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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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Salem Poor: “a Brave & gallant Soldier”

Starting in 1826, or more than half a century after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Peter Salem of Framingham and Leicester has been most often identified as the black soldier who killed Maj. John Pitcairn of the British Marines.

However, another African-American soldier named Salem was singled out for special commendation in the same year as the battle. This was Salem Poor of Andover, who had purchased his own freedom for £27 in 1769.

On 5 Dec 1775, thirteen Continental Army officers and a brigade surgeon sent the following petition to the Massachusetts General Court:

The Subscribers begg leave to Report to your Honble. House, (which wee do in Justice to the Character of So Brave a Man) that under Our Own observation, Wee declare that A Negro Man Called Salem Poor of Col. Fryes Regiment Capt. Ames. Company in the late Battle at Charlestown, behaved like an Experienced officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier, to Set forth Particulars of his Conduct Would be Tedious, Wee Would Only begg leave to Say in the Person of this Sd. Negro Centers a Brave & gallant Soldier. The Reward due to so great and Distinguisht a Caracter, Wee Submit to the Congress—
Among the signers were Col. William Prescott, commander in the redoubt; Col. Jonathan Brewer; and Lt.-Col. Thomas Nixon, who had links to Peter Salem.

If only those men had “Set forth Particulars” of what Salem Poor had done! Because it’s absolutely extraordinary to see high-ranking white gentlemen in 1775 compare a black man to “an Experienced officer.”

This special recognition might have been what John Winslow was recalling when he told historian Samuel Swett that the black soldier who killed Pitcairn was presented to Gen. George Washington and given a financial prize by provincial officers. Or perhaps Poor had done something else entirely, also worthy of notice.

In any event, the legislature gave the men who submitted this petition “leave to withdraw it”—the period’s way of saying no. Salem Poor didn’t receive any special official recognition in his lifetime.

By 1880, the stories of Salem Poor and Peter Salem were converging. Sarah Loring Bailey then wrote in her Historical Sketches of Andover:
The story goes that “Salem Poor,” a slave, owned by Mr. John Poor, shot Lieutenant-colonel [James] Abercrombie. As that officer sprang on the redoubt, while our men were in retreat, and exclaimed, “The day is ours,” Salem turned and took aim and fired. He saw the officer fall.
This is the very same story, down to the words the British officer yelled, that other writers were telling about Peter Salem. (But of course the Andover tradition said Salem Poor shot a higher-ranking officer.)

What’s more, other men also claimed to have shot Maj. Pitcairn.

TOMORROW: Two more early identifications of Maj. Pitcairn’s killer.


Anonymous said...

What happened to Pitcairn's body though!! We going to get to that mystery?

Also, do you have any information about some of the British soldiers who were buried at the Boston Common Central Burial Grounds? Anyone of particular interest there?

J. L. Bell said...

Hey, the major has to die first! I actually started researching with Pitcairn’s body, and that led back to his death (not to mention why the portrait everyone says is him shows a young man in the wrong uniform). So after I get the shooter worked out, then Pitcairn’s remains will take center stage.

The class structure in British society meant that enlisted men ended up in cemeteries without individual markers while some officers went into crypts and tombs. It also meant there are many more sources on and from officers than on individual enlisted men.

So I’ll keep my eye open for information on the British soldiers buried in Boston, but I’d be surprised to find any details.

Derek "A Staunch Whig" Beck said...

Have you seen any clues on where Abercrombie fell? I suspect it was in the first assault on the rail fence, as he led the grenadiers, during the a moment of carnage Howe "never felt before", though I have seen nothing contemporary to tell us for sure.

J. L. Bell said...

Aside from statements that Col. Abercrombie was leading the grenadiers, I haven’t found any early remarks about how he was wounded.