Peter Salem? Salem Poor? Who Killed Major John 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

Maj. John Pitcairn of the British marines became notorious among New Englanders after the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress published depositions from dozens of men declaring that he had ordered light infantrymen to fire on the peaceful Lexington militia company. (Modern historians discount those claims, agreeing that Pitcairn shouted something like, “Lay down your arms, ye villains, and disperse!”but never ordered his men to shoot.)[1]

As a result of that notoriety, Massachusetts men were struck by the news that Major Pitcairn had died of wounds during the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17. Five days after the battle, the New-England Chronicle reported that British soldiers “were sure that they had a Thousand or more killed and wounded,”and that“A great many other Officers are dead.”But the newspaper’s correspondent named only one casualty: “Among the Dead was Major Pitcairn.”

At that time, Pitcairn was the British forces’ highest-ranking death. But even after Lt.-Col. James Abercrombie succumbed to his wounds a few days later, locals focused on Pitcairn. The Rev. Dr. John Eliot, left inside Boston, made this note about the major in his 1775 almanac:

This amiable and gallant officer was slain entering the intrenchments. He had been wounded twice; then putting himself at the head of his forces, he faced danger, calling out, “Now for the glory of the marines!” He received four balls in his body.[2]

Even after the war, New Englanders remained interested in Major 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.[3]

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 [the 18th Regiment of Foot], was the first to mount the works, and was instantly shot down; the front rank which succeeded sharedthe 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.[4]

Who was that “black soldier named Salem”? 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.[5] Nor is there a period source reporting a black soldier being presented to General Washington as Winslow described. Still, it is significant that two early and apparently independent sources attributed Pitcairn’s death to an African American.

Seven years after Swett mentioned “a black soldier named Salem,”a local historian claimed that man for his town. Emory Washburn wrote this in the Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal in 1826:

There was residing here, till within a few years, a black man, who, we have good reason to believe, was the one who shot Maj. Pitcairn, whose death forms so affecting an incident in that bloody affray. History relates that he was shot by a negro, and from the story of the one we allude to, and many corroborating circumstances, we are led to conclude that he was the person who did the deed. The person to whom we refer was named Peter Salem; he was a servant of Gen. [John] Nixon during the revolution, was a native of Framingham, and removed here a few years since, where he died. Major Pitcairn was shot as he was mounting the redoubt, and fell into the arms of his son.[6]

William Barry followed up that lead with more information in his history of Framingham published in 1847:

Peter Salem … was originally the slave of Capt. Jeremiah Belknap, and was sold by him to Maj. Lawson Buckminster. He married in 1783, Katy Benson, a grand daughter of Nero [Benson], and lived for a time, where is now a cellar hole on the farm of the late Mr. Richard Fiske, near the pond. He served in the war of the Revolution as waiter to Col. Thomas Nixon, of Framingham; and at the opening of the war was present at the battle of Bunker Hill.

Barry then quoted Washburn’s passage and concluded: “Peter died in Fram., Aug. 16, 1816.”[7] Washburn and Barry disagreed about which Nixon brother Peter Salem worked for, but otherwise their accounts fit together.

Neither chronicler, however, presented any evidence that Peter Salem shot Major Pitcairn beyond the fact that he was in Nixon’s regiment and that regiment was in the battle. In his 1860 Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester, Washburn described how Salem had told his “stories of the war,”but he recorded no tale of Bunker Hill, which would surely have been of interest.[8] There was no corroboration from fellow veterans. Another history of Framingham published in 1827 had said nothing about Peter Salem.[9]

In fact, Peter Salem wasn’t the only African American soldier named Salem at Bunker Hill, nor the most prominent one. In 1775 people gave much more attention to Salem Poor of Andover. On December 5, 1775, thirteen Continental Army officers and a brigade surgeon sent the following petition to the Massachusetts General Court:

The Subscribers begg leave to Report to your Honble. House, (which wee do in Justice to the Character of So Brave a Man) that under Our Own observation, Wee declare that A Negro Man Called Salem Poor of Col. Fryes Regiment Capt. Ames. Company in the late Battle at Charlestown, 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 Reward due to so great and Distinguisht a Caracter, Wee Submit to the Congress—

