History of Salem, Massachusetts

Salem was founded at the mouth of the  Naumkeag River in 1626, at the site of an ancient Native American village and trading center.  It was originally called Naumkeag and was renamed Salem three years later by a company of fishermen from Cape Ann led by Roger Conant, and incorporated in 1629. Conant’s leadership had provided the stability to survive the first two years, but he was immediately replaced by John Endecott, one of the new arrivals, by order of the Dorchester Company. Conant graciously stepped aside and was granted 200 acres of land in compensation. The new and old Planters agreed to cooperate, in large part due to the diplomacy of Conant and Endicott. In recognition of this peaceful transition to the new government, the name of the settlement was changed to Salem, a corruption of the Hebrew word ‘shalom’.

One of the most widely known aspects of Salem is its history of witchcraft allegations,  which started with  Abigail Williams her cousin, Betty Parris, and their friends playing with a Venus glass and egg.  William Hathorne’s son, Judge John Harthorne, came to prominence during this period. People generally believed witchcraft to be real. Nothing caused more fear in the Puritan community than people who appeared to be possessed by demons, and witchcraft was a serious felony. Judge Hathorne is the best known of the witch trial judges, and he became known as the “Hanging Judge” for sentencing witches to death.

Salem and the Revolutionary War

On February 26, 1775, patriots raised the drawbridge at the North River, preventing British Colonel Alexander Leslie and his 300 troops of the 64th Regiment of Foot from seizing stores and ammunition hidden in North Salem. A few months later, in May 1775, a group of prominent merchants with ties to Salem, including Francis Cabot, William Pynchon, Thomas Barnard, E.A. Holyoke and William Pickman, felt the need to publish a statement retracting what some interpreted as Loyalist leanings and to profess their dedication to the Colonial cause.

During the Revolution the town became a center for privateering. Although the documentation is incomplete, about 1,700  Letters of Marque issued on a per-voyage basis, were granted during the American Revolution. Nearly 800 vessels were commissioned as privateers and are credited with capturing or destroying about 600 British ships. By 1790, Salem was the sixth largest city in the country, and a world-famous seaport – particularly in China trade. Codfish was exported to the West Indies and Europe. Sugar and molasses were imported from the West Indies,  tea from China, and pepper from  Sumatra. Salem ships also visited Africa, Russia, Japan and Australia. 

Prosperity left the city with a wealth of fine  architecture including Federal style mansions designed by one of America’s first architects Samuel McIntire, for whom the city’s largest historic district is named. These homes and mansions from Colonial America now comprise the greatest concentrations of notable pre-1900 domestic structures in the United States!

Both Britain and France imposed trade restrictions in order to weaken each others economies. This also had the effect of disrupting American trade and testing the United States’ neutrality. As time went on, harassment by the British of American ships increased by the  British Navy. This included impressment and seizures of American men and goods. After the Chesapeake Leopard Affair, Thomas Jefferson was faced with a decision to make regarding the situation at hand. In the end, he chose an economic option: the Embargo Act of 1807 and Thomas Jefferson basically closed all the ports overnight, putting a little damper on the seaport town of Salem. The embargo of 1807 was the starting point on the path to the War of 1812 with  Great Britain. 

Salem was incorporated as a city on March 23, 1836.  and adopted a city seal in 1839 with the motto “Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum”, latin for “To the farthest port of the rich Indies.”  Nathaniel Hawthorne was overseer of the port from 1846 until 1849. He worked in the Customs House near Pickering Wharf, his setting for the beginning of The Scarlet Letter. In 1858, an amusement park was established at Salem Willows, a peninsula jutting into the harbor. It should be noted that up until the War of 1812, the port of Salem was a major center of trade in America.

The book “The Salem-India Story” written by Vanita Shastri narrates the adventures of the Salem seamen who connected the far corners of the globe through trade. 1788–1845 marks the beginning of US-India relations, long before the 21st century wave of globalization. It reveals the global trade connections that Salem had established with faraway lands, which were a source of livelihood and prosperity for many.

But shipping declined throughout the 19th century. Salem and its harbor were increasingly eclipsed by Boston and New York. Consequently, the city turned to manufacturing. Industries included tanneries, shoe factories and the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company. More than 400 homes burned in the Great Salem Fire of 1914, leaving 3,500 families homeless from a blaze that began in the Korn Leather Factory. The historic concentration of Federal architecture on Chestnut Street were spared.

Salem was one of the most significant seaports in early America. It has the first National Historic Site designated by Congress,  Salem Maritime National Historic Site which protects Salem’s historic waterfront.

America’s first millionaires lived in Salem. They made their money in overseas trade, and brought plenty of precious cargo and money home to Salem. The legacy of their wealth lines Salem’s streets in the forms of incomparable architecture and unique museums. Their legacies can be witnessed at the Peabody Essex Museum, the House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the Stephen Phillips Memorial Trust House.

Salem Designated as National Guard Birthplace

In 1637, the first muster on Salem Common where for the first time, a regiment of militia drilled for the common defense of a multi-community area thus laying the foundation for what became the Army National Guard. Each April, the Second Corps of Cadets gather in front of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, where their founder, Stephen Abbott, is buried. They lay a wreath, play taps and fire a 21-gun salute. In another annual commemoration, soldiers gather at Old Salem Armory to honor soldiers who were killed in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Coast Guard Air Station Salem was located at Winter Island an extension of Salem Neck which juts out into Salem Harbor. 

 In 1952, notable playwriter, Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible which is dramatization of the Salem which trials.

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