In this lesson you will look at 5 primary source documents in order to determine what happened on March 5th 1770 in Boston, Massachusetts

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Boston Massacre


In this lesson you will look at 5 primary source documents in order to determine what happened on March 5th 1770 in Boston, Massachusetts.


  1. Work in pairs of two (or 3 depending on group numbers) to analyze one source and answer the questions for that source and answer the questions below them.

  1. When you are done analyzing all sources in pairs, as a group, share the questions and answers for each source.

  1. Next answer the following questions as a group:

  1. List the main differences between all the sources.

  2. What could be the reason(s) for these different accounts of what happened in March 5th, 1770?

  3. As historians, what other sources could we examine to help us get a clearer picture of what may have happened March 5th 1770?

  4. Do you believe a massacre occured? Why?

  5. How would you describe the events of the March 5th 1770?

  1. Read the section of the text on page 109 starting with the topic The Colonist’s Respond through the subtopic The Boston Massacre. Answer the following question as a group: What were the reasons why the Boston Massacre occurred?

  1. Work on the Class Assignment as a group.

Documents 1 and 2:

Use the computer to view the two images one by Paul Revere and the other by Alonzo Chappel. Answer the following questions:

Compare Paul Revere's engraving to Alonzo Chappel's lithograph of the Boston Massacre by answering these questions for each. Write the questions on a separate piece of paper.

  1. What time of the day does it look like this event is occurring?

  2. Describe the actions of the British soldiers to the right of the picture, what are they doing?

  3. Describe the crowd to the left of the picture, what is happening to them?

  4. Identify Captain Preston and describe what he appears to be doing

  5. Explain how the title reflects what is happening in the pictures

  6. Describe the main differences between the two pictures.

  7. What could be the reason(s) for these two very different pictures?

  8. As historians, what other sources could we examine to help us get a clearer picture of what may have happened March 5th 1770?

  9. Do you believe the image depicts a massacre? Why?

  10. If you looked at this picture how would you describe the events of the 5th of March?

Document 3:

Use the computer (in the Resources Tab) to read the Boston Gazette Obituary of the 4 colonists that died at the scene. Write and answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper:

1. What is the purpose of the pictures shown in the obituary?

2. How does the author describe the fate of the 4 victims?

3. Describe how the town of Boston mourned the victims

4. What does the author’s description of the Boston Massacre tell us about his point of view?

Document 4- Massacre Report from Boston Gazette

Read the account below and answer the questions that follow.
A few minutes after nine o'clock four youths, named Edward Archbald, William Merchant, Francis Archbald, and John Leech, jun., came down Cornhill together, and separating at Doctor Loring's corner, the two former were passing the narrow alley leading Mr. Murray's barrack in which was a soldier brandishing a broad sword of an uncommon size against the walls, out of which he struck fire plentifully. A person of mean countenance. armed with a large cudgel bore him company. Edward Archbald admonished Mr. Merchant to take care of the sword, on which the soldier turned round and struck Archbald on the arm, then pushed at Merchant and pierced through his clothes inside the arm close to the armpit and grazed the skin. Merchant then struck the soldier with a short stick he had; and the other person ran to the barrack and brought with him two soldiers, one armed with a pair of tongs, the other with a shovel. He with the tongs pursued Archbald back through the alley, collared and laid him over the head with the tongs. The noise brought people together; and John Hicks, a young lad, coming up, knocked the soldier down but let him get up again; and more lads gathering, drove them back to the barrack where the boys stood some time as it were to keep them in. In less than a minute ten or twelve of them came out with drawn cutlasses, clubs, and bayonets and set upon the unarmed boys and young folk who stood them a little while but, finding the inequality of their equipment, dispersed.
On hearing the noise, one Samuel Atwood came up to see what was the matter; and entering the alley from dock square, heard the latter part of the combat; and when the boys had dispersed he met the ten or twelve soldiers aforesaid rushing down the alley towards the square and asked them if they intended to murder people? They answered Yes, by G-d, root and branch! With that one of them struck Mr. Atwood with a club which was repeated by another; and being unarmed, he turned to go off and received a wound on the left shoulder which reached the bone and gave him much pain. Retreating a few steps, Mr. Atwood met two officers and said, gentlemen, what is the matter They answered, you'll see by and by. Immediately after, those heroes appeared in the square, asking where were the boogers? where were the cowards? But notwithstanding their fierceness to naked men, one of them advanced towards a youth who had a split of a raw stave in his hand and said, damn them, here is one of them. But the young man seeing a person near him with a drawn sword and good cane ready to support him, held up his stave in defiance; and they quietly passed by him up the little alley by Mr. Silsby's to King Street where they attacked single and unarmed persons till they raised much clamour, and then turned down Cornhill Street, insulting all they met in like manner and pursuing some to their very doors. Thirty or forty persons, mostly lads, being by this means gathered in King Street, Capt. Preston with a party of men with charged bayonets, came from the main guard to the commissioner's house, the soldiers pushing their bayonets, crying, make way! They took place by the custom house and, continuing to push to drive the people off pricked some in several places, on which they were clamorous and, it is said, threw snow balls. On this, the Captain commanded them to fire; and more snow balls coming, he again said, damn you, fire, be the consequence what it will! One soldier then fired, and a townsman with a cudgel struck him over the hands with such force that he dropped his firelock; and, rushing forward, aimed a blow at the Captain's head which grazed his hat and fell pretty heavy upon his arm. However, the soldiers continued the fire successively till seven or eight or, as some say, eleven guns were discharged.
By this fatal manoeuvre three men were laid dead on the spot and two more struggling for life; but what showed a degree of cruelty unknown to British troops, at least since the house of Hanover has directed their operation, was an attempt to fire upon or push with their bayonets the persons who undertook to remove the slain and wounded!

