On March 5, 1770, British troops fired into a crowd of Bostonians, killing three civilians immediately and injuring eight more. Two of the wounded died from their injuries soon thereafter. This event was quickly dubbed the “Boston Massacre” by Americans critiquing the British for imposing taxes and stationing troops in the colonies. Historians still have not decided whether this event was truly a “massacre,” which implies an attack on innocent, unarmed people, or the fatal conclusion to a riot initiated by colonists. Two important primary sources inform these historical debates. One, written by Captain Thomas Preston, offers the commanding British officer’s perspective on the events of that fateful night. A dramatically different perspective on this event is offered by an anonymous American partisan. While both accounts acknowledge the tragic conclusion—five deaths—of the events of March 5th, they disagree strongly on the instigator of the violence.
Captain Thomas Preston was the officer in charge of the 29th Regiment on the night of March 5th. His deposition was obtained by the court systems in Boston about a week after the incidents that took place in King Street. Preston had been arrested for his involvement in the “massacre,” and he remained in jail until late October, 1770, when he was acquitted of all the charges against him (Linder). Therefore, Preston had a clear agenda in his account: establishing a persuasive case for the innocence of both himself and his troops. His deposition served as a legal document intended to support him as the defendant in a criminal trial. While he might have offered an honest account of the event, he definitely stood to gain from describing the events of March 5th as the unfortunate result of soldiers defending themselves from an unruly “mob” (“Two Accounts,” 119).
Preston began his account by explaining that the people of Boston were openly hostile to the presence of British troops and repeatedly endangered the safety of the soldiers. According to Preston, on the night of the 5th, about one hundred Bostonians gathered in King Street at the ringing of the fire bell. This crowd issued “the most cruel and horrid threats,” and particularly threatened the life of the sentry guarding the king’s money (“Two Accounts,” 119). As the “rioters” pressed in on the sentry, Preston and twelve of his troops surrounded him, to offer him protection. Preston claimed that he deliberately did not order his troops to load their weapons, and he stood between the crowds and the soldiers “endeavouring all in my power to persuade them to retire peaceably, but to no purpose.” At this point, Preston claims that the hostile crowd attacked the British troops with clubs and snowballs, saying “all our lives were in imminent danger.” Preston suggested that the word “fire” was shouted by deliberately provocative townspeople, adding to the confusion. Ultimately, he argued that the crowd backed the troops into a corner and then attacked them with clubs, forcing them to fire into the riotous mob in self defense. Despite this danger to the troops, Preston makes a point of saying that his orders were only “don’t fire, stop your firing” (“Two Accounts,” 119).
Preston sought to establish his innocence by contrasting his own honorable behavior with a portrayal of the Boston townspeople as both crude and dishonorable. He emphasized that the Americans used bad language, behaved as a bloodthirsty mob, and initiated the violence. He contrasted this “outrageous” behavior with his own self control, personal bravery, and humane efforts to restore peace (“Two Accounts,” 119). He portrayed himself as a victim of the violence, rather than the aggressor, by emphasizing that he was hit with a club by an anonymous member of the crowd so hard that it made it impossible to use his arm for some time. Overall, Preston’s account rings with disdain for the Bostonians, and implies that the victims of the “massacre” were largely responsible for their own deaths.
Preston’s account contrasts sharply with the anonymous American account circulated by the Boston Town Meeting. The anonymous account was written as a form of anti-British propaganda soon after the event, and it was intended to expose and denounce the arrogance of occupying British troops. This document appears to be collaborative; it includes testimony from multiple eye witnesses to the events of March 5, 1770. The source’s anonymity complicates its interpretation, especially where the author(s) wrote in passive voice and left it unclear who made claims such as, “Captain Preston is said to have ordered them to fire . . .” (“Two Accounts,” 122). Readers are left to wonder who said Captain Preston ordered them to fire. It appears that this document was hastily written by a committee, and consistency was lost in the rush to publicize the British crime. However, the tone of the document is consistent: the anonymous author(s) condemn the “outrageous behavior” of the British troops (“Two Accounts,” 121).
The Bostonian account begins by recounting the names, social standing, and especially the cause of death of each victim of the “massacre.” By opening with this list, it humanizes and prioritizes the victims, something Preston’s account definitely did not do. The account then summarizes its position, claiming that the “actors in this dreadful tragedy were a party of soldiers commanded by Capt. Preston.” The anonymous account offers very different background information on the events leading up to the tragedy from what Preston emphasized. Whereas Preston emphasized the incivility and hostility of the townspeople, the American account claimed that British troops had been deliberately provoking fights with Boston ropemakers and repeatedly losing. The anonymous account drew upon several Bostonians’ depositions to argue that the troops planned to “commit some outrage upon the inhabitants of the town indiscriminately.” The heavily armed troops marched through Boston, physically assaulting random citizens and taunting everyone with curses and insults. After a scuffle between the British sentry and some “boys,” Captain Preston and troops under his command pushed through the crowd with fixed bayonets, “in so rough a manner that it appeared they intended to create a disturbance.” According to the American account, the soldiers attacked members of the crowd while the townspeople had their backs turned, and there was not “the least provocation given to Capt. Preston or his party.” Finally, according to this account, the troops lined up in an organized semi-circle, and at the orders of Captain Preston, fired upon the crowd “with deliberation.”
The American account sought to establish the honor and civility of the Bostonians in order to contrast the goodness of the American victims with the guilty, vicious soldiers. The account described the Bostonians in King Street the night of the tragedy as “gentlemen” and “boys” (“Two Accounts,” 121). The gentlemen behaved with civility, not offering provocation to the soldiers, and it was implied that the boys, while quarreling with the troops, did not pose a genuine threat to anyone’s safety. In contrast to the innocent Americans, the account depicted the British very critically. According to this document, the British soldiers were poor fighters, repeatedly finding themselves “worsted” in scuffles with Bostonian ropemakers. They were also bad losers, since they sought “further mischief” after these losing scuffles (“Two Accounts,” 120). The British soldiers were also indiscriminately violent, roaming through town with “naked cutlasses, swords, &c.” all while “assaulting and driving away the few they met there” (“Two Accounts,” 121). Finally, while the gentlemen of Boston behaved with civility, the British troops used foul language, calling the Americans “boogers” and “cowards” (“Two Accounts, 121).
The American partisan account showed some areas of agreement with Captain Preston. Both accounts suggested that the dispute emerged out of the local ropewalk, and the working class rope makers played a prominent role in the crowd. Both accounts agreed that a scuffle emerged in front of the Custom House, involving the sentry. And both accounts agreed that this scuffle ended in bloodshed. However, Preston and the Americans disagreed completely when it came to assigning blame for this tragedy. Preston argued that the Americans initiated the violence, forcing the British to defend themselves. The Americans argued that the British initiated the violence, firing on innocent townspeople. Both sources suggest that the violence was premeditated, by individuals pushing to breach the relations between the American colonists and the mother country. While historians cannot necessarily tell which interpretation is most accurate, we can benefit from understanding the widening gap between the Americans and the British in 1770.