Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Real Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre refers to the murder of five colonists by British soldiers on March 5, 1770. The Sons of Liberty, a group of colonists who resisted the Crown, dubbed the event a "Massacre" in order to incite anger towards the Crown. British officials, however, referred to the event as the Boston Riot. These names reveal more than just differing attitudes towards the same event. Indeed eyewitness accounts tell drastically different stories about what happened on the night of March 5, 1770.

The statement issued by members of the Sons of Liberty, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, painted the event as a malicious and unprovoked slaughter. They attest that the Massacre was retribution for a quarrel three nights prior between soldiers and colonists. Captain Preston, the British commander on duty on the night of March 5, was reported to have ordered his men to fire upon the colonists on King Street, "without the least warning."

William Taint, a Bostonian who witnessed but was not directly involved in the events of March, provided testimony during the trial of the British soldiers. He maintains that a group of colonists was gathered outside of the British Customs House when a formation of British soldiers took position outside of the building. Colonists were yelling, "Fire, fire, and be damned," and throwing snowballs at the British soldiers. Taint heard a musket discharge and then the word, "Fire" yelled by an unknown speaker, after which several more shots were fired.

Taint's account differs from that provided by Adams and Hancock in several respects. Firstly, Taint clearly states that the colonists were taunting and throwing snowballs at the soldiers, while Adams and Hancock portray the colonists peacefully going about their business. Taint also brings an element of uncertainty to the question of who yelled, "Fire." The former account clearly states that Captain Preston issued a direct order to fire, while the latter implies that it may just as well have been a colonist who shouted, "Fire."

Captain Preston's testimony during the trial offers a third source of information regarding March 5. He states that his men were protecting the Customs House from theft by the colonists when they were physically and verbally assaulted. While Taint saw only snowballs being hurled at the British, Preston reported that his men were also beaten with clubs. His soldiers responded by firing upon the colonists, later claiming that they heard the command to fire and assumed it came from Preston. Preston blames members of the mob for yelling, "Fire," and (unsurprisingly) denies issuing any such order.

Illustrations of the Boston Massacre are just as disparate as eyewitness accounts. Paul Revere's engraving shows innocent Bostonians being shot at as they attempt to flee. Captain Preston is clearly issuing the order to fire. Revere even included a small dog near the colonists to accentuate their innocence and vulnerability. The color suggests that the Massacre occurred in broad daylight, making it all the more heinous. This painting clearly coincides with the account given by Adams and Hancock, which is no surprise considering that Revere was also devoted to resisting British authority.

Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre.

A depiction of the event by an unknown artist contradicts Revere's illustration in several aspects. Firstly, the colonists are brandishing weapons and surrounding the British soldiers. Secondly, it is dark and there is a lot of smoke, which creates a sense of confusion. Thirdly, there is no clear order being issued by Captain Preston. The firing that is occuring in the image is just as likely to be out of self-defense as out of aggression. Thus, this portrayal supports aspects of both Taint and Preston's accounts.

"The Boston Massacre" - Artist Unknown

Which account is factual? Which depiction is correct? Perhaps none are fully accurate - or wholly untrue. As Andre Gide once wrote, "The color of truth is gray."

Additional Resources

Primary Source Accounts (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)

The Boston Massacre (Hiller B. Zobel)


  1. I think the colonists are the bad guys because some of them were probably drunk. The British only fired out of self defense. If they did it out of will, then more colonists would probably be dead.

  2. not true, the British did not need to fire, they just needed to retreat and leave the Bostonians alon

  3. the british were innocent lol the john adams movie thing of tar and feather though

  4. Great write-up, I am a big believer in commenting on blogs to inform the blog writers know that they’ve added something worthwhile to the world wide web!..
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  5. omg,that said a bad word and im 23!!!

  6. oh god no!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!