Write and answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper:

1. How did the British react after being confronted by Archbald in the alley?

2. Why do you think the young boys left when the 12 soldiers returned to the alley?

3. What does the British reaction to Atwood reveal about their attitude that night?

4. According to the author what factors led Captain Preston to give the order to fire?

5. What does the last the paragraph reveal about the authors attitude about the British and how might this be used by colonial radicals?

Document 5- Captain Thomas Preston's Account of the Boston Massacre

Read the account below and answer the questions that follow.
(13 March 1770), from British Public Records Office, C. O. 5/759. Reprinted in Merrill Jensen (editor) English Historical Documents, Volume IX. (London, 1964) vp. 750-53.
On Monday night about 8 o'clock two soldiers were attacked and beat. But the party of the townspeople in order to carry matters to the utmost length, broke into two meeting houses and rang the alarm bells, which I supposed was for fire as usual, but was soon undeceived. About 9 some of the guard came to and informed me the town inhabitants were assembling to attack the troops, and that the bells were ringing as the signal for that purpose and not for fire, and the beacon intended to be fired to bring in the distant people of the country.
This, as I was captain of the day, occasioned my repairing immediately to the main guard. In my way there I saw the people in great commotion, and heard them use the most cruel and horrid threats against the troops. In a few minutes after I reached the guard, about 100 people passed it and went towards the custom house where the king's money is lodged. They immediately surrounded the sentry posted there, and with clubs and other weapons threatened to execute their vengeance on him. I was soon informed by a townsman their intention was to carry off the soldier from his post and probably murder him. On which I desired him to return for further intelligence, and he soon came back and assured me he heard the mob declare they would murder him.
This I feared might be a prelude to their plundering the king's chest. I immediately sent a non-commissioned officer and 12 men to protect both the sentry and the king's money, and very soon followed myself to prevent, if possible, all disorder, fearing lest the officer and soldiers, by the insults and provocations of the rioters, should be thrown off their guard and commit some rash act. They soon rushed through the people, and by charging their bayonets in half-circles, kept them at a little distance. Nay, so far was I from intending the death of any person that I suffered the troops to go to the spot where the unhappy affair took place without any loading in their pieces; nor did I ever give orders for loading them. This remiss conduct in me perhaps merits censure; yet it is evidence, resulting from the nature of things, which is the best and surest that can be offered, that my intention was not to act offensively, but the contrary part, and that not without compulsion.
The mob still increased and were more outrageous, striking their clubs or bludgeons one against another, and calling out, come on you rascals, you bloody backs, you lobster scoundrels, fire if you dare, G-d damn you, fire and be damned, we know you dare not, and much more such language was used. At this time I was between the soldiers and the mob, parleying with, and endeavoring all in my power to persuade them to retire peaceably, but to no purpose. They advanced to the points of the bayonets, struck some of them and even the muzzles of the pieces, and seemed to be endeavoring to close with the soldiers.
On which some well behaved persons asked me if the guns were charged. I replied yes. They then asked me if I intended to order the men to fire. I answered no, by no means, observing to them that I was advanced before the muzzles of the men's pieces, and must fall a sacrifice if they fired; that the soldiers were upon the half cock and charged bayonets, and my giving the word fire under those circumstances would prove me to be no officer.

While I was thus speaking, one of the soldiers having received a severe blow with a stick, stepped a little on one side and instantly fired, on which turning to and asking him why he fired without orders, I was struck with a club on my arm, which for some time deprived me of the use of it, which blow had it been placed on my head, most probably would have destroyed me.

On this a general attack was made on the men by a great number of heavy clubs and snowballs being thrown at them, by which all our lives were in imminent danger, some persons at the same time from behind calling out, damn your bloods - why don't you fire. Instantly three or four of the soldiers fired, one after another, and directly after three more in the same confusion and hurry.
The mob then ran away, except three unhappy men who instantly expired, in which number was Mr. Gray at whose rope-walk the prior quarrels took place; one more is since dead, three others are dangerously, and four slightly wounded.
The whole of this melancholy affair was transacted in almost 20 minutes. On my asking the soldiers why they fired without orders, they said they heard the word fire and supposed it came from me. This might be the case as many of the mob called out fire, fire, but I assured the men that I gave no such order; that my words were, don't fire, stop your firing. In short, it was scarcely possible for the soldiers to know who said fire, or don't fire, or stop your firing.

On the people's assembling again to take away the dead bodies, the soldiers supposing them coming to attack them, were making ready to fire again, which I prevented by striking up their firelocks with my hand. Immediately after a townsman came and told me that 4 or 5000 people were assembled in the next street, and had sworn to take my life with every man's with me. On which I judged it unsafe to remain there any longer, and therefore sent the party and sentry to the main guard, where the street is narrow and short, there telling them off into street firings, divided and planted them at each end of the street to secure their rear, momently expecting an attack, as there was a constant cry of the inhabitants to arms, to arms, turn out with your guns; and the town drums beating to arms, I ordered my drums to beat to arms, and being soon after joined by the different companies of the 29th regiment, I formed them as the guard into street firings. The 14th regiment also got under arms but remained at their barracks.

Write and answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper:
1. Who do you think was the intended audience of this account by Thomas Preston?

2. How does Preston justify sending his troops to the Customs house?

3. Which loaded words does Preston use to describe the mob and their actions? Why do you believe he describes the mob this way?

4. How does Preston describe his own actions that evening?

5. Predict: Do you believe Preston’s account would be successful in defending his actions? Why?

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