Salem Poor has remained one of the very few fabled African American heroes of the Revolutionary War since 1775, due to his strength and stability at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Officers present at the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775) submitted a petition to General George Washington that described his outstanding abilities in battle.
Born enslaved in Andover, Massachusetts, Salem Poor (1747-1802)1 worked on the farm of John and Rebecca Poor.2 In 1769, at 22 years old, he purchased his freedom for 27 pounds, which equaled a working man’s annual earnings.3
In May of 1775, Poor enlisted in the interim Massachusetts Army. This last-minute army consisted of colonial forces primarily from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Thus, the troops that fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 were under the command of Massachusetts and New Hampshire officers. On June 13, leaders of these colonial forces besieging Boston learned that the British were planning to send troops out from the city to fortify the unoccupied hills surrounding it. That would give them total control of Boston Harbor. The local forces had three days’ time to plan a response. The officers did not agree on how to defend the Charlestown Heights, nor did they agree on a hierarchy of authority. Nevertheless, through the night of June 16, 1,200 colonial troops stealthily occupied Bunker Hill and Breed's Hill.4
During the battle, Salem Poor served in an Andover unit commanded by Capt. Thomas Drury, whose company included several other African American minute men: Titus Coburn, Peter Salem, and Seymour Burr.5 Poor’s unit arrived as a secondary force, in order to “assist in the building of fortifications.”6 Instead, due to dire circumstances, they covered the retreating units that had constructed the redoubt on Breed’s Hill and had run out of ammunition. His unit received heavy fire; the British Regular Army killed five Andover men near him on the spot and leaft another six seriously wounded.7 As he helped the wounded, Poor slowly retreated and fired one last shot that killed British Army Lt. Col. James Abercrombie.8 The British Regular army successfully drove the New England forces off the Charlestown Peninsula, but not without paying a heavy price in losses themselves.9
In mid-December, Continental Army regimental commanders who had seen Salem Poor’s conduct at Breed’s Hill petitioned the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to recognize Poor’s exemplary service there. The regimental commanders cited that he had “behaved like an experienced officer” and that in Poor “center[ed] a brave and gallant soldier.”10 One secondary source notes that “(o)f the thousands of American soldiers at Bunker Hill no other was given such recognition.”11
Salem Poor fought on with the Continental Army to the end of the American Revolution. He re-enlisted for a three-year term with Colonel Edward Wigglesworth’s 13th Massachusetts Regiment, starting in mid-1777. This brought him to Monmouth, New Jersey and Saratoga, New York. He also served at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and White Plains, New York.12 He returned home in 1780, free and with veteran status.
On the home front in Andover, he married four times: in 1771 to freed woman Nancy Parker, with whom he had a son in 1774; in 1780 to Mary Twing, no longer enslaved; 1787 to Sarah Stevens, White and therefore free; 1801 to Hannah Ayliffe, a Black woman of unknown status.13 1793 city directories listed Salem Poor as a resident of the Boston Almshouse. He was jailed briefly in 1799 for “breach of peace.”14
In 1802, at age fifty-five, Salem Poor died and was buried anonymously at Boston’s Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.15 What he went through after his years of enlistment and battles, we can only imagine. Here are some solid facts: he was a hero of Bunker Hill, recognized by all regimental leaders, and was one of at least 5,000 African Americans who served on the side of the Colonists throughout the Revolutionary War.16
- Euell A. Nielsen, “Salem Poor (1747-1802),” Black Past, January 21, 2007, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/poor-salem-1747-1780/. There has been discussion over both Salem Poor’s birth year and his death year. Different dates have been used by David Owen (“The two free Salems of Bunker Hill in the Revolutionary War, two of 100 black warriors at Bunker Hill,” recoveryonline, July 3, 2016) and Irene Sege ("Freed slave's story uncovered by owner's descendant," The Boston Globe, February 21, 2007). In 2012, J.L. Bell admitted that he didn’t know what year Salem Poor was born and simply used question marks (George Washington’s Headquarters and Home - Cambridge, Massachusetts, Longfellow House -Washington Headquarters National Historic Site Historic Resources Study, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service Northeast Region History Program, 29 February 2012). By 2018, Bell was convinced of Poor’s 1747-1802 lifespan (“Peter Salem? Salem Poor? Who Killed Major Pitcairn?,” Journal of the American Revolution, June 18, 2018, https://allthingsliberty.com/2018/06/peter-salem-salem-poor-who-killed-major-john-pitcairn/).
