Sample Lesson Plan for the Boston Massacre



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Sample Lesson Plan for the Boston Massacre

Objective: Meets California Social Studies Standard 5.5.1: Students understand how political, religious, and economic ideas and interests brought about the Revolution resistance to imperial policy. Also Language Arts Standards reading 2.5, expository critique: distinguish facts, supported inferences, and opinions in text.




  1. Before doing the exercise, spend a little time introducing the Boston Massacre. What was it? In what context did it occur (e.g. British troops occupying Boston)?

[This is the introduction I used for us: In the few years prior to 1770, when the Boston Massacre took place, Boston had been increasingly filled with unrest. In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which prompted a storm of protests, some of them violent. Men such as Samual Adams had encouraged Bostonians to be even bolder in their protests. In response, in 1768, the British government sent two regiments of soldiers to Boston to restore order and enforce British law. But the presence of soldiers brought more unrest. “Incidents between Bostonians and [British soldiers] were common on the streets, in taverns, and at the places of employment of British soldiers who sought part-time jobs to supplement” their pay.


On February 22, 1770, a British sympathizer named Ebenezer Richardson tried to tear down an anti-British sign. A crowd followed him home and threw rocks at his house, striking Richardson’s wife. He grabbed a musket and fired into the crowd, killing eleven-year-old Christopher Seider. Richardson was thrown in jail, and 2000 mourners (1/7 of the city population) participated in Seider’s funeral, including children who carried his casket through the streets.
Through the next week, gangs of men and boys roamed the streets of Boston, harassing soldiers. Soldiers too prowled the streets, looking for a fight.
On the night of March 5, a clash took place between the soldiers and a crowd of men and boys that again ended in bloodshed. British soldiers fired their muskets, killing 5 colonists and wounding 6 others. The soldiers and their Captain, Thomas Preston, were sent to jail and tried for murder. Preston’s trial took place in October. We have two tasks today. 1) To try to understand the events of that evening, particularly whether Thomas Preston gave the order to fire or not. 2) To try to understand how colonists hostile to the British used this event to fuel the protests.]
2. Preparation:

-Paraphrase and/or shorten the documents where needed. Or offer a vocabulary exercise to help with difficult terms.


-Make enough copies of the documents, the picture, and the poem.


  1. Talk about the difference between fact and opinion. It is a fact that on March 5, 1770, British soldiers in Boston fired their guns, leaving five colonists dead and six wounded. But what exactly happened that night? We will be looking at the testimony of several men and women who were on the scene. You will see that their accounts differ because each saw the events from a different place and remembered them differently. Their accounts were colored by what they saw, their opinions of the British and the colonists, and the passage of time. Your job is to try to understand, as the colonial jury did, what happened that night? Did the British captain, Captain Preston, give the order to fire? Was he guilty of ordering the shooting of colonists? Or was it an accident? To do this, you must sort out the facts from the opinions, decide who is telling the truth, and decide whose version of the truth is most reliable.




  1. As a class, analyze Captain Preston’s deposition. This will model for the students how to do their own analyses of the other documents in the next step.

-Read the document (which you may have paraphrased) together.
-Discuss any unfamiliar terms or concepts.
-Analyze what happened according to Preston’s statement:

-Where was Captain Preston standing?

-How many colonists were there?

-What were they saying to the soldiers? Why do you think they said these things?

-Where were the colonists standing in relation to the soldiers?

-What did Preston do to try to respond to the crowd?

-What did he say when he was asked if he intended to have his soldiers shoot the colonists?

-What happened next?

-Why, according to Preston, did the first soldier fire his gun?

-How did the colonists respond?

-Why did the other soldiers fire their guns?

-Was Preston surprised when the soldiers fired? Why or why not?


-What evidence is there that Preston might be telling the truth? [e.g. his honor as a soldier, the fact that there were other witnesses, etc.]

-Why might he be lying? [disrespect the colonists; get out of trouble; figure it was so confused that he wouldn’t be caught, etc.]


