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Freed slave's story uncovered by owner's descendant

While Leona W. Martin's forebears were fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War, the freed slave that genealogist David Lambert counts as an adopted ancestor was performing heroically for the patriots at Bunker Hill.

For that, Salem Poor was honored in 1975 with his image on a 10-cent postage stamp. Details of Poor's life after the Revolution -- his troubled marriage, his death as a pauper -- were unknown, however, until Lambert pieced them together over the past decade.

Lambert, 37, online genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society on Newbury Street, claims no blood relation to Poor, who shares his grandmother's maiden name. He is, however, descended from the Massachusetts family that owned Poor in Andover. Ever since an uncle gave him a first-day cover of Poor's stamp, he's been interested in his story.

"He was one of the first American heroes," says Lambert. "I'm glad to have found the final chapter."

Poor purchased his freedom in 1769 for 27 pounds -- almost $5,600 in today's dollars. He is believed to have killed British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie in Charlestown and fought, too, at Saratoga and Valley Forge. Fourteen officers present at Bunker Hill sought recognition for Poor, saying, "Wee Would Only begg leave to say in the Person of this said Negro Centers a brave and gallant soldier."

In 1780, Poor married his second wife , the widow Mary Twing, described, like Poor, as a "free negro." The couple moved to Providence, where, according to city records Lambert found, they were ordered to leave, presumably because they could not support themselves. In 1785, Poor placed an ad in the Boston Gazette to disavow his wife's debts and "forewarn all Persons from trusting MARY, the Wife of the Subscriber."

Lambert could not discover the fate of that marriage, but found that Poor married a white woman named Sarah Stevens in 1787. He spent several weeks in the Boston Almshouse in 1793, and was briefly jailed for "breach of peace" in 1799. He married again in 1801 and died the following year. On Feb. 5, 1802, the Boston Overseers of the Poor noted the "burial of Salem Poor a negro man belonging to the Town of Andover."

The staff at the Boston National Historical Park welcomes the new information. "It tells us about him as a whole person, not just a soldier," says ranger Daniel Gagnon. "It tells us about the life of African-Americans. It wasn't a fairy tale story."

It has long been estimated that 5,000 African-Americans fought for the patriots, but a genealogist working with Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. believes that number is low. Tens of thousands aided the British, who promised freedom in return.

Counting African-American patriots is one of Gates's current projects. "I think it's many more than 5,000," says Virginia genealogist Jane Ailes. "We're trying to find every shred of evidence so we can put together a big data base, to put a face on them individually and collectively."

Meanwhile, Lambert plans to bring his daughter to Bunker Hill.

"You can't change history and take back that our family owned slaves, but maybe by honoring Salem Poor I'm righting one of the wrongs," Lambert says. "If he has descendants, I'd love to shake hands with them."