Among the signers were Col. Jonathan Brewer, Lt.-Col. Thomas Nixon (the same officer who commanded Peter Salem), and Col. William Prescott, commander in the American redoubt on Breed’s Hill. Prescott came from Groton, and his support might have led Belknap to assume Salem was a “negro man belonging to Groton.”After a few weeks the Massachusetts legislature gave those officers “leave to withdraw”their petition — the period’s way of saying no. Salem Poor received no official recognition in his lifetime.[10]

Unfortunately for history, the officers who praised Salem Poor did not “Set forth Particulars”of what he had done. His actions must have been significant because it is extraordinary to see white gentlemen in 1775 compare a black man to “an Experienced officer” like themselves. Perhaps this unusual recognition was what John Winslow recalled when he told Swett that the “black soldier named Salem” who killed Pitcairn was rewarded and presented to General Washington. It’s also possible that such praise for Poor helped change Washington’s mind on the value of African-American soldiers. In late October the commander had agreed with his council of war and a committee from the Continental Congress that the army should block black soldiers from reenlisting; at the end of the year, Washington reversed himself on that point.[11]

By the late 1800s, the scene of Peter Salem killing Major Pitcairn had become an iconic part of the American history of Bunker Hill. This was largely due to dogged efforts of abolitionists in ante-bellum America, the party most committed to equal rights for all. William C. Nell recounted the event in The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, published in 1855.[12]  Three years later, Theodore Parker wrote to the historian George Bancroft:

In the engravings of the battle when I was a boy, the black man, Peter Salem, appears in the act of shooting Major Pitcairn; but now-a-days a white man is put in his place. Richard Frothingham, in his account of Bunker Hill battle [first published in 1849], makes no mention of Peter. He appears, however, on some of the bills [currency] of the Monument, Freeman’s and Charlestown Banks.[13]

In an 1862 paper arguing for the Union to enlist black soldiers during the Civil War, George Livermore quoted another account of “a negro soldier” killing Pitcairn, which a Connecticut man recalled hearing “About the year 1809.”[14]

Over time, the stories of Salem Poor and Peter Salem converged. In 1880 Sarah Loring Bailey wrote in her Historical Sketches of Andover:

The story goes that “Salem Poor,” a slave, owned by Mr. John Poor, shot Lieutenant-colonel Abercrombie. As that officer sprang on the redoubt, while our men were in retreat, and exclaimed, “The day is ours,” Salem turned and took aim and fired. He saw the officer fall.[15]

This is the very same story, down to the words the British officer yelled, that other writers were telling about Peter Salem. But this telling involved an even higher-ranked officer.

In 1934, yet another name surfaced for the African American who shot Pitcairn. In a footnote in The First Year of the American Revolution, Allen French suggested that the black soldier was “Salem Prince, a negro.” That name appeared in several subsequent histories.[16] However, there is no record of any soldier named Salem Prince in the Massachusetts army, nor does that name appear in any books before French’s. “Salem Prince”appears to have been no more than French’s careless error.

To be sure, other sources were crediting white soldiers, named and unnamed, with shooting Major Pitcairn. Charles William Janson recorded one account in1807 as he described touring the site of the battle:

By a man whom we met on the road, we were informed, that when the British forces rallied, and again ascended the hill, led on by Major Pitcairn, they had advancednear to the redoubt, when the major called to his soldiers to hasten their speed, as the enemy had abandoned the fort. A boy, who, he observed, was then a shoemaker in Boston, replied from behind a trench: “We are not all gone,” and instantly fired his musket, which proved the death of Major Pitcairn.[17]

In 1818, Gen. Henry Dearborn described New Hampshire men at the rail fence shooting a British officer off his horse; “It proved to be Major Pitcairn, a distinguished officer,”Dearborn wrote.[18] Decades later, James R. Pringle credited Gloucester’s Benjamin Webber with shooting “Major Pitcairn, brave, but somewhat boastful,”off his horse that way.[19]

On August 3, 1820, the Boston Gazette published an obituary crediting yet another man with the kill:

At Chelmsford, Mr. Joseph Spalding, aged 64.—He was one of the heroes of Bunker Hill;—he fired the first gun, and was supposed to be the man who killed Maj. Pitcairn, having frequently declared he took deliberate aim at him.

