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Salem: A Brief History

"Salem, from shalom, the Hebrew word for "peace."- Emerson BakerIn 1620,

Charles Upham's Map of Salem


In 1620, King James I granted a charter for the Massachusetts Bay Company. What would eventually become the hub of democracy in the United States began as a commercial venture. "Salem was the first settlement of Massachusetts Bay, and though it was quickly eclipsed in size and authority by Boston, it would remain the second most important settlement in Massachusetts Bay throughout the colonial era." (Baker 70) Present-day Salem is referred to as a small town in Massachusetts, but in the 1600's, Salem was prosperous and integral to the success of Massachusetts Bay.

Salem was founded by Roger Conant, of Devonshire, England. He first immigrated to Plymouth, MA. From there, he moved to the fishing community of Cape Ann and became Governor. In 1626, Conant led a small group of about 20 families to Naumkeag (Salem, MA). The "Old Planters," as he and his group were known, resided in Salem's northern portion of the harbor. Roger Conant lost his place as Governor of Salem after John Endicott arrived. The two factions learned to coexist with each other. However, in 1671, Conant petitioned the General Court for independence from Salem, and the area inhabited by the Old Planters officially became Beverly, MA.

In 1628, a patent was obtained by John Endicott for Naumkeag. The Massachusetts Bay Company smartly granted land to "every man who transported himself at his charge fifty acres of land, and lots, in distinction from farms, to those who should choose to settle and build in towns." (Upham 11) The practice of granting larger tracts of land to free men who established themselves as community leaders allowed Endicott to become the largest landholder (known as Orchard Farms) in Salem. His landholdings would eventually lead to taking over as Governor of Massachusetts after the death of John Winthrop.

Salem in the mid 17th century essentially became two interdependent towns, Salem Town and Salem Village. Salem Town was located on the harbor and had access to several rivers, including the North River and South River. The proximity to water gave Salem Town the ability to grow a fishing and trade industry. Its importance lay in the direct route to Europe and its trade with the West Indies. A fact that "unwittingly helped enslave Africans, as the lower-quality cod it produced fed slaves on the English sugar plantations of the Caribbean." (Baker 47) To the west of Salem Town lay Salem Farms, later to be known as Salem Village. Salem Village inhabitants worked the land and provided crops, goods, trade, lumber, pork, and beef transported to the West Indies and Europe.

Salem Town multiplied from a small settlement to a major port for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. "In the 1690s, twenty-six Salem men owned twenty-one vessels averaging fifty tons each and comprising 12 percent of the total tonnage in Massachusetts. While this left Salem behind dominant Boston, it did make her—as the 1683 legislations had recognized—the only other really significant mercantile center in the colony." (Boyer and Nissenbaum 87)

Wealth multiplied in Salem Town, townspeople that owned land in the Salem Village area began to sell or lease their plots to focus on the Town's mercantilism. This growth in Salem Town allowed the inhabitants of the Village to gain larger tracts of land. However, the two areas did not grow at the same rate, the access to wealth was disproportionate between Salem Town and Salem Village. “What happened, in fact, was that the prosperity of the Town had polarized the distribution of its wealth and propelled into a position of clear dominance a single group of men: the merchants.” (Boyer, Nissenbaum 87) The Villagers were decidedly separate from this new aristocracy.

However, the relationship was not yet contentious. The Villagers viewed the prosperity of the town as opportunity for themselves. The seeking of wealth and political power was by definition immoral to Puritans. The Villagers believed the Puritan covenant with God would be enough to create a symbiotic relationship between the two locales. The most prominent members of the Village seemed to have loyalty to the Town, additionally, because the Village never independently established its own town center, the taverns along Ipswich Road were the only commerce the Village had. This is where the fractures began to appear in the landscape.

Salem's geography in the mid 1600’s included present-day Peabody, Marblehead, Middleton, Beverly, Manchester, Wenham, Topsfield, and Swampscott. These towns were able to establish themselves with relative ease, however when Salem Village sought its independence in the 1660s, the Town pushed back. Despite the success of Salem Town’s merchant trade, they were still dependent upon the Villagers for tradeable goods and tax revenue. The Villagers’ complaints about the length of travel to Sunday church services and the obligations of Town night watch fell on deaf ears.

The Villagers moved to seek resolution within the General Court of Massachusetts Bay. “Scores of petitions, resolutions, depositions, and protests bear witness to the tenacity and ingenuity with which both sides pursued the conflict.” (Boyer, Nissenbaum 40) The General Court granted the Villagers reprieve from military night watch if the travel distance was more than four miles. Despite the General Court’s decision however, the Town still filed papers with the county court against Village residents, for refusing to participate in militia service.

In 1666 the Village members decided to take a new approach to their independence by asking the town for permission to hire their own minister. If granted, the Village farmers could build their own church membership which would help them in their quest to separate from Salem Town. In 1672, after a General Court decision, Salem Town granted the Villagers the ability to build their own meeting house and have their own church services.

However, the Village was still considered a part of Salem Town, and the inhabitants were obligated to pay town taxes. Additionally, the ruling only gave the Villagers the ability to hire a minister and build a meeting house, it did not give them the right to establish a true church with a membership. The hierarchy of the Puritan religion heavily depended upon its members and elders. Without this right the Villagers were unable to have their own identity separate from the Town. This deepened their angst and resentment; this would be most evident in the controversy in how Salem Village chose their subsequent ministers. As we shall see, the establishment of a separate church would be a significant factor to the outbreak of witchcraft accusations in 1692.

The Massachusetts Bay Charter would be revoked in 1684 by Charles II and would not be reestablished until early 1692. This revocation would directly affect how the Witch Trials were carried out in 1692. Salem also played a large role in King Phillip’s War and the Treaty of Casco by providing militia and refuge for displaced colonial families. The tax burden of this war would lead to even further unrest in Salem, and essentially sealed the fate of Reverend George Burroughs during the Witch Trials. The significance of Salem’s history is important not only as a backdrop for the Salem Witch Trials but was significant in the slave trade of the Caribbean and the Revolutionary War almost a century later.


Sources Used:

Boyer, Paul; Nissenbaum, S. (1974). Salem Possessed. Harvard University Press.

Baker, E. W. (2015). A Storm of Witchcraft. Oxford University Press.

Upham, C. W. (1867). Salem Witchcraft. Dover Books.

Washburn, E. (n.d.). Sketches of the Judicial History of Massachusetts from 1630 to the Revolution in 1775. Forgotten Books.

SalemWeb. (n.d.).

Salem Witch Trials: Documentry Archive and Transcript Project. (n.d.).

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