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Boston Massacre

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Boston Massacre

The year is 1770. Tensions are running high on the eve of the American Revolution, especially in Boston, Massachusetts. An altercation occurs in the streets between British soldiers and Bostonians, resulting in the death of five colonists. The colonists' death spurred others into revolutionary thought. Continue reading to see how the Boston Massacre impacted the colonies, along with a summary of the events, the significance of the date, pictures, and the role of Paul Revere!

The Boston Massacre: Definition

Boston Massacre, Picture of four coffins of men killed in Boston Massacre 1770, Study SmarterFour coffins of men killed in the Boston Massacre, March 5th, 1770. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Boston, Massachusetts, became the center for revolutionary ideas well before the Boston Massacre in 1770. In the years before the massacre, colonists had dealt with poverty, unemployment, and conflict with British regulations. With heated tensions between a group of British soldiers and colonists, the Boston Massacre occurred in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 5th, 1770, a date that defined the future of the British colonist in America. The series of events can be summarized as follows: earlier in the day, colonists threw rocks and snowballs at soldiers guarding the Customs House; in response, the soldiers opened fire, killing five colonists.

Events leading to the Boston Massacre

What happened?

Britain’s War Debt and Taxes

Boston Massacre, Bostonians Reading the Stamp Act, Study Smarter Bostonians Reading the Stamp Act. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Seven Years' War incurred a substantial war debt that Britain intended to pay off by instituting colonial taxes. Colonists opposed the taxes due to the lack of colonial input. While colonial taxes were still substantially lower than their English counterparts, the idea of taxation without representation as unacceptable spread throughout the colonies. In 1765, Britain imposed the Stamp Act requiring all paper and printed items to have a stamp. The Stamp Act affected many colonial trades, and a boycott against British goods began. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but colonial tensions persisted when British soldiers arrived in 1768.

Seven Years War:

It refers to the war fought from 1756 to 1763. It involved several major European powers and was fought on a global scale. In North America, Great Britain and France fought over control of their American colonies.

Tensions Rise

Boston Massacre, Types of old infantry uniforms, Study Smarter Types of old infantry uniforms of the British army. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1768 Samuel Adams wrote a letter to Parliament scolding them for taxing the colonies. In reaction to Adams' Letter, Parliament sent roughly 4,000 troops to Boston to quell any thoughts of rebellion. However, the arrival of British troops caused an increase in anti-parliament sentiment. This fuelled anti-British campaigns. To add insult to injury, the Quartering Act of 1765 forced colonists to feed, house, and transport the stationed British soldiers. Groups like the Sons of Liberty immediately launched campaigns to encourage colonists to act.

Sons of Liberty:

A colonial organization formed in response to the Stamp Act; the group organized campaigns against British goods and other colonial propaganda.

Though the British repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament quickly enacted the Townshend Acts in 1767, placing duties on items like paint, paper, tea, and glass. Colonists also quickly rejected the act by embracing a non-importation stance against British goods. Women were an integral part of the boycott against the British. The Daughters and Sons of liberty coordinated and led protests against consuming items such as tea and clothing.

The coordinated actions of the colonists leveraged a sharp decline in the importation of British goods. In response to the boycotts, Parliament partially repealed the Townshend Acts in 1770, which influenced a temporary spike in colonial consumption of British goods. After that, however, tensions increased, and clashes between British soldiers and colonists continued.

Did you know? At the time of the Boston Massacre, there were 4,000 British soldiers and roughly 20,000 colonists in the town!

About the Date of the Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre, Newspaper item on the man who killed Crispus Attucks, Study Smarter Newspaper item on the trial of the man who killed Crispus Attucks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On March 5th, 1770, Bostonians gathered in the streets and began taunting British soldiers. Colonists threw rocks, snowballs, and harassing slurs at the soldiers, who fired into the crowd in return. As the scene settled, five colonists lay dead, including Crispus Attucks, who would become the first casualty of the American Revolution.

The massacre ended with nine British soldiers put on trial and defended by John Adams. Seven of the soldiers were acquitted, while two received a manslaughter conviction. Adams argued in defence of the soldiers by saying:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defense.” –John Adams

The hostility between the British soldiers and colonists would continue to escalate as colonial propaganda spurred further coordinated action.

Crispus Attucks

Boston Massacre, facts, victims and actors, StudySmarterPortrait of Crispus Attucks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Though Crispus Attucks is a well-known participant in the Boston Massacre, little historical information has been recorded. It is thought that Attucks was born sometime around 1723. His father was an enslaved African American and his mother a Native American.

For most of his young life, Attucks was enslaved until he ran away around the age of twenty seven. After escaping, Attucks became a sailor in Boston, spending most of his time on whaling ships. On the day of the Boston Massacre Crispus Attucks was the first to fall dead and was memorialized as the first martyr of the American Revolution. In 1888 a monument of Attucks was unveiled in the Boston Common.1

Picture of the Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre, Boston Massacre Engraving by Paul Revere, Study Smarter Boston Massacre engraving by Paul Revere. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Question to think about: Analyze the print above, "The Bloody Massacre", an engraving by Paul Revere. It depicts the Boston Massacre at its most dramatic moment. Explain, in detail, how the print could be used as effective propaganda among the colonists during this time.

