There were many brave men at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Among them was Salem Poor, an African-American. He was born in about 1745, and died in Boston in 1802 in extreme poverty.
Salem Poor was a slave owned by John Poor. Many New England families treated their slaves as live-in servants and near family members, and Salem Poor purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds (a fairly large sum at that time). He was married in 1771, and a son was born in late 1774 or early 1775.
Salem Poor left his family in April, 1775 to fight for the cause of Liberty. He mustered with the minutemen at Concord, but it is unknown how much of the battle he participated in. Poor is best known for his service at Bunker Hill, and a petition was submitted to the General Court of Massachusetts on December 5, 1775 to commend his bravery. The petition was signed by fourteen officers, including Colonel Prescott:
"The subscribers beg leave, to report to your Honorable House - which we do in justice to the character of so brave a man - that under our own observation, we declare that a negro man called Salem Poor, of Colonel Frye's regiment, Captain Ames' company, in the late Battle at Charlestown, behaved like an experienced officer, as well as an excellent soldier. To set forth the particulars of his conduct would be tedious, we would only beg leave to say that in the Person of this said negro centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress."
Salem Poor has been credited with killing British Lieutenant-Colonel Abercrombie during the Battle of Bunker Hill. In John Trumbull's famous painting "Battle at Bunker's Hill" shown below, General Warren has been fatally wounded in the center left, and Colonel Abercrombie is lying dead at his feet. Poor may also have served at Saratoga and Monmouth, and spent the winter at Valley Forge.
The following is Salem Poor's service record from Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. A Compilation From the Archives:
"Poor, Salem, Andover. Private, Capt. Benjamin Ames's Co.. Col. James Fry's Regt.; company return dated Oct. 6, 1775; also, order for bounty coat or its equivalent in money dated Boston, Dec. 13, 1775; also, Private, Capt. Abram Tyler's Co., Col. Edmund Phinney's Regt.; muster roll dated Garrison at Fort George, Dec. 8, 1776; enlisted May 14, 1776; also, list of men raised to serve in the Continental Army from 1st Andover Co., as returned by Capt. Samuel Johnson; residence, Andover; engaged for town of Andover; term, 3 years, to expire Jan. 1, 1780; also, list of men mustered by Nathaniel Barber, Muster Master for Suffolk Co., dated Boston, May 11, 1777; Capt. Alexander's Co., Col. Wigglesworth's Regt.; also, Private, Major's Co., Col. Calvin Smith's Regt.; Continental Army pay accounts for service from May 20, 1777, to March 20, 1780; also, Capt. Nathaniel Alexander's Co., Col. Edward Wigglesworth's Regt.; return [year not given]; mustered by Maj. Barber; also, same Co. and Regt.; muster roll for May, 1778, dated Camp Valley Forge; also, same Co. and Regt.; muster roll for June, 1778, dated Camp near White Plains; also, same Co. and Regt.; pay roll for Oct., 1778; also, Maj. John Porter's Co., (late) Col. Wigglesworth's Regt. commanded by Maj. Porter; muster roll for March and April, 1779, dated Providence; enlisted April 20, 1777; enlistment, 3 years."
Salem Poor may have been a polygamist, and by 1793 had sadly ended up in a homeless shelter (Almshouse) in Boston and again in 1802, where he died.
It is important to note that many African Americans participated in the war on the American side. There was little indication slavery would be abolished in the new republic, and in Virginia the British had even recruited slaves promising eventual freedom (Britain completely abolished slavery in 1833).
Peter Salem was another African-American soldier that served at Bunker Hill.
Contact Information & Address:
Bunker Hill Monument
Monument Square, Charlestown, MA