In October of 1768, in response to growing unrest in Boston following imposition of the Townshend Acts, a fleet of British men-of-war with two regiments on board were moored in Boston harbor. The troops were landed and marched to the Boston Common, where they were soon reinforced by two regiments from Ireland. This was an obvious attempt by the British government to – in today’s parlance – “shock and awe” the people of Boston and of all New England.
They were not well-received, with conflicts breaking out regularly. It took two years for the kettle to reach temperature, and on a cold winter day in March, it boiled over.
Long afterwards John Adams wrote of the event: “On that night the foundation of American Independence was laid. Not the battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis were more important events in American history than the battle of King street on the 5th of March, 1770. The death of four or five persons, the most obscure and inconsiderable that could have been found upon the continent, has never yet been forgiven by any part of America.”
Daniel Webster, speaking of the event, remarked : “There were good men trying to prevent a riot, and some assured the soldiers that they would not be hurt. Among others, Henry Knox, subsequently the general, was present, who saw nothing to justify the use of firearms, and with others remonstrated against the use of them; but Captain Preston, as he was talking with Knox, saw his men pressing the people- with their bayonets, when in great agitation he rushed in among them.”
Paul Revere's famous engraving of the Boston Massacre.
Henry Knox at the time was a 19-year-old apprentice at a book store in Boston. He would open his own store a year later, and purchased a good deal of paper from the Liberty Paper Mill through the end of 1774. History tells us that Knox devoured books about military tactics, especially about the use of artillery. In 1769, he joined a local artillery company called The Train.
Much more about Henry Knox later on. For now we have his first-hand account of what became known as The Boston Massacre from “The Trial of the Soldiers,” by Frederic Kidder, 1870.
I, Henry Knox, of lawful age, testify and say, that between nine and ten o’clock, p.m., the fifth instant, I saw the sentry at the Custom-house charging his musket, and a number of young persons crossing from Royal Exchange to Quaker Lane; seeing him load, stopped and asked him what he meant ? and told others the sentry was going to fire. They then huzzaed and gathered round him at about ten feet distant. I then advancing, went up to him, and the sentry snapped his piece upon them, Knox told him if he fired he died. The sentry answered he did not care, or words to that purpose, damning them and saying, if they touched him, he would fire. The boys told him to fire and be damned.
Immediately on this I returned to the rest of the people and endeavored to keep every boy from going up, but finding it ineffectual, went off through the crowd and saw a detachment of about eight or nine men and a corporal, headed by Capt. Preston. I took Capt. Preston by the coat and told him for God’s sake to take his men back again, for if they fired his life must answer for the consequence; he replied he was sensible of it, or knew what he was about, or words to that purpose; and seemed in great haste and much agitated.
While I was talking with Capt. Preston, the soldiers of his detachment had attacked the people with their bayonets. There was not the least provocation given to Capt. Preston or his party, the backs of the people being towards them when they were attacked. During the time of the attack I frequently heard the words, “Damn your blood,” and such like expressions.
When Capt. Preston saw his party engaged he directly left me and went into the crowd, and I departed : the deponent further says that there was not present in King street above seventy or eighty people at the extent, according to his opinion.”
From "Architect of the Capitol," a fresco mural by Constantino Brumidi adorns a room at the U.S. Capitol. Crispus Attucks is shown engaging British soldiers in the center.
Two more Liberty Paper Mill customers were involved in separate incidents with British soldiers just prior to the massacre. These altercations certainly must have contributed to the actions that followed.
“Robert Pierpont, (local merchant) of lawful age, testifies and says, that going to see a sick neighbor between the hours of seven and eight on Monday evening, the fifth current, two soldiers armed, one with a broad sword, the other with a club, passed him near the hay market, going towards the Town-house, seeming in great haste. In a few minutes they returned and hollowed very loud, “Colonel.” Before the deponent reached Mr. West’s house, where he was going, they passed him again, jo’ined by another, with a blue surtout, who had a bayonet, with which he gave the deponent a back-handed stroke, apparently more to affront than hurt him.
On complaint of this treatment, he said, the deponent should hear more of it, and threatened him very hard, and further saith not.” (In addition to being an eyewitness to the massacre, Pierpont was the city’s coroner and conducted the autopsy of Crispus Attucks, one of five killed that day.
Francis Archibald Jr. was another witness, walking along with Liberty Mill customer, printer John Hicks:
“About ten minutes after nine, I saw a soldier, and a mean looking fellow with him with a cutlass in his hand; they came up to me; somebody said, “Put up your cutlass, it is not right to carry it at this time of night.”
He said “Damn you, ye Yankee boogars, what’s your business?” He came up to another that was with me and struck him. We beat him back, when seven or eight soldiers came out of the barracks, with tongs and other weapons; one aimed a blow at a young fellow, John Hicks, who knocked the soldier down. As he attempted to rise, I struck him down again, and broke his wrist, as I heard afterwards.
I went to King Street, and when the guns were all fired, I saw several persons dead.”
Boston's Old State House. The Boston Massacre took place just steps from the building. It is fitting that the Declaration of Independence was first read in Boston from this balcony by Liberty Paper Mill customer Thomas Crafts.