Think about the following: the British officers, their expressions and stance; the colonists’ dress and reactions to the soldiers; the colonial woman wrapped in a black shawl; the dog at the forefront of the print depicting loyalty; the graphic details, like the smoke, the blood, and the colonists' wounds; "Unhappy Boston" is the poem written at the bottom of the print.

Created only three weeks after the date of the event, Paul Revere's engraving stoked an already unstable colonist opinion about Britain. Although historically inaccurate, Paul Revere's engraving depicted a strong pro-colonial stance. An incredibly effective piece of propaganda, the engraving circulated throughout the area. At the bottom of the painting, the poem "Unhappy Boston" is believed to be written by Paul Revere himself.

The Purpose of Colonial Propaganda in the American Revolution

It is often taught and believed that there was uniform colonial support for independence from Britain. However, most colonists continued to consider themselves loyal to their mother country. Yet, after the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, Britain flexed stronger parliamentary control over the colonists, and the idea of independence gained a stronger foothold.

Prior to America's independence from Britain, colonists frequently advocated for their political rights and highlighted the differences between themselves and the British. Even so, to win support from the remaining colonists and other countries, the colonies published letters, pamphlets, and speeches regarding their political circumstances. These documents ultimately would form the foundation of the Declaration of Independence.

Such documents included:

  • "Give Me Liberty or Give me Death," a speech given by Patrick Henry.
  • Common Sense, a long essay published by Thomas Paine.
  • "Petition from the General Congress in America to the King," delivered in 1774.
  • "Olive Branch Petition," written by John Dickinson (the petition addresses the hope for reuniting Britain and the colonies).

Paul Revere & the Boston Massacre

Boston Massacre, Paul Revere the torch bearer of the revolution, Study Smarter Paul Revere, the torchbearer of the revolution. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

After the events of the Boston Massacre, the Sons of Liberty and other colonists continued to circulate propaganda. Paul Revere circulated emotionally charged propaganda that urged colonists to sympathize with the anti-British cause. While Paul Revere's print did not accurately depict the Boston Massacre, it became widely circulated and one of the most crucial pieces of colonial propaganda. In addition to Revere's print, newspapers, and pamphlets spread throughout the colonies stoking revolutionary ideals.

The Boston Massacre: A Summary

Deep tensions between Britain and the American colonies simmered throughout the late 18th century. Britain's involvement in several wars caused severe war debt that eventually fell to the American colonists. While colonial taxes were substantially lower than their English counterparts, the idea of taxation without representation fueled an anti-parliament stance.

Britain quickly repealed the Stamp Act and promptly replaced it with the Townshend Acts in 1767, placing duties on regularly used items. Furthermore, the influx of British soldiers and the Quartering Act sent Bostonians into a resistant state. Tensions peaked on March 5th, 1770, as Bostonians gathered in the streets and began taunting British soldiers who fired on the group, leading to five colonists' deaths. The event became known as the Boston Massacre. While the event was over, it spurred colonial propaganda that would help ignite the idea of a free colonial America.

Boston Massacre - Key takeaways

  • Boston, Massachusetts, was the epicenter for revolutionary thought.
  • Prior to 1763, many colonists wished to stay aligned with Britain and did not want to break with the mother country; however, after the French and Indian War; revolutionary thought gained a foothold in the colonies due to Britain's stronger parliamentary control.
  • March 1770, an altercation between British soldiers and colonists occurred after colonists threw stones at British soldiers who fired upon the group killing five men.
  • Crispus Attucks was the first colonist to die and became the first official casualty of the American Revolution.
  • Paul Revere's engraving, published three weeks after the Boston Massacre took a strong pro-colonial stance that was an effective piece of propaganda and was circulated throughout the colonies.
  • The Boston Massacre was an essential event in spurring colonists towards independence from Britain.

1. Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, Crispus Attucks, 2022.

Frequently Asked Questions about Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre was a confrontation between British soldiers and colonists in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1770. British soldiers fired on a crowd of Bostonians, killing five of them. 

The Boston Massacre occurred on March 5th, 1770. 

Five colonists died in the Boston Massacre. Crispus Attucks would be considered the first casualty in the American Revolution. 

On March 5th, 1770, a crowd of Bostonians hurled insults, snowballs, and other sharp objects at a group of British soldiers. In response, the British soldiers fired into the crowd killing five colonists. 

The Boston Massacre was caused by severe tensions between British Parliament and American colonists. Parliament levied taxes on the colonists to pay for the Seven Years War. Colonists grew resentful over the imposed taxes, and anti-British campaigns were launched. Finally, four thousand British soldiers were sent to the colonies to quell the rebellion.

Final Boston Massacre Quiz


When did the Boston Massacre happen?

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March 5th, 1770

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What caused the Boston Massacre?

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The tension between colonists and British soldiers over levied taxes.

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What British War was behind the taxes levied on colonists?

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Seven Years War

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Name the act that substantially impacted influential colonists (lawyers, printers, tavern keepers…). 

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The Stamp Act 1765

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Who wrote a letter to Parliament in the Massachusetts Circular in 1768?

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Samuel Adams 

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How many troops were sent to Boston in 1768?

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What was the colonists' response to the Townshend Acts?

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Colonists took a non-importation stance against British goods.

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Who was considered the first casualty of the American Revolution?

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Crispus Attucks

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Name the lawyer who represented the soldiers of the Boston Massacre?

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John Adams 

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Name the printer of the Bloody Massacre.

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Paul Revere

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