Poor, Salem

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Poor, Salem

c. 1758

Revolutionary War soldier Salem Poor was born free in Massachusetts, probably in 1758. We know little about his early life, except that he married young. In 1775 he left his wife to enlist in the Massachusetts Militia. Following the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord, he joined the Patriot forces in Boston. On June 17, 1775, Poor served at the Battle of Bunker Hill (actually fought on Breed's Hill), helping to repulse several British charges. Some later accounts have credited him with the killing of British Lt. Col. James Abercrombie.

So exceptional was Poor's bravery that on December 5, 1775, fourteen Massachusetts officers signed a petition to the General Court, the colony's legislature, which stated, "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 petition suggested the Continental Congress offer Poor "The Reward due to so great and Distinguisht a Caracter." There is no record of any reward actually given to Poor.

In June 1775 Gen. George Washington barred black soldiers from military service but permitted those already serving, such as Poor, to finish their tours of duty. At the end of 1775 Washington reversed his order. Poor reenlisted and served at least through 1776, seeing action at the Battle of White Plains and retreating to the winter camp at Valley Forge. Nothing is known of his later life. African-American historians have often pointed to Poor's heroism as an example of the African-American contribution to the nation's founding. Poor appeared on a U.S. commemorative postage stamp in 1975.

See also Free Blacks, 16191860; Military Experience, African-American


Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Williamsburg, Va.: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1961.

greg robinson (1996)