Peter Salem

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Peter Salem (c. 1750–August 16, 1816) was an African American from Massachusetts who served as a soldier in the American Revolutionary War. Born into slavery in Framingham, Massachusetts, he was freed by a later master, Major Lawson Buckminster, to serve in the local militia. He then enlisted in the Continental Army, serving for nearly five years during the war. Afterwards, he married and worked as a cane weaver. A monument was erected to him in the late 19th century at his grave in Framingham.

Early life[edit]

Peter Salem was born about 1750 to a slave mother in Framingham, Massachusetts. His master was Jeremiah Belknap, who later sold him to Lawson Buckminster, who used him in a variety of ways. When Buckminster became a major in the Continental Army, he gave Salem his freedom in 1775 so he could enlist in the patriot militia in what soon became the American Revolution.[1][2]

Salem's last name may have been given to him by his original owner Belknap, who may have chosen the name after Salem, Massachusetts, where he once lived.[1] It has also been suggested that Salem chose his last name after being freed, and that it may be a form of "Saleem", an Arabic word for peace.[3] This has led some historians to suggest that Salem may have been Muslim, although there is no direct documentation of his religious views.[3][4]

Military service[edit]

Salem took part in the war's first battles at Concord on April 19, 1775. He is on the roll of Captain Simon Edgell's militia company from Framingham as having served 4 days from April 19, 1775.[5] On April 24, he enlisted in Captain Drury's company of Colonel John Nixon's 6th Massachusetts Regiment.[6]

Battle of Bunker Hill[edit]

Salem fought with his company in the Battle of Bunker Hill. According to Samuel Swett, who chronicled the battle, Salem had mortally wounded British Marine Major John Pitcairn.[7] About a dozen other free African Americans took part in the battle, including Barzillai Lew, Salem Poor, Titus Coburn, Alexander Ames, Cato Howe, and Seymour Burr.

Salem reenlisted for another year in the 4th Continental Regiment on January 1, 1776. When that enlistment expired, he signed up for three years in the 6th Massachusetts Regiment of Colonel Thomas Nixon, a brother of Colonel John Nixon. He was honorably discharged on December 31, 1779, having served a total of four years and eight months.[8]

Salem had fought at the battles of Saratoga and Stony Point.[7][9]

Later life and death[edit]

Salem spent the rest of his life living peacefully. He married Katy Benson in Salem, Massachusetts in September 1783,[6] and he later built a cabin near Leicester, where he worked as a cane weaver.

Peter Salem died on August 16, 1816, aged 66. He was buried in the Old Burying Ground in Framingham, and the town spent $150 to belatedly erect a monument in his memory in 1882.[6]

Presentation in other media[edit]

  • At one time Salem was thought to have been depicted in John Trumbull's painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, June 17, 1775. The African American to Thomas Grosvenor's right is now believed to have been his slave.[9] According to David Barton's book, Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White, it was commonly known that the individual in The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker's Hill was in fact Peter Salem according to John Trumball, who was present. It was not until the 1980s that scholars attempted to debunk this notion.
  • Peter Salem is one of the supporting characters in the 2015 television miniseries Sons of Liberty. He is played by British actor Jimmy Akingbola.


  1. ^ a b "Peter Salem". American National Biography Online. Retrieved 2012-02-22. 
  2. ^ Barry, William (1847). A History of Framingham, Massachusetts: Including the Plantation, from 1640 to the Present Time, with an Appendix, Containing a Notice of Sudbury and Its First Proprietors; Also, a Register of the Inhabitants of Framingham Before 1800, with Genealogical Sketches. Framingham, Massachusetts: J. Monroe and Company. p. 160. Retrieved 2013-08-13. 
  3. ^ a b Southwick, Albert B. (August 26, 2010). "Exploring Peter Salem's roots". Telegram & Gazette. Worcester, MA. Retrieved December 18, 2015. 
  4. ^ Samory, Rashid (2013). Black Muslims in the US: History, Politics, and the Struggle of a Community. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 78. ISBN 9781137337511. Retrieved December 18, 2015. 
  5. ^ History of Framingham, p. 278.
  6. ^ a b c Quintal, George (2004). Patriots of Color: A Peculiar Beauty and Merit, African Americans and Native Americans at Battle Road and Bunker Hill. Boston, MA: Division of Cultural Resources, Boston National Historical Park. pp. 190–196. ISBN 0160749808. Retrieved December 18, 2015. 
  7. ^ a b Davis, David Brion (May 18, 1989). "It Wasn't Peter Salem". The New York Review of Books (Letter to the Editor). Retrieved December 18, 2015. 
  8. ^ Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War. Vol. 13, pp. 743–744.
  9. ^ a b Sidney and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989 revised edition.


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