Peter Salem (left) and Salem Poor (right) from Walter J. Williams and The National Park Service

This Day in History: June 17th

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American Troops faced a crucial moment on June 17, the Revolutionary War as the British Army occupied Boston for several months in 1775. Seeking to fortify more territory near Bunker Hill, English soldiers stormed nearby Breed’s Hill—where most of the fighting took place.

The Americans were outmanned and outgunned but fought valiantly to protect their territory. While the Brits would eventually overwhelm rebels, they suffered key losses thanks to the efforts of two former slaves.

Peter Salem helped the surviving patriots evade British capture by firing the shot that killed killing the army’s commanding officer, Maj. John Pitcairn. At the time, slaves were banned from joining the military. But Salem was temporarily freed by his owner so he could serve. 

Salem Poor is another former slave remembered for his bravery during the battle. He was allowed to serve after buying his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds or $34. At the time, the steep price compared favorably to a working man’s yearly salary. Poor, who left his wife Nancy and his son to fight in the war, was credited for killing British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie. Poor was honored with a citation for heroism. Fourteen officers signed the petition, including Colonel William Prescott, and it says the following:

“The reward due to so great and Distinguished a Character. The Subscribers beg leave to Report to your Honorable. House (Which We do in justice to the Character of so Brave a man) that under Our Own observation, we declare that A Negro Man Called Salem Poor of Col. Fryes Regiment, Capt. Ames. Company 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, We Would Only beg leave to say in the Person of this Negro Centers a Brave & gallant Soldier.”

Salem and Poor were among nearly 40 African-Americans who fought at Bunker Hill. Despite losing their territory, the battle served as a morale booster for American Troops. 200 British troops were killed and 800 were injured—representing half of the soldiers that stormed Breed’s Hill. More than 100 American lives were lost in the battle, while another 300 were hurt.

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