- The 1754 census recorded a total of 41 enslaved adult Andoverians. The 1754 Andover census numbers are comparable with those in Ipswich and Salem, both in Essex County. Other towns are a good deal lower; some at a 15-30 rate, others at a 5-14 level. Compare the Essex County numbers with: Boston (Suffolk Cty), total 989 (double males to females); Cambridge (Middlesex Cty) total 56; Concord (Middlesex Cty) total 15; Lexington (Middlesex Cty) total 24; Lincoln (Middlesex Cty) total 23; Medford (Middlesex Cty) total 27. “1754 Massachusetts Slave Census,” Documenting a Slave’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom, Primary Research: Local History, Closer to Home, https://primaryresearch.org/slave-census-all/ (accessed 05/05/2021).
- This “legend” is recited, almost word-for-word, by many online pieces. It is important to ask ourselves: How did Salem Poor, by the age of 22, accrue the immense amount of savings that he used to purchase his freedom? Who played a role in funding this? The most likely explanation is that Salem Poor was able to earn funds from work on top of his duties in John and Sarah Poor’s household or that they paid him wages. Bill Dalton, “Salem Poor's heroism and disappointing life,” The Andover Townsman, Feb. 7, 2013, https://www.andovertownsman.com/community/dalton-column-salem-poors-heroism-and-disappointing-life/article_9bbefaf8-7219-53ef-b11a-fa1232573e7a.html. See also: Owen, “The two free Salems;” Sege, “Freed Slave’s Story;” Nielsen, “Salem Poor (1747-1802);” Kathy Weiser-Alexander, “Salem Poor – From Slave to Hero,” Legends of America, https://www.legendsofamerica.com/salem-poor/ (accessed 05/09/2021). For more information about the huge and influential Poor family in Andover, see: Sarah Loring Bailey, Historical sketches of Andover, (comprising the present towns of North Andover and Andover) (Boston: Houghton, 1888), https://archive.org/details/historicalsketch00bail/page/n7/mode/2up.
- For perhaps the oldest investigation into which narratives about this battle were true and which not-so-true, see: Samuel Swett, History of Bunker Hill Battle. with a Plan ... : With Notes, and Likenesses of the Principal Officers (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1826). For a purely military-style useful summary, see: John R. Elting, The Battle of Bunker's Hill (Monmouth Beach, N. J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1975).
- Nielsen, “Salem Poor (1747-1802).” For more on the surprising amount of militia men of color who participated in the Battle of Bunker Hill, see: George Quintal, Patriots of Color: “A Peculiar Beauty and Merit”: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road and Bunker Hill, Report for the National Park Service, February 2002. See the full text below. For carefully researched context for Quintal’s findings, see John Hannigan, Scholar in the Park Papers, Minute Man NHP, 2014. Both of these can be found online here: https://www.nps.gov/mima/patriotsofcolor.htm.
- Owen, “The two free Salems.”
- Dalton, “Salem Poor's heroism.”
- Or did he? Don Hagist’s 2017 blogpost employs British source material not used by American historians that states very clearly that Abercrombie was brought alive back to Boston and spoke with fellow officers about “friendly fire.” Abercrombie was wounded, carried off the battlefield, and was able to write reports two days later. Officers who visited and spoke with him noted that the fatal – though not the only – shot came from behind. Don N. Hagist, “James Abercrombie, much Lamented Victim of Friendly Fire at Bunker Hill,” All Things Liberty, Journal of the American Revolution, June 14 2017, https://allthingsliberty.com/2017/06/james-abercrombie-much-lamented-victim-friendly-fire-bunker-hill/ (accessed 05/02/2021).
