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  Salem Poor  
     
Image: The Salem Poor.

In the Massachusetts State Archives is a petition to the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, stating that in the "late Battle at Charlestown," a man from Colonel Frye's Regiment "behaved like and experienced officer" and that in this man "centers a brave and gallant soldier." This document, dated December of 1775, just six months after the Battle of Bunker Hill, is signed by fourteen officers who were present at the battle, including Colonel William Prescott. Of the 2,400 to 4,000 colonists who participated in the battle, no other man is singled out in this manner.

This hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill is Salem Poor of Andover, Massachusetts. Although documents show that Poor, along with his regiment and two others, were sent to Bunker Hill to build a fort and other fortifications on the night of June 16, 1775, we have no details about just what Poor did to earn the praise of these officers. The petition simply states "to set forth the particulars of his conduct would be tedious." Perhaps his heroic deeds were too many to mention.

Few details of this hero's life are available to us. Born a slave in the late 1740s, Poor managed to buy his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds, which represented a year's salary for the typical working man. He married Nancy, a free African-American woman, and they had a son. Salem Poor left his wife and child behind in May 1775 and fought for the patriot cause at Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Monmouth. We can only speculate about the motives for Poor's sacrifice: was it patriotism, or the prospect of a new and better life? The Battle of Bunker Hill was a daring and provocative act against established authority; all who participated could well have been hanged for treason.

Salem Poor is one of some three dozen African Americans who fought at Bunker Hill. As many as 5,000 African Americans, both freemen and slaves, fought on the patriot side, while many more, perhaps 20 to 30 thousand, aided the British in some way. The hopes of blacks that military service for either side would lead to full equality were dashed. Although revolutionary sentiment led to the abolition of slavery in northern states, slavery persisted in the South, and free blacks everywhere faced discrimination in every aspect of life, notably in education, employment, and housing.


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