Salem Poor

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Editor: Jessie Carney Smith
Date: 1998
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,247 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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About this Person
Born: 1747
Nationality: American
Occupation: Soldier
Updated:Oct. 12, 1998
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A “Negro Man Called Salem Poor … in the late Battle at Charlestown, behaved like an Experienced officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier. … In the Person of this sd [said] Negro Centers a Brave & gallant Soldier” reads a portion of the December 5, 1775, “Recommendation of Salem Poor” to members of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay, assembled at Cambridge. This recommendation of recognition, signed by 14 colonial army officers, was entered into the court record on December 21, 1775, and January 2, 1776, thus assuring 28–year–old freedman Poor's place in the military annals of the American Revolution. Details of this patriot's personal life, however, are scant.

The first record of "Salem Boy, servent [sic] to John and Rebecca Poor" is found in the year 1747, when he was baptized in the North Parish Congregational Church in Andover (now North Andover), Massachusetts. His youth and early manhood were spent in servitude on the Andover farm of John Poor and his son, John Poor, Jr. Salem obviously was industrious and on July 10, 1769, in his twenty-second year, had accumulated 27 pounds "lawful money" to purchase his freedom from John Poor Jr. The Instrument of Manumission, however, was not entered into Andover court records until February of 1772.

In August of 1771, Poor married a woman named Nancy Parker, "a half breed Indian servant in the family of Capt. James Parker," according to papers in the Charlotte Helen Abbot Collection of the Andover Historical Society. Another mention of Salem and Nancy is found in the North Parish Congregational Church records: a son, Jonas, was born to Salem and Nancy Poor, and he was baptized on September 29, 1776, in the church. No record of other children has yet been located. Nor has a record been found of Salem Poor's occupation, if he returned to Andover after he concluded his service with the Continental Army on March 20, 1780, or the place and year of his death and burial site. Most information on Salem's life concerns his service in the Andover Militia and the Continental Army.

In March of 1774, after the Continental Congress designated certain units of the Massachusetts militia to serve as "Minutemen," the Massachusetts Committee of Safety permitted black volunteers to join town and village companies. A number of free black men promptly enlisted, and one was Salem Poor. Poor enlisted in the First Andover Company as a private and, like other militia minutemen, was trained to respond at a minute's notice to British aggression.

As rebellion continued to foment within the Massachusetts Bay Colony, British Military Governor Thomas Gage was ordered to destroy the rebels' military stores at Concord. At midnight on April 19, 1775, as British troops marched from Boston toward nearby Concord, the alarm was spread. After a confrontation at Lexington in which the British troops killed eight minutemen and wounded ten others, the British soldiers then moved to Concord, where they encountered another group of minutemen at Concord North Bridge. The Americans fired what became known in history as `The Shot Heard Round the World.' The short battle saw the rout of the British, who retreated.

Shortly after the British retreat from Lexington, minuteman Salem Poor enlisted under Captain Samuel Johnson in the Fifth Massachusetts Regiment on April 24, 1775. To strengthen their hold on Boston, which they controlled, the British planned to seize and fortify nearby Dorchester Heights and Charlestown peninsulas. Americans heard of the British plans and decided to forestall the British troops. On June 16, 1775, Colonels Israel Putnam and William Prescott led patriot militia to construct a redoubt on Breed's Hill; the British were amazed to see the fortifications the following morning and set out to reclaim the peninsula. British Major General William Howe commanded 2,400 soldiers. Not until the third assault were they able to overwhelm the fortifications, taking very substantial casualties.

During the retreat, Salem Poor saw British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie, who had led the elite grenadiers at Breed's Hill (later known as the Battle of Bunker Hill), "mount a redoubt and wave his arms in triumph; the colored lad aimed and fired, and then watched the British officer topple over," wrote Andover historian Sarah L. Bailey in Historical Sketches of Andover. The death of Abercrombie, like that of British Major John Pitcairn, reputedly killed by another black patriot, Peter Salem, further undermined the morale of British soldiers and strengthened the resolve of the patriots.

Attitudes about the use of black soldiers varied in the course of the struggle. General George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, ordered on July 10 that no additional black men were to be recruited into the army. On December 30, 1775, he revoked that order in response to British offers of freedom to slaves willing to serve under the British flag. The latter directive was approved by the Continental Congress on January 16, 1776. Salem Poor, however, was never away from active duty more than a few months at a time, as shown by his extensive military record from 1775 to March 20, 1780, listed in the official Revolutionary War Militia Rolls in Volume XII of Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War:

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's military service attests to the fact that he was not among the 5,000 African Americans who lost their lives in the eight-year War for American Independence--and who are memorialized by a bronze sculpture in Pennsylvania's Valley Forge National Historical Park--but he was among the 500 black sharpshooters in the Continental Army who spent the legendary frozen winter of 1777--78 with General George Washington in his Valley Forge encampment. He also served in the crucial battles of White Plains, New York, and Providence, Rhode Island. Only one instance is recorded of Salem Poor having been commended for his bravery, the submission of the petition of recommendation in December 1775. Two hundred years later Poor's valor was publicly recognized. On March 25, 1975, as part of the United States Postal Service's Revolutionary War Bicentennial series of stamps entitled "Contributors to the Cause," a commemorative ten-cent stamp was issued in recognition of "Salem Poor--Gallant Soldier."

FURTHER READINGS

Bailey, Sarah Loring. Historical Sketches of Andover. 1880. Reprint, Andover, MA: Andover Historical Society, 1990.

Boatner, Mark M., III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: McKay, 1959.

"Contributors to the Cause." Washington, DC: U.S. Postal Service, March 25, 1975.

Foner, Jack D. Blacks and the Military in American History. New York: Praeger, 1974.

Kaplan, Sidney, and Emma N. Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770--1800. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973. Rev. ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

"Lexington Concord Staff Ride Field Study" for Military Science Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA. http://www.wpi.edu/Academics/Depts/MilSci/BTSI/lexcon/lexcon_fld.html (last modified October 1, 1997).

"Manumission Paper of Salem Poor, July 10, 1769." Phillips Library of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.

Maslowski, Pete. "National Policy toward the Use of Black Troops in the Revolution." South Carolina Historical Magazine 73 (January 1972). From the author's files.

"Monument to Patriots of African Descent." Valley Forge National Historical Park. Plymouth Meeting, PA: Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1996, http://www.valleyforge.org.

Nell, William Cooper. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. 1855. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968.

"Poor Family Records" and "Vital Records of Andover to 1850," Charlotte Helen Abbot Collection of Andover Historical Society Museum and Research Center, Andover, MA, http://www.town.andover.ma.us/commun/research.htm#historical.

"Poor, Salem, Andover." In Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. Vol. 12. Boston, MA: Secretary of the Commonwealth and Massachusetts Archives, 1904.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA, 1940. Second edition, 1961.

"Recommendation of Salem Poor." Journal of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts 51, Part II, 1775--1776. Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Library, Boston.

"Staff Ride Glossary" for Military Science Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA. http://www.wpi.edu/Academics/Depts/MilSci/BTSI/glossary.html (last modified June 11, 1997).

"Worcester Polytechnic Institute Breed's Hill/Bunker Hill Staff Ride," for Military Science Department of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA. http://www.wpi.edu/Academics/Depts/MilSci/BTSI/hill/hill.html (last modified June 11, 1997).

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Gale Document Number: GALE|K1622000368