Boston Massacre: Primary Sources

      No Comments on Boston Massacre: Primary Sources

The primary sources on the Boston Massacre offer a unique perspective on the events of that historic day.

These sources include news articles, pamphlets, diaries, official reports and trial notes on the Boston Massacre.

The following is a list of primary sources of the Boston Massacre:

The Boston Gazette and Country Journal News Article:

Published in the Boston Gazette and Country Journal on March 12, 1770, this newspaper story reports on the events of the Boston Massacre which occurred on March 5, 1770.

The article states that the event began when a soldier got into an argument with a group of boys in an alley near the State House.

The argument then became physical which attracted a crowd of people and it eventually spilled over into King Street where more soldiers arrived with Captain Thomas Preston.

The article states that the soldiers pushed back at the growing crowd with their bayonets and pricked some of them which prompted them to throw snowballs at the soldiers.

As the crowd continued to throw snowballs, the article states that Preston gave the soldiers the order to fire on the crowd multiple times, which they did.

The article also identifies and describes each of the dead and wounded victims and describes the gory nature of their wounds, probably to invoke an emotional response from the reader.

An image is published on the last page of the article which depicts four coffins of the first four victims of the massacre, Crispus Attucks, James Caldwell, Samuel Gray and Samuel Maverick. The coffins are engraved with the victim’s initials and a skull and crossbones on each coffin.

Boston Gazette article about the Boston Massacre, published March 12, 1770

The article uses inflammatory language, describing the victims as “the unhappy victims who fell in the bloody massacre of the Monday evening preceding…” and describes King Street, where the Boston Massacre took place, as the “theatre of inhuman tragedy.”

The article was also published as a pamphlet, titled Account of a Late Military Massacre at Boston, or the Consequences of Quartering Troops in a Populous Town, on the same day the article was published in the newspaper.

Obituary for Patrick Carr

Published in the Boston Gazette and Country Journal on March 19, 1770, this obituary is for the fifth victim of the Boston Massacre, Patrick Carr, who died of his injuries on March 14 and was buried on March 17.

The obituary depicts a coffin with Carr’s initials on it, describes how he was wounded in the hip with a musket ball and describes his funeral procession from Faneuil Hall to the Granary Burying Ground where he was buried with the other four victims.

This obituary also uses inflammatory language, describing Carr as the “fifth life that has been sacrificed by the rage of the soldiery…” and states he was buried in the same grave as “those who fell by the same hands of violence” the week before.

A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston:

Published in late March in 1770, this 128-page pamphlet is the official colonial report on the Boston Massacre.

The pamphlet consists of depositions of 96 witnesses taken between March 13 and March 19 and was compiled by James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren and Samuel Pemberton who were appointed by Boston colonial officials to prepare an official town account of the event during a town meeting on March 12, 1770.

In the first paragraph of the pamphlet it blames the British soldiers for the event, stating:

“It is true, that the minds of the people were greatly irritated, and that some individuals were abusive in their language towards the military. But whenever examination was carefully made, it appeared that the soldiers were the first to assault, to threaten, and to apply contemptuous epithets to the inhabitants…the people were provoked beyond endurance; and they can be justly accused only of resisting a fierce and vindictive soldiery, at the hazard of life.”

The pamphlet goes on to describe some of the events that led up to the Boston Massacre, such as arguments in the streets between the colonists and British soldiers the month prior to the massacre, stories about the soldiers harassing civilians on the street, and an altercation between a soldier and some workers at Gray’s rope walk a few days before the massacre, which the pamphlet states the British soldiers used as an excuse to seek revenge against the colonists in the days leading up to the Boston Massacre.

All of this, the pamphlet states, made the colonists feel threatened and agitated in the days leading up the massacre and may have prompted the colonist’s behavior on the day of the massacre.

The pamphlet also lists the dead and wounded victims and describes the nature of their wounds and the testimonies included in the pamphlet all corroborate the pamphlet’s claim that the soldiers were responsible for the Boston Massacre.

The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or The Bloody Massacre, Engraving by Henry Pelham

Created in mid to late March, this engraving by Henry Pelham depicts a line of British soldiers firing upon a crowd of unarmed civilians while their captain gives the order to fire.

The soldiers are standing in front of the State House and the Custom House and the wounded and dead are depicted lying on the ground while one wounded victim is being carried away by the crowd.

In the window of the Custom House a puff of smoke is depicted, suggesting a customs commissioner also fired on the crowd.

At the bottom of the engraving is a quote from the Ninety-fourth Psalm.

