Perhaps no single event set the American Revolution into motion more than the so-called Boston Massacre, when British troops fired into an angry mob of colonial citizens, killing five people. The American colonies were still more than six years away from declaring their independence in March, 1770. But anger over British policies was already simmering, as colonists strained under what many considered to be heavy-handed and unfair British rule.
British troops had been dispatched to America to enforce the Townshend Acts, taxes on everyday items imported from England, including tea, paper and glass. The sight of the “redcoats” on the streets of Boston served to increase tensions. One night, as one regiment of British soldiers relieved another, a crowd formed and began taunting the troops. As the crowd grew in size and fervor, the British commander’s call to his troops of “don’t fire” was either unheard or misunderstood and shots were fired into the mob of people. The killings, and the subsequent trial of the British troops, became a turning point, solidifying public opinion against the crown.
Visitors to Boston today can still see the site of the massacre and the events surrounding the incident. It is part of the Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile walking tour of historic sites in Boston. Rangers from the National Park Service are on hand to give history lessons and answer questions at each of the 16 stops along the trail.
The actual site of the Boston Massacre lies at the corner of Devonshire Street and what is now State Street, which was known at the time as King Street. In front of the Old State House, a circle of cobblestones outlines the area where the confrontation took place.
A short distance away, at the corner of Washington and Milk Streets, stands the Old South Meeting House. Thousands of Boston residents gathered at that site the day after the shooting, listening to impassioned speeches from the likes of John Hancock, demanding that the troops be removed from the city of Boston and charged with murder.
The most well-known of the victims of the Boston Massacre today is Crispus Attucks, who was of African descent. Attucks, who later became an inspirational figure hailed as the first victim of the Revolution, and the four other people who were slain are all buried at the Old Granary Burial Grounds on Tremont Street, just a short walk from the site of the killings. Hancock is also buried there, as is Paul Revere.
It was a print of Revere’s engraving of the event that was widely distributed and served to fan the flames of independence in the colonies. The depiction was copied from another engraver and is largely inaccurate, but as a piece of political propaganda it was undeniably successful. Largely as a legacy of Revere’s work and the legend that grew based on it, the Boston Massacre remains a key moment in American history.