- New England forces sent around 2,400 men into battle, of whom 115 were killed and 305 wounded. British troops numbered over 3,000 on land, of whom 207 soldiers were killed and 766 wounded, not to mention the horrifying fact that 19 officers were killed and 62 wounded (“Battle of Bunker Hill”, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Bunker_Hill, accessed 05/09/2021).
- Bell, George Washington’s Headquarters and Home, pp. 298-300.
- Owen, “The two free Salems.”
- Owen, “The two free Salems;” “Salem Poor,” Patriots of Color at Valley Forge, Valley Forge National Historical Park Pennsylvania, https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/salem-poor.htm,“ Nielsen, “Salem Poor (1747-1802)”.
- Nancy Parker had both African American and Native American backgrounds. Mary Twing and Hannah Ayliffe were African American. Sarah Stevens’ background has already been categorized. It is important to note that Salem Poor married these four women when they were free – this seems to have been important to him. Weiser-Alexander, “Salem Poor;” Owen, “The two free Salems;” Sege, "Freed slave's story;” Dalton, “Salem Poor's heroism;” Nielsen, “Salem Poor (1747-1802);” Weiser-Alexander, “Salem Poor;” “Salem Poor,” Patriots of Color at Valley Forge.
- Nielsen, “Salem Poor (1747-1802).”
- “Salem Poor,” Patriots of Color at Valley Forge; Nielsen, “Salem Poor (1747-1802).”
- Many more African Americans chose to enlist in the British Regular Army. Dalton, “Salem Poor's heroism.” For the African Americans who chose to be on the British side, see for example: Alan Gilbert, Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Salem Poor was born probably circa 1742. All known accounts agree that he was purchased as an infant at the slave market in Salem (MA) by Lydia Abbot, a young woman, and brought home to Andover by horseback on the bow of her saddle.I He was baptized in what is now North Andover (MA) in 1747.II
On 10 July 1769, upon the payment of £27 in purchase of his own freedom, he was issued an official manumission by his master John Poor 3rd.III Five years later, in the warrant for the Andover town meeting of 17 March 1774, an article ‘for the provision of support for [his] wife and children … returned a negative vote.’IV
There is no known record of his enlistment in the eight months’ service, yet he was clearly present at the Battle of Bunker Hill as is proven by a petition citing his bravery.V In 1880, respected historian Sarah Loring Bailey of Andover described the local tradition associated with Salem Poor’s heroic service [see cautionary footnote]:
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.VI
His name is listed on a 6 October 1775 company return and on a 13 December 1775 ‘order for bounty coat or its equivalent in money dated Boston.’VII
As the American attack on Canada crumbled, the call went out for reinforcements for the Northern Department. He responded by enlisting on 14 May 1776 in Capt. Abram Tyler’s company, in Col. Edmund Phinney’s regiment of Maine militia. This unit served at Fort George, at the southern terminus of Lake George, during the time of the defeat of the American fleet on Lake Champlain under Gen. Benedict Arnold. His name appears on an 8 December 1776 muster roll ‘dated Garrison at Fort George.’VIII On 25 October 1777 he was allowed payment for 1776 incidentals to service, which consisted of thirty miles travel to headquarters at Cambridge and six days billeting.IX
Upon his return home in early 1777, he rejoined the local militia in Capt. Samuel Johnson’s 1st Andover company. With Gen. Burgoyne preparing to advance on northern New York, the call once again went out for soldiers to meet this serious threat. He joined the Continental Army on 11 May 1777 for a three-year term in the company of Capt. Nathaniel Alexander, in Col. Edward Wigglesworth’s Massachusetts regiment. This unit served at Saratoga. Upon the surrender of Burgoyne, the regiment marched to winter quarters at Valley Forge. His name appears on a May 1778 muster roll ‘dated ‘Camp Valley Forge.’ During June 1778 he was stationed at ‘Camp near White Plains.’ By October 1778 command of the regiment had been taken over by Maj. John Porter and in March and April 1779 the regiment was stationed at Providence. He was discharged 20 March 1780.X
His name does not appear in the 1790 U.S. Census and, despite the efforts of numbers of serious researchers, neither the date nor the place of his death have ever been found.
