The exact events of the Boston Massacre are still not entirely clear. All we have are eyewitness accounts, which differ remarkably depending on who is telling them. According to Captain Preston, he made every effort to avoid violence. He stated that he was concerned both for the safety of his...
men as well as the royal treasury in the custom-house. His account of that night contains passages in which he explicitly stated that he had no intention of harming the people of Boston;
So far was I from intending the death of any person that I suffered the troops to go to the spot where the unhappy affair took place without any loading in their pieces; nor did I ever give orders for loading them.
Captain Preston maintained that the crowd grew exceedingly belligerent and provocative, and he strived to de-escalate the situation. He claimed that the first British soldier to fire did so without his orders and was immediately reprimanded for it. In the ensuing violence, more soldiers fired their weapons in self-defense. Preston wrote that the soldiers told him that they only fired their weapons because they mistakenly thought they heard him give the order.
George Hewes, an active member of the Patriot movement, had a very different recollection of the events. Many years after the Boston Massacre, Hewes told his account to James Hawkes, who wrote it down. In it, Hewes stated that Captian Preston threatened to fire upon the crowd if they did not disperse. Hewes reported that Preston then explicitly ordered his soldiers to fire on the crowd.
As to who to believe, it is likely that the truth lies somewhere in between. When examining any primary source, it is important to keep in mind its context. Captain Preston gave his account as part of a deposition. He was on trial and his main motivation was to defend himself. Although his account was taken only a few days after the events in question, we must presume that his agenda was to paint himself in a sympathetic light. Hewes gave his account decades after the fact. Not only is it likely that time had altered his memory, but the Revolution was long over and the event of the Boston Massacre was approaching legendary status. We must, therefore, assume that there are both misremembering as well as embellishments in this account.
The truth of what happened on the night of the Boston Massacre has probably been muddled since the confusing and chaotic event first took place. Every witness and participant had their own agenda, and their accounts likely reflect this. Paul Revere, who was not there himself, made the most indelible image of the event. His depiction of British soldiers lined up in battle formation being given the order to fire on an unarmed crowd reflects Hewes's account. Its purpose was not to be an accurate portrayal of the event. Rather, Revere meant it to evoke sympathy for the Patriot cause.