The American Revolution, like all of the wars engaged in by the United States, included African Americans, enslaved and free. It has been estimated that between 5,000 and 7,000 African Americans were a part of the revolutionary fight for independence. Many of these individuals are unknown. However, one of the first known African Americans to take part fought along side Crispus Attucks, the first African American martyr, and Salem Poor at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. He was Peter Salem, a former slave, Minuteman, and patriot. Salem's performance served as a catalyst in routing the British for a long enough period of time to give the Americans time to regain their confidence, rearm, and continue fighting. As a result of this heroic action, Salem was honored and gained a place in recorded American history. He remained with the Continental Army until the end of the war. Salem spent a total of seven years fighting on behalf of the country.
Peter Salem was born a slave in Framingham, Massachusetts about 1750. Little is known about his early life. He was originally owned by Captain Jeremiah Belknap. It is believed that Salem was named by Belknap for his own hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Later, Belknap sold Salem to Major Lawson Buckminster. It was illegal for African Americans to serve in the military. However, as the need for soldiers grew, free blacks were recruited to join the militia. Salem's owner freed him in order that he might join Captain Simon Edgell's company of Minutemen. These were volunteers who were ready to fight at a moment's notice.
Salem served in the Continental Army until the close of the war. He received his discharge in 1870. Following the discharge, he took up residency in a cabin he built outside Leicester, Massachusetts, where he worked as a weaver. He made a living by weaving and making baskets and by making and weaving cane bottoms for chairs. In 1783, he married Katy Benson. Salem died in the poorhouse in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1816. He is buried in the Old Burying Ground.
Battles of Lexington and Concord
Salem took part in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. On April 19, 1775, when British soldiers arrived in Lexington, Massachusetts, to seize and destroy the weapons and ammunition, they were confronted by the local Minutemen. The Minutemen fired on the British who continued on to Concord. However, they were again met by these intrepid Minutemen who were firing from behind walls, trees, and whatever gave them cover while the British were in the open. Additionally, the numbers of these local volunteers continued to grow, rather than diminish. The British retreated toward Lexington where they were met by other British soldiers. They joined forces and marched toward Boston.
- Born in Framingham, Massachusetts
- Fights at Concord, Massachusetts on April 19; fights at Bunker Hill and gains fame
- Reenlists and fights at Saratoga and Stony Point
- Receives his discharge
- Marries Katy Benson
- Dies in Framingham, Massachusetts
- Framingham erects a monument in his honor
The Battle of Bunker Hill
The British Army occupied Boston for several months but realized that their position would be greatly strengthened by capturing the heights which surrounded Boston: Dorchester Heights and Charlestown peninsula. The peninsula would strengthen the British Army's position in the face of growing ant-British sentiment. However, the Americans learned that the British planned to occupy one of the hills. Under cover of night, they attempted to fortify the area. However, rather than fortifying Bunker Hill, the high point of the Charlestown peninsula, they actually fortified Breed's Hill, a short distance away. In the light of day, the British saw the efforts made by the Americans and attacked. The battle actually took place at Breed's Hill. The Americans with troops from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire were outnumbered, ill-equipped, and untrained, but courageous. The American troops fought valiantly. It is reported that as the American troops appeared to be on the verge of defeat, Major John Pitcairn, who had earlier led the British forces against the Americans at Lexington, came to the front and indicated the British had won. At this point, Salem distinguished himself by firing his musket and delivering a shot that ultimately led to the death of Pitcairn. This gave the British pause for a brief period. However, they eventually took the hill. At the time of this action, Salem had enlisted in Colonel Nixon's Fifth Massachusetts Regiment and was serving in the company of Captain Drury. The Battle of Bunker Hill was the first major battle of the American Revolution.
Battles of Stony Point and Saratoga
Salem also took part in battles at both Stony Point and Saratoga, New York. At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and following much maneuvering, marching, and shooting, the Americans routed and defeated the British Army. The British Major General Burgoyne surrendered on October 17, 1777 by leaving the British camp and piling British arms on the side of the Hudson River. This battle is considered by historians as a major victory and the turning point in the American Revolution.
Salem's fellow soldiers took up a collection for him following his action at Bunker Hill, and he was honored by a visit to meet General George Washington. Salem was honored by the citizens of Framingham when they buried him at the Old Burying Ground. Even though his gravesite is isolated from the others, it was a true recognition for it was unusual to bury an African American and former slave there. Additionally, years after his death, the townspeople provided Salem's grave with a gravestone.
In spite of the fact that there is still discussion over the veracity of the stories about Peter Salem, he has been recognized in several ways. In 1882, the town of Framing-ham, Massachusetts honored him by erecting a grave monument. John Trumbull's painting entitled "The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill" contains an unidentified African American at the far right. This individual has not been identified conclusively as Peter Salem, but it is accepted by many as his picture. On October 18, 1968, in New Haven, Connecticut, a stamp was issued honoring John Trumbull which depicts Peter Salem, and it is recognized in the Black Heritage Stamp Issues.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meaning, 1619 to Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
The African American Registry. "Peter Salem, an original patriot!" http:www//aaregistry.com/African_american_history/1937/peter_salem_an_original_patriot (Accessed 14 March 2006).
Barton, David. "Black Patriots of the American Revolution." Resources Black History Issue, 2004. http://www.wallbuilders.com/resources/search/detail.php?ResourceID=107 (Accessed 14 March 2006).
"The Decisive Day Is Come: The Battle of Bunker Hill/Introduction." Massachusetts Historical Society. http://www.masshist.org/bh/ (Accessed 14 March 2006).
Hansen, Joyce. "A Brave and Gallant Soldier." American Review. http://www.amrevonline.org/museum2/index.cgi2?a=pageview&page_id=13 (Accessed 14 March 2006).
"Major John Pitcairn: Battle of Bunker Hill." The Henderson Island Website. http://www.winthrop.dk/majpitcairn.html (Accessed 14 March 2006).
"Peter Salem." http://www.framingham.k12.ma.us/dunning/salem.htm (Accessed 14 March 2006).
Helen R. Houston