The colonial account stated that the captain ordered the soldiers to fire, but the Captain stated he had never ordered the men to load their weapons. He also contended that the soldiers began firing out of confusion. There was so much confusion that the captain thought John Gray, himself, had been killed. However, what they both agreed on was the people of Boston had been and were increasingly angered that troops had been quartered in their midst.

What happened after the confrontation had ended? How did the actions and statements in the days and months after the Boston Massacre by individuals who held differing perspectives serve to inflame rather than calm matters? How was the Boston massacre depicted by those who sought freedom from British tyranny in the years after the event? Those are questions that we will explore in the next edition of American History of the Modern Patriot.

Until next time, this is Dr. Susan Rempel encouraging you to remain motivated, vigilant, and engaged in the political process. Visit my website,, with more than 500 pages of documents, products, and information designed to motivate the modern patriot.







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