Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 7, 2013

Dalton column: Salem Poor's heroism and disappointing life

Bill Dalton
The Andover Townsman

---- — 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 ...in 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.

In any event, Poor re-enlisted, and probably saw more combat, although there is no definitive record of it. He was discharged in March 1780.

Until 2007, it was thought that the rest of Poor’s life was obscured by the years, but a Boston newspaper story that year discussed the findings of Boston genealogist David Lambert, who is a descendant of the Andover family who owned Poor. According to the records Lambert found, in 1780 Salem Poor married Mary Twing, a former slave, and they lived in Providence where they were ordered to leave, probably because they were paupers. In 1785, Poor publicly disavowed Mary’s debts in a newspaper advertisement, and Poor married a white woman by the name of Sarah Stevens in 1787. They spent several weeks in a Boston Almshouse in 1793, and he spent a short time in jail for breach of the peace in 1799. He married again in 1801.

According to historian Mofford, Salem Poor’s Andover wife “seems to have been part Native American, part African American, and part folklore.” She may have lived in a wigwam in Carmel Woods near the center of the South Parish. Mofford continues, “Contemporaries described her as tall, wild-looking, and said that she was fond of calling out cuss words. She supported herself as a spinster, going door to door with a spinning wheel strapped to her back.”

There is no mention by genealogist Lambert of any divorce or death records regarding Poor’s wives, so he was probably a polygamist. Nor do we know what happened to Salem and Nancy Poor’s child, Jonas, who was born in Andover.

We do know that Salem Poor was a hero of Bunker Hill and one of at least 5,000 African Americans who served on the side of the Colonists. Many more thousands served with the British forces as a means of gaining their freedom.

Salem Poor died in a Boston Almshouse a few months after his final marriage. On Feb. 5, 1802, the Boston Overseers of the Poor noted the burial of Salem Poor, stating he was “...a negro man belonging to the Town of Andover.” It was a sad end for a hero.

Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is BillDalton@AndoverTownie.com.