Peter Salem was born a slave to Jeremiah Belknap at Framingham, Massachusetts about 1750. Belknap sold Salem to Lawson Buckminister some time before the Revolutionary War. Buckminister allowed Salem to enlist in the Massachusetts Minutemen. According to one story, his master freed him upon his enlistment. Another account states that Peter changed his name to Salem when he was freed. Some have attempted to link Peter’s last name with the Arabic “Saleem” (one who is peaceful); however there is no concrete evidence that this is the case.
Salem served at Concord, Saratoga and Stony Point. He is traditionally given credit for the slaying of British Major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill. Pitcairn had ordered the colonists to surrender. Salem shot him in answer. In the ensuing confusion, the Americans were able to take the field. Pitcairn died of his wounds. The gun attributed to Salem’s deed is part of the museum collection at Bunker Hill.
It is said that Salem’s likeness appears in John Trumbell’s “The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill,” although another black patriot, Salem Poor, also fought in the battle and was formally written up for commendation by his comrades in arms for his acts of heroism at the Battle of Charlestown.
Peter Salem lived at Leicester, Massachusetts and was a cane weaver after the American Revolution He died in a public poorhouse in 1816 at the age of 66. In 1882 a monument was put up by the town of Framingham, Massachusetts at the Old Burying Ground.
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