Boston Massacre Propaganda Assignment

This lesson is focused on the Boston Massacre. It will be taught in a sixth grade classroom in the American Revolution unit. It will be an opportunity for students to look at a historical event from multiple perspectives using corroborating evidence. It will include group work, whole class guided reading, and an individual assessment piece where they decide who is the “blame” for the event. The lesson will use primary sources that include pictures, newspaper articles, and testimonies and have students apply the historical thinking skills of sourcing, close reading, contextualizing, and corroborating to help interpret them.

Historical Background

In the early 1760s tension began to rise between the colonists and those remaining loyal to the British. This occurred as a result of several actions by the British. The Proclamation of 1763 that restricted movement of the colonists was resented. The colonists also did not like the fact that the British were controlling the colonial legislatures and that they did not have representation in Parliament. They also resented the power of colonial governors and the taxes that were levied on the m to offset the cost of the French and Indian War. The British sent soldiers to the colonies to keep order, especially to Massachusetts where there had been a lot of unrest. The soldiers were sent to help with the enforcement of the Townshend Acts of 1767. In 1768, there were 4,000 British troops in Boston when the population of Boston was only 20,000 at that time.

One night, on March 5, 1770 this tension ended up in an incident now called “The Boston Massacre”. There are numerous accounts of what happened that night. As a result of the incident, five civilians died. Three died that night and two others died later. The people who died were: Crispus Attucks, an African American, Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr. Some say the incident was a British response to a mob rioting while other contend the soldiers attacked the colonists who were just minding their own business. The event was popularized after Paul Revere made an engraving entitled “The Bloody Massacre in King Street”. He used it as propaganda to capitalize on colonial resentment of the British. Other historical accounts and the trial itself portray a different depiction of the events. Of the nine British regulars charged during the two Boston Massacre trials, two were found guilty and Preston and six other were acquitted.

By using various primary sources in an interactive setting, the students will use the historical thinking skills of sourcing, close reading, contextualization, and corroborating to understand different historical perspectives of a specific event.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of an event in United States history. (US1.1a) They will also be able to interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives. (USI.1d)



  1. Hook/Preview: The teacher will ask a dean about an incident that happened this year in 6th grade where there were different accounts of what happened. Share that with the students and ask them if they can think of any other instances where it is not always clear what happened.
  2. The students will look at four depictions of the Boston Massacre and answer the questions that accompany each one on the graphic organizer.
  3. Each group will only look at one picture at a time. Rotate pictures until they have seen all four and have them record answers on the graphic organizer. Ask the students: What are some differences in the pictures? What questions do you still have about this event?
  4. Read the two newspaper accounts together as a class. One is the Boston Gazette article and the other is an article from the London Chronicle. Ask the students: How are these accounts the same? How are they different? Have we learned anything new that we did not know from the pictures?
  5. Hand each pair an excerpt from the trial testimony. What point of view did their person have? Who do they think was at fault? What words did they use to make you think that? You may want to ask students to underline these “loaded” words as they read. Alternative: have students role play the witnesses and have the class be the jury.
  6. The student will debrief this lesson by having a student read the textbook account of the Massacre and have them compare what they talked about today with this account.
  7. Show the students the HBO John Adams clip how the trial proceeded and ask them whether they agree or disagree with the decision. How might different interpretations of the same event affect our understanding of history? What should we do, as students of history, to make sure multiple perspectives are considered?


Students will write a letter to the editor of a British or American newspaper that begins: “Dear _________________, I am writing to express my opinion about the events that occurred March 5, 1770 in Boston. I feel the blame rests solely on…..(student must then make an argument either way on who is to blame using information that they learned during the lesson). This letter will be graded on a four point rubric scale.


Teaching American “Boston Massacre.” British and Colonial Perspectives. (accessed August 2, 2012).

Glogster. “Boston Massacre Depictions.” Bell2012 KS%20%201ST%20MARTYR%201770_jpg (accessed August 2, 2012).

“Boston Massacre Historical Society.” Boston Massacre Historical Society. (accessed August 2, 2012).

“Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the American Revolution, King (now State) Street, Boston, March 5th, 1770. – ID: 488599 – NYPL Digital Gallery.” NYPL Digital Gallery Home. (accessed August 2, 2012).

“Enlargement of Paul Revere’s Engraving of the Boston Massacre.” Archiving Early America: Primary Source Material from 18th Century America. (accessed August 2, 2012).

PBS. “Painting of Boston Massacre.” Africans in America. (accessed August 2, 2012).

“The Boston Massacre.” Boston Gazette and Country Journal, March 12, 1770, (accessed August 2, 2012).


After British troops were quartered in the city of Boston on September 30, 1768, trouble was almost inevitable. Russell Bourne, in Cradle of ViolenceHow Boston’s Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution, states that

“Others who watched the coming ashore of some seven hundred soldiers and officers from the British army’s 14th and 29th Regiments, accompanied by artillery and ancillary forces, must also have considered that they were looking into the kind of oppression that cannot be borne by freedom loving people. The landing took place shortly before noon on Long Wharf; from there, accompanied by the beating of drums and shrilling of fifes, the soldiers in their bright red coats marched directly up King Street to the Common. Fully charged like the ship’s cannons behind them, the soldiers’ muskets were rigged with fixed bayonets. These prime foot soldiers, part of an eventual combined military force of nearly four thousand in a town of less than sixteen thousand people, had clearly come as backbreaking occupiers, not as peacemakers sent by a gracious king.”
In this lesson, students will learn how this tense situation in Boston led to the unfortunate events on the night of March 5, 1770. They will examine eyewitness accounts and primary source visuals to explore multiple perspectives and determine who was to blame for the Boston Massacre.



  1. Conduct a class brainstorming discussion in which students identify political topics that generate multiple perspectives, i.e. debate, disagreement, and contention. Examples include, but are not limited to, the events leading to the Revolutionary War, the American Civil War, slavery, civil rights, health care, or foreign affairs.
  2. Inform students that they will examine the 1770 Boston Massacre from many different points of view, and then attempt to answer a the historical question: “Who was to blame?” Student will then write letters to the editor of the Boston Gazette in which they support their conclusion that will also be read in a “public reading.”
  3. Divide the class into groups of two or three. Give each student a copy of the Multiple Perspectives: Primary Source Activity. Explain to students that they will examine the primary resources and use them to help form and support an opinion on who was to blame for the Boston Massacre.
  4. Provide time for students to read the primary sources, examine the artwork, and discuss with their partner(s) the varying perspectives of the Boston Massacre. Students should use the questions provided with each primary source for the discussion, and record notes under each question. They will use their notes to write their letters to the editor.
  5. Have students draft their letters to the editor on regular notepaper. [Note: These should be persuasive letters, and, if needed, the teacher should review/teach persuasive writing.] Next, give each student a copy of the Letter to the Editor Template and have them use it to create their final version of their opinion pieces. Have students pay particular attention to how they sign their letters: signing either as “A Concerned Patriot” or “An Outraged Soldier.” 
  6. OPTIONAL—If desired, bring in a bell, eighteenth-century hats/caps, and any other period-appropriate items for students to use in the “public reading.” Provide time for some students to read their letters to the editor for the class.

    Students’ work may also be turned in for formal assessment.

Lesson Extensions

  1. Propaganda and its effects—Facilitate a class discussion in which students consider what Paul Revere was trying to accomplish with his print, “The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street on March 5th, 1770 . . . ” and how the image affected colonists’ opinions of the British and Parliament’s policies in the colonies.
  2. Court trial—Have students research the various perspectives and eye-witness accounts of the Boston Massacre, then stage a trial in which the views of both sides are heard and a judge decides who was to blame.

This lesson was written by Margret Atkinson, elementary school teacher, Baton Rouge, LA, and Bill Neer, Visiting Assistant Professor of Literacy, Lemoyne College, Syracuse, NY.

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