In commemoration of the Bicentennial in 1975, the U.S. Post Office issued a 10 cent stamp in his honor.XI In January 2001, the National Park Service issued a site bulletin celebrating his life and his services to his country.XII
Salem Poor married Nancy Parker, a ‘mulatto free woman’ and former servant of Capt. James Parker, in Andover on 4 November 1771.XIII They had at least one child:
- Jonas: bpt. 29 September 1776 in [North] AndoverXIV
- Lovejoy, Clarence Earle. The Lovejoy Genealogy … (1930), 74 gives the most detailed account: “There is a tradition that Lydia Abbot [b. 1723], when a girl, went to Salem, Mass with her father one day and when passing the slave market bought a negro infant and brought it home on her saddle. She gave it to her dau., Chloe [b. 1753], and the child was called Salem Pony.”
Lovejoy, Clarence Earle. The Lovejoy Genealogy … (1930), 75 states that Chloe Lovejoy, who owned Salem, married John Poor in 1776.
Abbott, Charlotte Helen. Early records and Notes of Andover [MA] Families, Lovejoy, 21 confirms this but states that the child was brought home “in [Lydia’s] saddle bag.”
Abbott, Charlotte Helen. Andover [MA] Families Notes. Manuscript at Andover (MA) Historical Society, 424 repeats the story.
Abbott, Charlotte Helen. Andover [MA] Families Notes. Manuscript at Andover (MA) Historical Society, 90-105 states that Salem was part of Chloe’s dowry. This does not reconcile with Chloe’s 1776 marriage date to John Poor, at which time Salem would have been free for seven years. It is more probable that Salem was part of Lydia Abbot’s dowry. This source also states that “One of the grandmothers brought the infant up from Salem on her saddle as she returned from a visit ‘to see the ships come in’ as a lass. The choice of 1742 as a birth year for Salem would correspond with an age of 19 for Lydia Abbot.
- Vital Records to 1850. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Vols for most Massachusetts towns, Andover, Births, 391; referencing a North Parish Congregational Church record.
- MS 0.569, property of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem (MA) [see copy and transcription following]; permission to publish kindly granted by Mary Ann Campbell, Archivist; many thanks to Ilene Jones-Cornwell of Nashville (TN) who first alerted me to the existence of this extremely rare document.
- Harris, Edward Mosely. Col. (Ret.). Andover [MA] in the American Revolution … (1976), 55.
- See “Analysis of the Fourteen Signers of the Salem Poor Petition for Bravery” [following].
- Bailey, Sarah Loring. Historical Sketches of Andover, … Massachusetts (1880), 323-4. This version must be accepted with great caution. Very similar actions are attributed to Peter Salem (see his sketch for more details), with the British officer in his case being Major John Pitcairn. Salem Poor’s bravery in the redoubt is unquestioned; however, whether he indeed shot Lt. Col. Abercrombie could not be proven or disproven in the course of this study.
- Secretary of Commonwealth. Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War (1896-1908), 12:561, listed as 'Poor.’ Also 2-CD Family Tree MakerTM set “Military Records: Revolutionary War.”
- Ibid 12:576; listed as ‘Pore.’
- Ibid 12:561.
- Scott# 1560.
- Researched and composed by Emily G. Prigot, Park Ranger, Boston NHP [see copy].
- Vital Records to 1850. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Vols for most Massachusetts towns, Andover, Marriages, 359; Salem is listed as ‘a free negro’ and ‘late servant of John Poor;’ referencing a North Parish Congregational Church record.
- Vital Records to 1850. Births, Marriages and Deaths. Vols for most Massachusetts towns, Andover, Births, 390; referencing a North Parish Congregational Church record. She is described as ‘a half-breed Indian’ in: ABB1, Poor Family, 7.
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- revolutionary war
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- patriots of color
- bunker hill
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- quintal patriots of color study
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