History of Salem

The Seventeenth Century

During the winter of 1623-1624, a fishing settlement was established on Cape Ann by England's Dorchester Company. After three years of struggle on rocky, stormy Cape Ann, a group of the settlers, led by Roger Conant, set out to establish a more permanent settlement. They found sheltered, fertile land at the mouth of the Naumkeag River.

The new settlement, called Naumkeag, or "Fishing Place" by the Native Americans, thrived on farming and fishing. In 1629 the settlement was renamed Salem for Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace.

The Salem Witch Trials of 1692

In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village became ill. William Griggs, the village doctor, was called in when they failed to improve. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the hanging deaths of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; several others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed.

To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village families and rivalry with nearby Salem Town combined with a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon, prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem; their names had been "cried out" by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England - the practice of witchcraft.

In June of 1692, the special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) sat in Salem to hear the cases of witchcraft. Presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton, the court was made up of magistrates and jurors. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem who was found guilty and was hanged on June 10. Thirteen women and five men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows on three successive hanging days before the court was disbanded by Governor William Phipps in October of that year. The Superior Court of Judicature, formed to replace the "witchcraft" court, did not allow spectral evidence. This belief in the power of the accused to use their invisible shapes or spectres to torture their victims had sealed the fates of those tried by the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The new court released those awaiting trial and pardoned those awaiting execution. In effect, the Salem witch trials were over.

As years passed, apologies were offered and restitution was made to the victims' families. Historians and sociologists have examined this most complex episode in our history so that we may understand the issues of that era and view subsequent events with heightened awareness. The parallels between the Salem witch trials and more modem examples of "witch hunting" like the McCarthy hearings of the 1950's, are remarkable.

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Maritime Salem

In the eighteenth century, Salem developed into a major fishing, shipbuilding and maritime trade center. Thanks to its burgeoning codfish trade with the West Indies and Europe, the town grew and prospered. As Salem grew, so too did the power struggle between the colonies and England. In 1774, a Provincial Congress was organized in Salem and the political revolution began. Two months before the battles in Lexington and Concord, skirmishes broke out in Salem. Salem's fleet contributed mightily to the war effort, capturing or sinking 455 British vessels.

By 1790, Salem was the sixth largest city in the country, and the richest per capita. International trade with Europe, the West Indies, China, Africa and Russia produced great wealth and prosperity in Salem. Entrepreneurial spirit and unflappable courage among Salem's sea captains enhanced Salem's success as a dominant seaport. Salem merchants built magnificent homes, established museums and other cultural institutions.

Salem architect and wood carver Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) was employed by many of the sea captains and is responsible for stunning Federal-style architecture and ornamental carving throughout Salem. McIntire's peak years as an artist coincided with Salem's peak years as a successful shipping port. This combination has left Salem with one of the grandest collections of Federal style architecture in the world.

Salem is home to the tall ship Friendship, which is a full-scale replica of a 1797 East Indiaman merchant tall ship. Part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, tours of Friendship are available daily.

In addition to the legacy of homes and buildings, Salem's sea captains left behind a museum through which to share their exploration with Salem residents and visitors to the city. The Peabody Essex Museum is the oldest continually operated museum in the country and was founded by sea captains in 1799. In addition to collections from around the globe, visitors to the Peabody Essex Museum can see the model of the Friendship used to recreate the ship.

Learn more:

  • Salem: Maritime Salem in the Age of Sail (National Park Service Handbook) Paperback – February 13, 2003
  • Salem Cornerstones (Paperback), by Joseph Flibbert (Author), K. Goss (Author), Bryant Tolles (Author), Richard Trask (Author)


Nineteenth and Twentieth Century

American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4th, 1804, at the peak of Salem's prosperity. The son of a sea captain, Hawthorne watched the decline of Salem's involvement with lucrative foreign trade and the rise of industry in Salem. While working in the Custom House, which is open to the public, Hawthorne wrote his novel The Scarlet Letter. Rumor has it that Hawthorne discovered the red "A" in the attic of the custom house where he worked. Another Hawthorne novel, The House of the Seven Gables made famous the home of his cousin, Susannah Ingersoll. Today the House of the Seven Gables Settlement site includes the famous mansion and Hawthorne's birthplace and is open to the public.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Salem evolved into an important manufacturing and retail center. Irish and French Canadian immigrants poured into Salem to work on its new leather and shoe factories or at the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, Italian and Eastern European immigrants began arriving in the early 1900s to take advantage of Salem's prosperity. By 1914, the population of Salem had swelled to 40,000.

In 1914 the Great Salem Fire swept through Salem, destroying 1,376 buildings and leaving 18,000 families homeless.

Learn more:

  • The Great Salem Fire of 1914: Images from the Phillips Library Collection Paperback, by Barbara Pero Kampas