In fact, Spalding’s usual stories didn’t emphasize shooting the major. Both his local epitaph and his grandson said he often described firing on the British “before orders were given” — in other words, well before he could see the whites of their eyes. Spalding recounted how Gen. Israel Putnam smacked him on the head for wasting powder.[20]

An 1852 history of Norway, Maine, said a local named Phinehas Whitney had shot the first British officer who mounted the breastwork. Charles F. Whitman’s 1924 history of the same town recognized the similarity between that story and the well-established account of how Pitcairn was shot, and therefore gave Whitney the credit for “probably” shooting the major.[21]

None of those stories had the support or the traction of the tale of the black soldier Peter Salem (or perhaps Salem Poor) shooting Major Pitcairn off the wall of the redoubt. That story resonated with the American public.

But was that story accurate? The British forces won the battle and controlled the field; the British had the best information on which of their men died and how. When it comes to Pitcairn, the closest source is undoubtedly Lt. John Waller, adjutant of the first Marines battalion. He wrote two detailed letters in the week after the battle. The first, dated just four days afterwards, describes the height of the action this way:

We were soon order’d to advance and attack the natural defences of the Redoubt and to storm that also at all Events. we gain’d Ground on the Enemy but slowly, as the Rails Hedges & stone walls, broke at every time we got over them and several Menwere shot, in the Act of climbing them, we at length overcame these difficulties with very little loss till we came to the Talus of the Redoubt at the bottom of which was a Road with Hedges & Trees on each side besides a low stone wall, on the part we were Jumbled together. I say Jumbled, as the March over the Rails &c. had shifted the 47th Regt. (that was on our Right on leaving the low Ground) in such a manner as to divide the 2 Companies on the right of our Battalion from the other 6 on the Left; but as they were nearly in a Column of Files we were not far asunder: in this situation we received a Check (tho’ without retreating an Inch) from the very heavy and severe Fire from the Enemy in the Redoubt, and in this Spot we lost a number of Men, besides the irreparable loss of poor Major Pitcairne, whose worth I never was sensible of till that day[.] we remaind about Ten Minutes or near a Quarter of an Hour in this dangerous situation, where the poor Fellows were kill’d as I was directing the Files how to level their Fire, at length half mad with standing in this situation & doing nothing towards Reducing the Redoubt, I requested Colnel [William] Nesbit [of the 47th] to form upon our Left in order that we might advance to the Enemy with our Bayonets without firing: this was with difficulty perform’d and Captain [Archibald] Campbell [of the Marines’ light infantry] coming up at this Instant, and forming upon our Right we mounted the Hedges without firing a Shot, and ran directly up the Talus, got into the Ditch and mounted the Parapet. Here let me stop and mourn for a Moment the loss of my dear, and amiable Friend Archy Campbell, for here he fell, poor Ellis also on this fatal spot perform’d his last services to his Country, Shea rece’d also his mortal wound here, and Chudleigh Ragg, & Dyer were also wounded in this Attack. I cannot pretend to describe the Horror of the Scene within the Redoubt when we enter’d it, ‘twas streaming with Blood & strew’d with dead & dying Men the Soldiers stabbing some and dashing out the Brains of others was a sight too dreadful for me to dwell any longer on …

According to Waller, Pitcairn was fatally shot at “the Talus of the Redoubt”— at the bottom of the rise to the wall the provincials had built. The marines still had to cross “Hedges,” “the Talus,” “the Ditch,” and “the Parapet.” Furthermore, Waller recalled that his men were pinned down in that spot for “Ten Minutes or near a Quarter of an Hour”— in which time the major was shot and his son started to carry him back to the waterside. It probably took more minutes for Waller to regain command of that unit and coordinate the final attack as he described. Waller’s letter was quite clear about which of his companions he saw shot down on or near the parapet.[22]

The next day, Waller wrote a similar letter to his brother, published in Britain in 1845. The adjutant repeated that when the marines reached a point “immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire of the enemy.” Waller wrote that “Major Pitcairne was killed close by me” there, along with at least three other men. He described others killed in “getting up” to the redoubt and how “three captains of the 52nd were killed on the parapet.”[23] Clearly Waller had seen his commander wounded and removed from the field before he climbed the American fortification.

