On the night of March 5, 1770, the streets of Boston, Massachusetts were coated with snow and tension was thick between angry colonists and the British soldiers who occupied their town. As British Private Hugh White stood guard near the Custom House on King Street around 8 o’clock, he was approached by a small group of frustrated young male colonists.
Reports vary as to exactly what happened next, but insults and taunts were exchanged, and a physical confrontation ensued. Church bells rang out and incensed colonists flooded the streets.
Then someone pelted White with a snowball.
More snowballs, ice and oyster shells soon followed. As the violence and threats escalated, White called for back-up. Was the snowball the actual “shot heard round the world” that started the American Revolution?
Colonists Fed Up With Taxation Without Representation
Plenty had come before to fuel this skirmish beyond any innocent snowball fight. Americans living in the thirteen colonies had grown increasingly disgruntled with British rule during the 1760s. From 1763 to 1767, British Parliament passed a series of laws such as the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act and the Townshend Act which imposed taxes and trade restrictions on everyday goods in the American colonies. They also passed the Currency Act, which prevented the colonies from making new paper money and kept them reliant on British currency.
The colonists were furious, especially since they had no elected representation in Parliament. Over the next few years, leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, George Washington and Samuel Adams spoke out against Britain’s increasingly tight grip on their daily lives. Britain eventually repealed the Stamp Act, but then issued the Declaratory Act which gave them complete power over legislation in the colonies.
The stage was set for revolution. By March 5, 1770, angry colonists in Boston were itching to confront the British soldiers who occupied their town (and were quartered in their inns, houses and businesses). They’d endured years of British rule and had become increasingly rebellious.
A Snowball Fight That Quickly Escalated
As Private Hugh White was pelted that snowy night in Boston, help arrived in the form of Captain Thomas Preston and several of his men. By this time, some of the colonists’ weapons of choice had changed from snowballs to clubs and sticks. According to Preston’s written account of the event, one soldier was struck in the head with a stick and fired his gun.
As more snowballs and other projectiles flew and clubs were wielded, other redcoats fired on the mob, killing five colonists and wounding six more. “By the time the first shots were fired at the Massacre, British Regulars and Bostonians viewed each other with suspicion and contempt,” said Tony E. Carlson, associate professor at the School of Advanced Military Studies.
Boston Massacre Leads to Open Revolt
Revolutions don’t just involve guns, armies and militias. They’re also fought with words, protests, boycotts and yes, even snowballs. It can be argued that American colonists began a revolution against Britain long before snowballs flew at the Boston Massacre.
According to Carlson, “It might be a stretch to assert that a snowball launched the American Revolution, but there is little doubt that the Crown treated Massachusetts as the epicenter of revolutionary sentiment following colonial outbursts of anger.
“The impressment of sailors on British ships, competition over limited jobs, and the enforcement of customs duties fueled the bad blood that ultimately resulted in the loss of life at King Street and catapulted Massachusetts towards open rebellion.”
The Boston Massacre escalated existing anti-Britain sentiment and made the colonists more determined than ever to fight for independence.