A relatively small street fight in Boston in 1770 was a spark that lit the fire of the American Revolution. 251 years ago, the Boston Massacre left five dead and challenged the colonists to uphold their own standards for the rule of law when it came time to try the case in court. Although not even an independent country yet, this early experience in delivering justice illuminated many of the same moral and ethical issues American citizens face today.
The Boston Massacre of 5 March 1770 was one of the first signs that the British occupation of their American colonies was a doomed effort. Since 1768, British soldiers (a.k.a., redcoats) had been deployed in the city of Boston to protect the British customs officials who enforced the Crown’s import and export taxes.
At the time, the population of Boston was only 16,000, so the 2,000 British soldiers who were sent there could not be ignored. Most of the colonists, those who called themselves patriots, by now hated the British. There was a smaller group of colonists who were faithful to the King of England, and they became known as the loyalists.
Two years into the occupation, the patriots began to direct their grievances not only to the redcoats but to their loyalist neighbors, too. On 22 February 1770 a skirmish at a loyalist-owned store ended in the shooting death (by a loyalist) of an 11-year-old boy, leading to a series of increasingly violent confrontations erupting throughout the city.
It was a cold and snowy Monday night on 5 March 1770 when a group of patriots gathered at the Custom House in downtown Boston, the building where the King of England stored his money. The patriots soon realized that the redcoat on duty, Private Hugh White, was the only British soldier in the area. He was wildly outnumbered, which emboldened the angry patriots. When they taunted him and threatened violence, he struck out with his bayonet and the riot began.
Private White was attacked by the crowd of patriots and soon bells began ringing throughout the city, calling other patriots to the scene for reinforcements. On the British side, backup troops began to arrive as well. Captain Thomas Preston and others joined White in defending the Custom House as the tension rose and taunts continued. Eventually the British fired a shot and, whether or not it was an accidental fire, all the British troops took it as permission to fire on the crowd.
In the end, five patriots were killed by the British that night. The first to die was Crispus Attucks, a Black patriot and ropemaker who was the son of an enslaved man and a Natick Indian woman. Attucks’ body and those of the other four victims were carried to Faneuil Hall, the city’s central marketplace and meeting hall where the patriots tended to gather and organize. Their five bodies lay in state there, an honor reserved for great leaders. Immediately hailed as heroes of the patriot movement, the city of Boston waived its own race-segregation laws in order to bury Attucks with his four white comrades. Crispus Attucks was ultimately acknowledged as the first casualty and martyr of the American Revolution.
The Boston Massacre was an omen of trouble to come. It was also an opportunity for the colonists to demonstrate their superior sense of justice, by hiring John Adams, a local lawyer and future President, to represent the British defendants, including Captain Thomas Preston, who were facing a potential death sentence if found guilty of murder. It was important to Adams and other colonists to demonstrate their respect for the rule of law and their ability to govern themselves. Adams’ argument focused on the one fact neither side could deny: the absolute chaos of the event itself. The confusion of the battle was enough to raise reasonable doubt about the intentions of the British soldiers, and the colonial jury found Preston and his British compatriots not guilty of murder (although two were convicted on the lesser charge of accidental manslaughter).
John Adams and the colonial jury succeeded in finding a nonviolent resolution to the Boston Massacre itself. As Adams later wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail, “the law…will not bend to the uncertain wishes, imaginations, and wanton tempers of men.” Nevertheless, the event was soon followed by more and more outbursts of frustration and violence between the patriots and the British, including the Boston Tea Party (1773), which the British met with a series of punishing legislative acts (the so-called Coercive Acts of 1774), which only further enraged the colonists, all of it leading to the battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts in 1775 and the outbreak of the American Revolution.
In later years, after his Presidency, John Adams remembered his legal role in the trial of the Boston Massacre as “the greatest service I ever rendered my country.” As with all moments of crisis, the event and its aftermath allowed Americans to see their values in action--and under attack. Adams considered law the foundation of civil society and of the new nation itself. 251 years later, Americans continue to reckon with the same questions.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was one of the original 13 colonies and point of arrival in America for the Mayflower Pilgrims, as well as being central to much of the activity spurring the American Revolution. The history of Massachusetts is rich and varied and encompasses significant historical events, from the Puritan-driven Salem witch trials to the birth of the game of basketball, as well as post-Revolutionary activities that heavily influenced the creation of the United States Constitution. The records left by these events and the people who participated in them, have left an abundance of historical records with which to enhance and expand the understanding of our ancestors. However, you don’t have to descend from Paul Revere or Rebecca Nurse to reap the benefits of the expanse of extant records.
