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Peter Salem

Peter Salem

Dated January 5, 1781, this promissory note reads:

“for Value Rec. I promise to pay unto Matt. Bent[1] or Order the some [sic] of One Thousand and Ten Pounds Eighteen Shillings Lawfull [sic] money on Demand as witness our Hands”

Beneath this text, the document is signed by John Maynard, and marked with an X by Peter Salem and Blenney Grushey. Although the language and wording are fairly standard for a promissory note of this time, Peter Salem’s mark is what makes this artifact so significant. Peter Salem was an African-American man who served in the Revolutionary War. Salem was born into slavery and therefore did not receive an education, which is why he has “signed” the promissory note by marking an X; he didn’t know how to write his name.

Peter Salem was born into slavery in Framingham, Massachusetts sometime around 1750. His first slave-master was army captain Jeremiah Belknap, who later sold him to Major Lawson Buckminster.[2] In 1775 when Salem showed interest in serving in the American militia Buckminster freed Salem, so he could enlist in Captain Simon Edgel’s company of minutemen. Salem fought in the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 and he later enlisted in Colonel John Nixon’s Fifth Massachusetts Regiment. It was with this regiment that Salem became an important player in the Battle of Bunker Hill.[3]

The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on June 17, 1775 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. In the days leading up to the battle colonists had gotten word that the British were planning on sending troops into the unfortified hills surrounding the Charlestown peninsula thus giving them control of the very important Boston harbor. In order to prevent this from happening, the colonists sent 1,200 troops to stealthily occupy Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. After a night of camping out in the hills, British troops were made aware of the presence of the American militia on the morning of the 17th. The fighting that ensued was bloody, with the British troops racking up casualties at about twice the rate the colonists were during the first two attacks. By the time the British mounted their third attack of the day, the colonists were running out of ammunition and decided to retreat back to Cambridge.[4] According to Samuel Swett’s History of Bunker Hill Battle, when the colonists were ordered to retreat Peter Salem charged forward and fired off a musket shot, mortally wounding British Marine Major John Pitcairn in a stunning show of courage.[5] William Barry’s book, A History of Framingham, Massachusetts, also lists Peter Salem as the man who shot Major Pitcairn.[6] Although the British technically won the Battle of Bunker Hill, it was still considered a major turning point of the Revolutionary War because it showed the British that this was not a small colonial uprising, but actually a full scale revolution, which caused the British to rethink their strategy for the entire war.[7]

After his heroic feat at Bunker Hill, Peter Salem went on to fight in the battles of Saratoga and Stony Point, serving a total of four years and eight months in various regiments of the Continental Army. When the Revolutionary War ended, Salem was never made to be a slave again and spent the remainder of his life living peacefully with his wife, Katy Benson, in a cabin he built in Leicester, Massachusetts until his death in 1816 at the age of 66.[8]

Sources:

[1] Bent, Allen Herbert. The Bent Family in America, Being Mainly a Genealogy of the Descendants of John Bent who Settled in Sudbury, Mass., in 1638, with Notes Upon the Family in England and Elsewhere. Boston. David Clapp & Son. 1900.

[2] Barry, William. 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. 1847. p. 64.

[3] Nielsen, Euell A. Salem, Peter. Black Past. 2017. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/salem-peter-ca-1750-1816

[4] Bunker Hill. U.S. History Online Textbook. 2018. http://www.ushistory.org/us/11d.asp.

[5] Swett, Samuel. History of Bunker Hill Battle with a Plan. Boston. Munroe and Francis. 1826.

[6] Barry, William. 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. 1847. p. 64.

[7] Bunker Hill. U.S. History Online Textbook. 2018. http://www.ushistory.org/us/11d.asp.

[8] Salem, Peter. American National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0600893

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