Andover Townsman, Andover, MA


February 7, 2013

Dalton column: Salem Poor's heroism and disappointing life

A bicentennial stamp was issued to honor Andover’s Salem Poor 200 years after his heroism. This is pretty well known, at least by those with interest in local history, but what is less known are the details of the tragic life that followed his heroic act.

An Andover woman purchased Poor at a slave auction in 1747. He was an infant. By 1769, when Poor was 22, he’d bought his freedom from John Poor III for 27 pounds, a considerable amount of money - about $6,000 today. There is no record of how he acquired the money but there is reason to believe that Poor III treated his slave more like a servant and paid him.

Salem Poor married another former slave, Nancy Parker, in 1771, and they had a child, Jonas. A 1774 Andover Town Meeting voted to not provide financial support to the wife and children of Salem, “the servant of John Poor III” (Juliet Haines Mofford, “Andover Massachusetts Historical Selections from Four Centuries,” 2004).

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Salem Poor enlisted in Captain Benjamin Ames’ South Parish company and fought at Bunker Hill. Five Andover men near him were killed on the spot and another six were seriously wounded. Helping the wounded, Poor was slow to retreat and fired one last shot that killed British Army Lt. Col. James Abercrombie. In John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Lieutenant Colonel is portrayed lying dead beneath the feet of the surging British forces.

Six months after the battle,14 Colonial officers petitioned the Massachusetts General Court, stating: “...we declare that a negro man called Salem Poor the late Battle of [Bunker Hill] 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 negro centers a brave and gallant soldier. The reward due to so great and distinguished a character, we submit to the Congress.” Perhaps the 14 officers should have set forth the “particulars of his conduct,” as the General Court never acted on the petition.

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