At its largest, the colony encompassed not only the present-day state of Massachusetts, but also included portions of modern-day Maine, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Now one of the smaller states in the Union, encompassing only 10,554 square miles, it is the one of the most abundant in biographically-rich historical records.
Vital records were widely maintained in Massachusetts much earlier than other states, with mandates for recording of these records beginning as early as 1639. These records are maintained at the town level, and prior to 1900 were often published in a book form, with approximately two-thirds of the towns’ records being in print and are occasionally still being released. The majority of the town-level records for vital events occurring up to 1850 were published under a project known as the “Tan Books,” and are available digitally at multiple sites, including Ancestry.com. Though portions of the abstracted transcriptions can appear almost cryptic at first glance, there are keys to the acronyms that are used abundantly throughout the publications which provide beneficial details regarding the ancestors recorded within.
Later 19th-century vital records are just as plentiful for Massachusetts and a great deal are viewable online as digitized images of the original vital record register entries. Many, such as the birth records from the City of Boston in 1855 (shown below), are rich in biographical information regarding the child born and their parents, including such details as name of child, date of birth, address of residence, names of the child’s mother and father, as well as the occupation of the father and nativity of both parents. These details are far and beyond those for most other American records of the time period, allowing those with antecedents who resided here to ascend back in a much quicker manner, from the comfort of their homes, thanks to the digitizing efforts of organizations, such as FamilySearch.
As the records of the commonwealth are so extensive, many descendants of Massachusettsans are able to join lineage societies such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames of America, Colonial Dames XVII Century and The Mayflower Society, among others. These societies not only allow members to show their pride in their persevering ancestors, but also work to preserve the family histories of its members for the generations to come. Many of the societies make the documentation supporting the lineages and life events of the member ancestors available to others. These records can prove to be great resources for others in their efforts to research their antecedents and expand their family trees, even if they do not wish to become a member of the societies themselves. Historic membership applications for the Sons of the American Revolution are available online and though they do not include any supporting documentation, they can provide clues for researchers that may lead to original documentation. The details of the ancestors proven to have provided patriotic acts in the support of America leading up to and during the Revolution, as well as the supporting documentation (for non-living individuals) proving lineage from members of the society to these patriot ancestors are provided for others researching their ancestors by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Mayflower Society’s records include research of not only the Pilgrim ancestors who were aboard the Mayflower, but also their descendants through five generations, or more. The genealogies from this well-documented research can be found in their publications referred to as the “Silver Books,” which can be found at many libraries; a searchable database for these ancestors includes more than a half a million names.
The records discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to research in records of Massachusetts, but they can get you started on your path of discovery. Happy hunting!
John Adams Historical Society (http://www.john-adams-heritage.com/ : accessed 4 March 2021), “After the Boston Massacre.”
National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/ : accessed 4 March 2021), “Boston Massacre Trial.”
The Freedom Trail (https://www.thefreedomtrail.org/ : accessed 4 March 2021), “Boston Massacre Site.”
Smithsonian Magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/ : accessed 4 March 2021), “A Fresh Look at the Boston Massacre, 250 Years After the Event That Jumpstarted the Revolution.”
“Vital records of Rockport, Massachusetts to the end of the year 1849,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://ancestry.com : accessed 4 March 2021), deaths, image 100; citing, Vital Records of Rockport, Massachusetts to the End of the Year 1849 (Salem, Massachusetts: The Essex Institute, 1924), Deaths, p. 100.
"Massachusetts Births, 1841-1915," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ : 4 March 2021), City of Boston, 1855, p. 111; Massachusetts State Archives, Boston; FHL microfilm 4341206.
History (https://www.history.com/ : accessed 4 March 2021), “Massachusetts.”
FamilySearch Wiki (https://www.familysearch.org/), "Massachusetts Vital Records," rev. 14:27, 12 November 2020.
Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 4 March 2021), digital image of original map, “A new and accurate map of the colony of Massachusets [i.e. Massachusetts] Bay, in North America, from a late survey.,” digital id g3760.ar088100.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 4 March 2021), digital image of original artwork from engraving, “The bloody massacre perpetrated in King Street Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt.”, digital id ppmsca.01657.