-As we look at other witnesses’ statements, what parts of Preston’s story could we check? [his statement of the facts—where was he? How many colonists were there? What were they doing? Were the soldiers threatened? Did they fire all at once? Was the order to fire given? Etc.]


  1. Have the students analyze the other witnesses’ statements. How you do this will depend, in part, on how many students you have. There are 8 witnesses for the prosecution and 8 witnesses for the defense. Some of the statements are longer than others. You could have the students work individually, in pairs, or in groups. You could also group some of the shorter statements together. If the students are going to work with more than one witness, remind them that these present different viewpoints.

-For each witness’s statement, try to answer the following questions:

-Is this a witness for the prosecution or the defense?

-Why was the witness (and other colonists) on the scene? Where did they come from? Were the colonists armed?

-How many people were there?

-What time was it?

-Where was the witness standing, and how close to the soldiers was the witness?

-What did the colonists say to the soldiers?

-How many soldiers were there? Where were they? Were they armed? What did the soldiers say to the colonists?

-What did the colonists do to the soldiers?

-When did Captain Preston arrive?

-Where did Captain Preston stand?

-What did he do to try to calm the crowd and the soldiers?

-Did Captain Preston talk to anyone?

-Were the soldiers ready to fire? Did they fire all at once or separately?

-Did anyone give the order to fire? Was it Captain Preston?

-Was anyone else present besides the Captain, the row of soldiers, and the crowd? If so, who? What did he do?
-What evidence is there that this witness’s statement is reliable? Is there reason to believe that the witness might be lying or might not have seen what really happened?
-Draw a picture, for each witness, of where the witness was standing, where the captain was standing, and what the witness saw.


  1. Put the students into larger groups (for instance, all the students who analyzed the “defense” witnesses together and all the students who analyzed the “prosecution” witnesses together.




    1. On the board or on a big piece of paper, draw the map of the scene. Then, using different colors, have each group spend some time mapping where each of their witnesses were and where each witness placed Preston. Use the colors to show disagreement or agreement among witnesses.




    1. While one group works on the map, have the other group discuss their witnesses together.

-Which of your witnesses seem more reliable? Why?

-According to the witnesses, especially the more reliable ones, what was happening that night? What were the colonists doing out? How did they interact with the soldiers? Why do you think the soldiers fired?

-Do you think Preston gave the order to fire? Why, or why not?

-Do you think someone else gave the order to fire? Why, or why not?




  1. As a class, report out:

-The map: What can we learn from all the circles on the map? Can we come to any conclusion about where Preston was? Does it help if we eliminate witnesses who were farther away or who seem more biased? How much could the colonists see and hear (remember it was dark and without street lights)?
-What do you think happened that night?

-Do you think Preston gave the order to fire? Why, or why not?

-Ask each student/the class/or the groups to draw a picture of what happened.


  1. [Next day?] Give students (or put on the overhead projector) the engraving of the Boston Massacre done by Paul Revere. “Read” the engraving by examining its details from left to right and top to bottom. Notice, for example,

-Where are the soldiers standing? Are they firing at once or separately?

-Where is Captain Preston? What is he doing? [giving the order to fire]

-Where are the colonists? Are they armed? What are they doing?

-What does the building behind the soldiers say?



-What differences do you see between this picture and the accounts you read of the “massacre”? What differences do you see between this picture and the pictures you drew?
-Why do you think Paul Revere did the engraving this way? What message does it convey? How do you think colonists looking at the engraving would have felt about the shooting? [Bear in mind that this engraving was made in 1770, six years before the Americans declared independence. Also, bear in mind that as late as January 1776, most Americans did not want independence from England. So what exactly was Paul Revere trying to say?]


  1. Give the students the language from the broadside by Isaiah Thomas. Read it out loud together. What kind of language did Thomas use? How did he feel about the Boston “massacre”? How did he want his readers to feel? Why did he talk about the outcome of the trial? Why did he talk about the shooting of Christopher Seider? How does this document reflect some of the ideas of the American Revolution? What can it help us understand about the emotions that helped spark the revolution? What can it help us understand about the way that colonists (and the British) tried to sway people’s feelings.


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