Who Killed Major Pitcairn?

Hand-colored engraving described as “The shooting of Major Pitcairn (who had shed the first blood at Lexington) by the colored soldier Salem.” Courtesy of J. L. Bell
Hand-colored engraving described as “The shooting of Major
Pitcairn (who had shed the first blood at Lexington) by the
colored soldier Salem.” Courtesy of J. L. Bell

Everyone has heard of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Those who’ve read of it know that many British officers died that day, none more famous than Major John Pitcairn of the British Marines. He was not the highest-ranking officer on the scene, nor the most senior to lose his life in the fight; he was notorious at the time for having been in command of British troops on Lexington green in the early morning of 19 April 1775. Within days of that skirmish his name was known throughout the American colonies, so his death in battle two months later was big news that continued to be discussed for decades.

Discussed, but was it also embellished? Many sources today attribute the major’s demise to the work of an American marksman. Is this true, and if not, how did the story come about? A new article by prominent historian J. L. Bell in the collector’s print edition of Journal of the American Revolution takes a careful and critical look at accounts written soon after the battle and others penned years later in an attempt to determine what really happened to Major Pitcairn on 17 June 1775.

Here is an excerpt of the article, from the collector’s hardcover edition, now on sale.

Even after the war, New Englanders remained interested in Maj. Pitcairn’s death. In 1787 the Rev. Dr. Jeremy Belknap, founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, took notes on several details of the battle, including:

A negro man belonging to Groton, took aim at Major Pitcairne, as he was rallying the dispersed British Troops, & shot him thro’ the head, he was brought over to Boston & died as he was landing on the ferry ways.

Probably independent of Eliot’s and Belknap’s notes, which were not published until decades later, Samuel Swett put a similar story into the first major retrospective study of the fight, published in 1818:

Young [Lt. William] Richardson of the royal Irish [or 18th Regiment], was the first to mount the works, and was instantly shot down; the front rank which succeeded shared the same fate. Among these mounted the gallant Major Pitcairn, and exultingly cried “the day is ours,” when a black soldier named Salem, shot him through and he fell. His agonized son received him in his arms and tenderly bore him to the boats.

A few years later, in an expanded edition of his study, Swett named his source:

Gen. [John] Winslow [1753-1819] stated, a contribution was made in the army for Salem and he was presented to [George] Washington as having slain Pitcairn, who was killed on the British left, according to all authorities.

Who was that “black soldier”? In his 2002 study Patriots of Color, George Quintal, Jr., found no African- American named Salem from Groton. The only black soldier linked to that town and documented as being at Bunker Hill was Barzillai Lew, and detailed accounts of his military service say nothing about Pitcairn. Nor is there a period source reporting a black soldier being presented to Gen. Washington as Winslow described. Still, it is significant that two early and apparently independent sources attributed Pitcairn’s death to an African-American.

The full article appears the collector’s hardcover edition of Journal of the American Revolution, now on sale.

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***Buy the book from Ertel Publishing (more proceeds go to support this and future Journal of the American Revolution projects)

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  • Information I have read states that two African-American soldiers at Bunker Hill were credited, at least in local legends, with killing senior British officers. Both had Salem as part of their names. Peter Salem, of Newton who also fought at Concord, was said to have killed Major Pitcairn (1). Salem Poor was said to have killed Lt.Col. James Abercrombie (2).

    I look forward to Mr. Bell’s full article when I receive the hardcover book. Also, Davis’ book does not seem to be as well researched as one might like.

    1. Fischer, David Hackett, “Paul Revere’s Ride” (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)243-44.
    2. Davis, Burke, “Black Heroes of the American Revolution” (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976) 20.

  • So someone credits Salem Poor with having killed Abercrombie? That’s very interesting; I’ve seen Salem Poor (as well as Peter Salem) credited with killing Pitcairn, but never Abercombie. Sounds like I need to get the “Who Killed Lt. Col. Abercrombie” article written and posted, because Abercombie himself knew where the fatal shot came from!
    J. L. Bell’s article on Pitcairn will be very revealing. So will the future article on Abercrombie.

  • Looking for information regarding the British Marines participation in the 1776 campaign. Particularly the 2000 Marines landed to support Howe on Long Island. Seems the original two battalions formed in 1775 were left in Halifax after the evacuation from Boston under LtCol Collins and Maj Tupper.

    Capt Logan of the 2nd Battalion was killed in action on Long Island. Lt Nugent of the 1st Battalion was wounded and Lt Ragg of the 2nd was captured. Who commanded these units?

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