The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regt

Created in late March, this engraving by Paul Revere is essentially a copy of Pelham’s engraving.

The engraving depicts essentially the same image as Pelham’s with slight variations, such as the words “Butcher’s Hall” written across the front of the Custom House, a gun with a cloud of smoke sticking out of the window of the Custom House and a quote from an original eighteen-line poem at the bottom of the image.

"The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt," engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere, circa 1770
“The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by a Party of the 29th Regt,” engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere, circa 1770

It is believed that Revere copied the image when Pelham gave him his engraving in order to create a print from it sometime in late March.

Captain Thomas Preston’s account of the Boston Massacre

Recorded in the Boston jail on March 12 and published in a British newspaper in London called the Public Advertiser on April 28, this account of the Boston Massacre was given by Captain Thomas Preston.

Preston was the commander of the regiment of British soldiers charged with shooting the victims of the massacre. Preston and the soldiers involved were immediately arrested after the incident and imprisoned while they awaited trial.

Hoping to gain support in England and maybe even a pardon from the King, Preston prepared his own account of the event which was then published in London in April.

In the account, Preston acknowledges that the colonists were already upset by the presence of the British soldiers in Boston and accused them of harassing, insulting and otherwise using “all means in their power to weaken the regiments,” including insulting and harassing a soldier at Gray’s rope walk a few days before the massacre.

Preston says the colonists then planned an attack on the British soldiers on March 5th or 6th and then carried out this plan on March 5th when they surrounded the lone sentry standing guard outside the State House and began to throw sticks and snowballs at him.

Preston says he and 12 soldiers soon arrived to protect the guard and the State House and they used their bayonets to keep the crowd at a distance.

Preston goes on to explain that he stood between the soldiers and the crowd, which differs from the Pelham and Revere images of the incident where Preston is depicted standing behind the soldiers, while he talked to the crowd and tried to persuade them to leave but they refused and continued to throw things at the soldiers and himself.

After being repeatedly struck by objects, Preston says one of the soldiers stepped aside and fired and when he turned around to tell him to stop he was struck by an object, as were the other soldiers, while someone in the crowd yelled “Damn you Bloods, why don’t you fire?” which prompted the soldiers to fire.

Preston said he asked the soldiers afterwards why they fired without his order and they stated that they heard the word “fire” and thought it was a command from him, according to his account:

“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 scarce possible for the soldiers to know who said fire, or don’t fire, or stop your firing.”

Preston also explained that some of the colonists arrived to take away the dead but the soldiers thought they were there to attack them again and raised their guns to fire but Preston stopped them by pushing their guns away.

Preston said the crowd eventually dispersed and he and his soldiers were arrested shortly after.

It should be noted that Preston never uses the word “massacre” in the account and instead describes the event as “this melancholy affair” and the “late unhappy affair.”

A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance at Boston in New England

Published in London in May of 1770, this pamphlet was written and compiled by lawyer Francis Maseres and Lieutenant Colonel William Dalrymple of the British 29th Regiment and gives an account of the Boston Massacre.

The pamphlet included eyewitness accounts that corroborates the British soldier’s claim that they were attacked by an unruly mob. It contains a narrative and testimony from 31 people describing the incident.

The pamphlet acknowledges that tensions were high in the colony due to the unpopularity of the Stamp Act and the presence of the British soldiers and also states that the altercation between the soldier and the workers at Gray’s rope walk earlier in the week was a contributing factor.

Yet, the pamphlet states that the colonists used the rope walk incident to stir up an angry mob to attack the soldiers, which differs from the colonist’s claim that the soldiers became vengeful after the altercation and used it as an excuse to seek revenge against the colonists.

The pamphlet goes on to describe the events of the Boston Massacre and states that mobs of armed colonists were roaming the streets of Boston that night, before the massacre even took place, stating that they were going to fight the soldiers, which suggests that the colonists planned the event.

One deposition in the pamphlet, from William Davies, states that he saw colonists tearing apart a vendor’s stall to make clubs while shouting “Let us attack the main-guard” while others suggested they attack the soldier’s barracks instead.

The pamphlet went on to say that the colonists then started harassing the lone guard outside the statehouse while he politely asked them to disperse, which they refused.

It then states that as the colonists continued to harass the guard and began throwing snowballs and sticks, more soldiers arrived as reinforcements and they were also pelted with snowballs and other debris which prompted them to fire on the crowd without any order from Captain Preston.

The pamphlet states that Captain Preston immediately reprimanded the soldiers for firing on the crowd.

John Adams’ Trial Notes:

John Adams served as the defense lawyer for the British soldiers in October and November of 1770 and kept three separate sets of notes during the course of the trial.