Lieutenant Waller’s letters mean that none of the American stories of Major Pitcairn being shot down on the redoubt wall is reliable (nor, of course, is the story of Benjamin Webber shooting him off a horse). Furthermore, another of the earliest descriptions of Pitcairn’s death, the Rev. John Eliot’s note in his 1775 almanac, also contradicts the standard story. Eliot wrote that Pitcairn “received four balls in his body,”information that doctors would have found away from the chaos of the battle. That would mean Pitcairn was struck by multiple shooters, not a lone musketman.

Why then did so many Americans from 1787 onward describe Major Pitcairn being shot down just as he was entering the redoubt? One factor is that most locals probably did not know what Pitcairn looked like. The marines wore the same red as infantry regiments. Field officers all dressed similarly, without designations of their ranks. Close up, there were ways to distinguish the uniforms of different regiments, but the smoky confusion of a battlefield make it highly unlikely that young men from rural Massachusetts could have picked out Pitcairn from any other British officer. Several accounts show that other British officers were hit as they came over the wall: Richardson, Abercrombie, Campbell, and more. Americans wanted to believe that among those officers was the notorious Major Pitcairn.

That was because after Lexington lots of New England men were gunning for the major. They wanted to see Pitcairn receive his just deserts for supposedly ordering his men to fire. They, and later generations of Americans, wanted his story to have meaning, and being brought low just when he thought he had triumphed — by a black man, of all soldiers — provided that satisfaction. A popular nineteenth-century engraving encapsulated that story in its caption: “The shooting of Major Pitcairn (who had shed the first blood at Lexington) by the Colored Soldier Salem.”[24]

Salem Poor might well have shot a British officer as he climbed into the redoubt on Breed’s Hill — he certainly did something extraordinary during the battle, and people remembered “a black soldier named Salem” shooting an officer near the end. But instead of Salem Poor acting “like an Experienced officer, as Well as an Excellent Soldier,” and possibly killing one of the many British officers who died in the fight, the traditional story has Peter Salem killing Maj. John Pitcairn.

The big, bloody battle of Bunker Hill, which the Americans of course lost, was thus boiled down to a confrontation between two emblematic individuals, and the American got the last word. Indeed, the legend of how Major Pitcairn was shot is a miniature version of how Americans like to view the Revolutionary War: a despotic Briton attacks, boasts too loudly (“The day is ours!”), and is shot down.

As that story took hold, people with ties to particular provincial soldiers wanted to believe their neighbor or ancestor was the hero of the day. Chroniclers in the towns where Peter Salem had lived took a mention of a “black soldier named Salem”and convinced themselves that theirs was the same man. Phinehas Whitney and Benjamin Webber recalled shooting at British officers in the battle, so eventually they got local credit for shooting Pitcairn. Joseph Spalding told stories of simply aiming at an officer, and his obituary said he shot Pitcairn.

The reality of the Battle of Bunker Hill, like any large battle, involved thousands of men trying to kill thousands of other men. Most of the New England soldiers on the field probably never had a clear shot at Major Pitcairn, but by manning the redoubt and the rail fence they held off his Marines and the rest the British forces. In all that fire, the major was fatally wounded, probably by multiple bullets, alongside hundreds of other men. Viewed from that perspective, all the provincial soldiers at Bunker Hill helped to kill Major Pitcairn.

 

[1]A Narrative, of the Excursion and Ravages of the King’s Troops Under the Command of General Gage, on the Nineteenth of April, 1775 (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, 1775). David Hackett Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 190-1.

[2]Quoted in Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, and of the Battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1849), 195.

[3]Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 14 (1875-76), 93.

