J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Identifying the Soldier Named “Salem”

In 1819, Samuel Swett identified the American soldier who shot Maj. John Pitcairn of the British Marines as “a black soldier named Salem.” It didn’t take long for a local historian to claim that man for his town.

Gov. Emory Washburn (shown here) wrote this in his Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester, published in the Worcester Magazine in 1826:

There was residing here, till within a few years, a black man, who, we have good reason to believe, was the one who shot Maj. Pitcairn, whose death forms so affecting an incident in that bloody affray. History relates that he was shot by a negro, and from the story of the one we allude to, and many corroborating circumstances, we are led to conclude that he was the person who did the deed.

The person to whom we refer was named Peter Salem; he was a servant of Gen. [John] Nixon during the revolution, was a native of Framingham, and removed here a few years since, where he died. Major Pitcairn was shot as he was mounting the redoubt, and fell into the arms of his son.
William Barry followed up that lead with more information in his A History of Framingham, Massachusetts, published in 1847. He wrote:
Peter Salem—alias Salem Middlesex—was originally the slave of Capt. Jeremiah Belknap, and was sold by him to Maj. Lawson Buckminster. He married in 1783, Katy Benson, a grand daughter of Nero [Benson], and lived for a time, where is now a cellar hole on the farm of the late Mr. Richard Fiske, near the pond. He served in the war of the Revolution as waiter to Col. Thomas Nixon, of Framingham; and at the opening of the war was present at the battle of Bunker Hill.
Barry then quoted Washburn’s passage and concluded: “Peter died in Fram., Aug. 16, 1816.” Other sources say he died in Framingham’s poorhouse, having been forced to return to his native town when he could no longer support himself.

Washburn and Barry disagreed about which of the Nixon brothers Salem worked for—Gen. John of Sudbury or Col. Thomas of Framingham. But he could have worked for each in turn. More troubling about Washburn’s identification of Peter Salem as the soldier who shot Pitcairn is that he didn’t describe any of his evidence: no remarks about people having heard Salem describe the battle, for example. Washburn wrote at length about Salem as an older man in his 1860 Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester, describing how he’d told his “stories of the war”—but again the only clear link from him to shooting Pitcairn is the name “Salem.”

A Sketch of the History of Framingham, published in 1827, says nothing about Peter Salem/Salem Middlesex being at Bunker Hill, though it does list the name of at least one other black private, Cato Hart. Salem is on the rolls of the Nixon regiment, and that unit was in the battle, so there’s no reason to doubt he was there. But somehow those earlier Framingham chroniclers didn’t find him significant enough to name.

By a strange coincidence, Peter Salem had been owned in youth by the father of the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, the historian who first recorded that Maj. Pitcairn had been shot by a black man. But Belknap didn’t write down anything about such a family connection, which he surely would have mentioned if he knew. He also believed the shooter had come from Groton. So either he and his sources didn’t know about Peter Salem’s past, or they were discussing another man named Salem.

TOMORROW: Another man named Salem.

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