Since Captain Preston was tried separately from the soldiers, in a trial titled Rex v. Preston, the first set of notes is for Preston’s trial and consists of eight pages relating specifically to his trial.

The second set of notes are for the soldier’s trial, Rex v. Wemms et al, and consists of 10 pages and includes testimony of witnesses.

The third set of notes are also for the soldier’s trial and consists of 10 pages of notes on the testimony of the first twenty defense witnesses in the soldier’s trial.

Notes on Robert Treat Paine’s Closing Argument:

Robert Treat Paine served as the prosecutor during the Boston Massacre trial and an unknown note taker recorded notes of his closing argument for Captain Preston’s trial, Rex v. Preston. The notes are available on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website.

Although most of the courtroom proceedings were recorded by a court stenographer and published, Paine’s closing argument was not recorded because the stenographer was fatigued that day so there is no official court record of his closing argument, which makes these notes all the more valuable.

Rough Draft of Paine’s Closing Argument:

Due to the stenographer’s failure to record Paine’s closing argument, Paine received many request from his friends and associates for a copy of his closing argument.

As a result, Paine wrote a rough draft of his closing argument from memory, which was later published in the Legal Papers of John Adams, Volume 3.

Joseph Belknap Deposition:

Joseph Belknap served as a witness during Captain Preston’s trial, Rex v. Preston, and provided testimony about the events of March 5, 1770.

In the testimony, Belknap described arriving on the scene of the event shortly after it happened and found the soldiers with their guns drawn and Captain Preston standing “upon the right wing of the soldiers.”

Belknap said that he told Preston he had no authority to do anything without a civil magistrate present to which Preston responded “I did it for my own safety.”

Belknap then told Preston that the soldiers should leave but Preston stated he had no authority to order them to leave and told to Belknap to go to the guard house and discuss it with them.

Benjamin Lynde’s Notes:

Benjamin Lynde was the chief justice of Massachusetts and served as one of the judges in the Boston Massacre trial of the eight soldiers, Rex v. Wemms et al.

Lynde took brief notes during the course of the trial but also took detailed notes summarizing the defense’s closing arguments.

Peter Oliver Notes:

Peter Oliver served as one of three judges on the Boston Massacre trials and took notes throughout the trials.

Samuel Quincy Notes:

Samuel Quincy was the solicitor general for Massachusetts and took detailed notes during the Boston Massacre trials during which he recorded the testimony of the various witnesses.

Proceedings of His Majesty’s Council of the Province on Massachusetts-Bay, Relative to the Deposition of Andrew Oliver, Esq:

Published in late 1770, this pamphlet is a reproduction of public official Andrew Oliver’s deposition when he was under censure by the council for his actions in the wake of the Boston Massacre.

The proceedings took place in October and November and the pamphlet includes the 12 supporting depositions, petitions, and testimonies from the proceedings.

Memorandum from Samuel Adams to Robert Treat Paine [29 November 1770]:

Samuel Adams sent Paine memorandum notes during the Boston Massacre trials which record some of the details of the Boston Massacre and also offer Adam’s own analysis of the evidence presented at the trial.

John Rowe Diary:

Boston merchant John Rowe kept a diary and recorded the events of the Boston Massacre on March 5, which he described as a “quarrell between the soldiers & inhabitants” and reported that five were killed and several wounded and, as a result, “the inhabitants are greatly enraged and not without reason.”

Rowe also mentioned attending the trial proceedings on December 4 and noted the outcome of the trial for the soldiers on December 5.

Samuel Savage Diary:

Samuel P. Savage kept a diary and on December 30 and 31 recorded that Captain Preston and all but two of the soldiers were found not guilty and described the punishment for the two soldiers found guilty of manslaughter.

Boston Gazette Article on Preston Trial:

Published on November 5, 1770 in the Boston Gazette, this article reports on the outcome of Captain Preston’s trial and reports that Preston was found not guilty on all charges.

Notes on the Boston Massacre trials, by John Adams, 1770, “Prisoners Witnesses. James Crawford…” Massachusetts Historical Society,
Notes on the Boston Massacre trials, by John Adams, 1770, ‘Captn. Prestons Case.” Massachusetts Historical Society,
Reactions and Responses.” Massachusetts Historical Society,
“Case of Capt. Thomas Preston of the 29th Regiment.” Massachusetts Historical Society,
The Massacre Illustrated.” Massachusetts Historical Society,
A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston. J Doggett Jr, 1849
The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal, 12 March 1770.” Massachusetts Historical Society,

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *