Hemp And America: The First Blows Of The Revolutionary War

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PHOTO: The Boston Massacre (death of Crispus Attucks)

This excerpt from Weed the People: From Founding Fiber to Forbidden Fruit by Jeremy Daw, J.D. is published with special permission. 

When Samuel Gray heard Boston’s church bells ringing furiously into the night, he assumed the town called for help with a fire. But when he discovered that a crowd had been summoned to harry a group of British soldiers, Gray, a hardy brawler and street agitator, turned out into the streets. Others came with him, including a forty-seven year old man of mixed race named Crispus Attucks. The crowd swelled from outrage over the presence of British soldiers in the city and a series of punitive laws.

For Gray it was also personal. Only three days earlier he had been at work at John Gray’s ropewalk, one of the many employers providing good jobs in the colonial cannabis industry, when he saw one of the soldiers from the British garrison loafing about.

Guessing his game, one of Gray’s coworkers (or possibly Gray himself) called at the soldier, “Do you want some work?”  Many of the British garrison, lately arrived in 1768, had taken part-time work at Boston’s factories, crowding native Bostonians out of the job market. John Gray’s was one of the few left in town which still proudly employed Patriots and there, contempt for the soldiers ran high. The Brit apparently didn’t realize this, responding with an eager yes. “Wee then, go and clean my shithouse,” came the sneering reply. The soldier challenged the Bostonians, who promptly chucked him out into the snow. But the redcoat returned later that day with a dozen of his friends from the garrison, and pummeled Samuel Gray and his Patriots.

That redcoat may have been Matthew Killroy, a soldier with the 14th Regiment under the command of Captain Thomas Preston.  A witness at his trial would later testify that he heard Killroy swear that he “would never miss an opportunity, when he had one, to fire on” Bostonians.  Another account recalls the ominous prediction of the wife of James McDeed, a British soldier stationed in Boston, who declared on the evening after the fray “that before Tuesday or Wednesday night [the British] would wet their swords or bayonets in New England people’s blood.”

The mob arrived at the Statehouse, and Samuel Gray saw Killroy among the redcoats.  Attucks, with Gray not far behind, led the mob to within inches of the soldiers’ pointed bayonets.  After a few heated moments the large black man snatched the bayonet of British soldier Hugh Montgomery, who shouted “Damn you, fire!” and discharged his musket.

Matthew Killroy saw his opportunity.  After a pause he shot Samuel Gray while the ropemaker’s hands were still in his pockets, blowing a hole in his head “the size of a fist”. Several more of the soldiers fired sporadically into the crowd, killing Crispus Attucks and mortally wounding three more. Captain Preston, who had ordered his troops to hold their fire, took advantage of the crowd’s temporary shock to retreat back to the fort.

The first American flag, entirely made of hemp.

The first American flag, entirely made of hemp.

The dispute at the rope walk, a highly visible arm of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s thriving cannabis industry, played only one part in a roiling fulmination all along the coast.  And although cannabis played but a small role in provoking the incident, the effect the plant would have on the fight’s aftermath would profoundly alter America’s history: Samuel Adams helped to write A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, an anti-British screed which placed the full blame on the soldiers.

He followed up with letters to the editors of the Boston Gazette in which he defended Crispus Attucks, and with further publications alongside a woodcut by Paul Revere. Author Thomas Paine used the anger over the event, by then known simply as the “Boston Massacre”, and further inflamed attitudes with his famous pamphlet “Common Sense” (1776), stirring up the political will to fight the king. And in the summer of that year, a convention of delegates drafted an audacious Declaration of Independence, signed it, and shipped it across the Atlantic to add to the troubles of the absentee king of an overstretched empire. All of these documents, and many more, were printed on cannabis paper, the most popular form of paper in the world from the time Johan Gutenberg printed his first Bible on it in 1456 until the 20th century.

By 1774 the colonies produced so much cannabis for paper, textiles, rope, sails, food, medicine, and even “recreational use”, that the surplus could be traded to France in exchange for stockpiles of guns. When one such cache was discovered in Concord, Massachusetts, British soldiers marched to confiscate it and encountered an armed militia at Lexington, where the forces exchanged the first shots of the war for America’s independence.

And George Washington, a cannabis farmer, led a rebel army of soldiers clad in uniforms of woven cannabis cloth, soldiers fighting under the flag of what would soon be a new nation: red, white, and blue, thirteen stars, thirteen stripes, and one hundred percent cannabis.

The story of Cannabis sativa L. in the United States is as old as the country itself.  Even older, in a way, because before colonists ever arrived at the first permanent English settlement in the New World at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, they were already legally obligated to use what arable land they could find there to make hemp quotas. Indeed, this very prospect was a major reason why the English Crown and the Virginia Company of London risked the considerable sum of money needed to induce and equip settlers to undertake a long, perilous ocean voyage, endure disease and confront wary native tribes, all in an attempt to colonize a flea-ridden backwater at the edge of an empire. If it weren’t for cannabis, the United States of America may never have existed at all.

“If it weren’t for cannabis, the United States of America may never have existed at all.”

Read more in Weed the People, available in paperback and e-book from www.weedthepeoplebook.com