[4]Samuel Swett, “Historical and Topographical Sketch of Bunker Hill Battle,” appendix to David Humphreys, An Essay on the Life of the Honourable Major General Israel Putnam (Boston: Samuel Avery, 1818), 247. Samuel Swett, Notes to His Sketch of the Bunker-Hill Battle (Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1825), 25.

[5]George Quintal, Patriots of Color: “A Peculiar Beauty and Merit”: African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road and Bunker Hill, Report for the National Park Service, February 2002, 150-4, 190.

[6]Emory Washburn, “Topographical and Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester,”Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal, 1 (1825-26), 113.

[7]William Barry, A History of Framingham, Massachusetts(Boston: Munroe, 1847), 64. See also Elise Lemire, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 202.

[8]Emory Washburn, Historical Sketches of the Town of Leicester, Massachusetts(Boston: John Wilson & Son, 1860), 266-9.

[9][William Ballard], A Sketch of the History of Framingham(Boston: n.p., 1827).

[10]Quintal, Patriots of Color, 170-80. The petition was first published in Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 6 (1862-63), 178; and in a better transcription in Sarah Loring Bailey, Historical Sketches of Andover(Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1880), 324.

[11]J. L. Bell, General George Washington’s Headquarters and Home — Cambridge, Massachusetts, Report for National Park Service, February 2012, 288-95, 298-300. See also Patrick Charles, Washington’s Decision: The Story of George Washington’s Decision to Reaccept Black Enlistments in the Continental Army, December 31, 1775(N.p.: BookSurge, 2005).

[12]William C. Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution(Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), 20-1.

[13]Theodore Parker to George Bancroft, March 16, 1858, in John Weiss, The Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker (London: Longman &c., 1863), 2:235.

[14]Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings, 6 (1862-63), 176-77.

[15]Sarah Loring Bailey, Historical Sketches of Andover, 323-4.

[16]Allen French, The First Year of the American Revolution(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934), 248. Books that mentioned Salem Prince after French include Richard Ketchum, Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill, expanded edition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 174; and Fischer, Paul Revere’s Ride, 282.

[17]Charles William Janson, The Stranger in America (London: James Cundee, 1807), 26.

[18]Quoted in Charles Coffin, compiler, History of the Battle of Breed’s Hill (Saco, ME: William J. Condon, 1831), 23. Dearborn’s reminiscence appeared first in the Port Foliomagazine in 1818; it was then reprinted as An Account of the Battle of Bunker Hill (Philadelphia: Harrison Hall, 1818) and elsewhere.

[19]James R. Pringle, History of the Town and City of Gloucester(Gloucester, Mass.: n.p., 1892), 74.

[20]Samuel Adams Drake, History of Middlesex County, Massachusetts(Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1880), 1:375. Abram English Brown, Beside Old Hearth-Stones(Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1897), 279-80.

[21]David Noyes, The History of Norway (Norway, ME: n.p., 1852), 44. Charles F. Whitman, A History of Norway, Maine (Lewiston, ME: Lewiston Journal Company, 1924), 82.

[22]John Waller to unknown, June 21, 1775, www.masshist.org/bh/waller.html, Massachusetts Historical Society. The transcript on this web site reads “tho’ without retreating an Inch,” but close inspection of the letter itself, which is also on the web site, proves that it reads “tho’ without retreating an Inch.”

[23]John Waller to Jacob Waller, June 22, 1775, in Paul Harris Nicolas, Historical Record of the Royal Marine Forces(London: Thomas & William Boone, 1845), 2:88-9.

[24]Engraving reproduced at digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-21bc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99, New York Public Library.

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1 Comment

  • I wish we all had a standing rule that anything from after 1800 is automatically discounted. It was too easy for people to make claims that could not be proven, and they got to bask in a little self invented glory about their role. Stories like Washington’s speech at the (alleged) farewell dinner and his saying he had “gone blind” in the army’s service (at Newburgh) are based on sources published long after the principals were dead. Even something like Joseph Plum Martin’s narrative is suspect, in my humble opinion. So when people claimed that so and so killed a particular person in a moment when smoke and dust and cannon fire and musket balls are passing by, oh and by the way it was thirty years ago, it sounds like fiction.

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