Salem Poor (1747-1802) – Salem Poor was born enslaved in Andover, Massachusetts. Occasionally, his first name appeared as ‘Salam,’ which indicates a possible connection to Islam as it could have represented a form of salaam, meaning peace in Arabic.1 Regardless, by 1769, Poor had bought his freedom for £27—a considerable sum. Two years later, he married his first wife Nancy Parker, a free biracial woman.2 When the war began in 1775, Poor enlisted in the Massachusetts Militia, joining Patriot forces besieging the British in Boston. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Bunker Hill, helping to repulse several British charges. Colonel William Prescott and thirteen regimental commanders signed a testimonial addressed to the commonwealth’s General Court, stating:
“A Negro Man Called Salem Poor... in the late Battle of Charleston, 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 Distinguish a Character, We submit to the Congress.”3
No other soldier at Bunker Hill was singled out in this fashion, but perhaps “the officers should have set forth the ‘particulars of his conduct,’ as the General Court never acted on the petition.”4 By May 1777, Poor had signed a three-year enlistment with Colonel Edward Wigglesworth’s 13th Massachusetts Regiment. He served with them during the Saratoga Campaign, Valley Forge winter encampment, and at Monmouth Courthouse.5
At age fifty-five, Salem Poor died. His gravesite at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground has since become a stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail.
1. Ayla Amon, African Muslims in Early America: Religion, Literacy and Liberty, National Museum of African American History & Culture, last modified January 11, 2019, https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/collection/african-muslims-early-america.
2. John U. Rees, ‘They were Good Soldiers’: African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 (Warwick, UK: Helion & Company, 2019), 50. Poor married three additional times: 1780 to Mary Twing (née Lincoln), a free Black woman; 1787 to Sarah Stevens, a white woman; and in 1801 to Hannah Ayliffe, a Black woman of unknown status. On June 6, 1785, Salem Poor publicly denounced Mary in the Boston Gazette. He stated that “from her Misconduct I am led to declare, I will not pay one Farthing of any Debt she may contract from the date hereof.” Source: “Advertisement.” Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), no. 1613, June 6, 1785: . Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANX&docref=image/v2%3A1036CD2E61FB47A0%40EANX-104454EE2E64FE6B%402373175-104454EE892C5271%403-104454EF23E86EA9%40Advertisement.
3. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, eds. Jack Salzman, David L. Smith, Cornel West (New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996), 2185.
4. Bill Dalton, “Dalton column: Salem Poor’s heroism and disappointing life,” Andover Townsman (Andover, MA), February 7, 2013, https://www.andovertownsman.com/community/dalton-column-salem-poors-heroism-and-disappointing-life/article_9bbefaf8-7219-53ef-b11a-fa1232573e7a.html.
5. John U. Rees, ‘They were Good Soldiers’, 50.