On 5 March 1770, five members of a Boston crowd, who had been harassing a British sentry with taunts and snowballs, were shot and killed by a squad of British soldiers, led by Captain Thomas Preston. Six others were wounded in the shooting. For fifteen years after the event, Bostonians commemorated its anniversary until it was replaced by 4 July celebrations of American independence.
Patriot propagandists immediately seized on the deaths, calling the encounter a “massacre.” Word of the engagement spread quickly throughout the colonies. To the colonists, this further reaffirmed their fears of a British conspiracy to deprive them of their liberties and dominate not only Boston, but all of the colonies.
The massacre was the culmination of steadily heightening tensions in the city between Bostonians and British soldiers. The troops had been stationed there in the fall of 1768 to help customs officials uphold the Townshend duties.
City residents resented the presence of the troops and chafed under the challenges and searches by armed British sentries on the city streets. They did not understand why it was necessary to station troops in the city. Throwing snowballs was just one of many ways the colonists struck back at the occupying army.
Working-class citizens competed for scarce jobs with the redcoats, who sought part-time employment during their off-duty hours, and were willing to work for less than the prevailing wage. This led to particularly tense relations between the troops and working-class Bostonians, who led and comprised the majority of the Boston crowds. This was certainly the case on the cold, moonless night of 5 March.
John Adams recalled that the group gathered outside of the barracks on King Street was composed of “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, mulattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish Jack tars”. All five of the dead were members of Boston’s working-class population. One, Crispus Attucks, was a seaman of black and/or Indian ancestry.
Nor was the engagement of 5 March an isolated event. One month before, eleven-year-old Christopher Sneider had been shot and killed by a customs informer, Ebenezeer Richardson, who had fired two shots into a crowd that had gathered outside of his home.
Sneider’s funeral, on 26 February, was attended by thousands of the city’s residents. Just a few days prior to the massacre, a brawl broke out between a group of ropemakers and British soldiers. One of the ropemakers had taunted a soldier seeking employment.
The insulted redcoat returned with several of his compatriots to redress the affront and a fight ensued. A Boston shoemaker who was in the crowd the day of the massacre recalled that several of the soldiers from the brawl just days before were among those who confronted the crowd on 5 March.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Governor Thomas Hutchinson was forced to remove all of the British troops from the city to Castle William, located on an island in the harbor. In an attempt to demonstrate the impartiality of local justice, John Adams and Josiah Quincy, two prominent leaders of the patriot movement, defended Captain Preston along with eight of his men who were also accused of firing into the crowd.
The prosecution mustered little evidence. No one positively identified Preston as either giving the order to fire or himself firing, and he and six of his men were acquitted.
Two of the soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter, branded on the hand, and released. It is still not known who fired first or even if an official order to open fire was given. With the troops out of Boston and all of the Townshend duties except the tax on tea repealed, tensions in the city relaxed.
However, the Boston Massacre had politicized broad segments of the city’s population, as well as moderates throughout the colonies, against the British. The use of violence against Britons living in Boston reinforced the colonists’ belief that the British government, in both London and America, was conspiring against them.