Salem's History

When did the Puritans settle? How many hanged in the witch trials?

How did merchant shipping make Salem the country's wealthiest city per capita? What about the Great Fire of 1914?

Read highlights of Salem's history, incredible!

  • Puritan family
  • Salem witch trial
  • Salem shipping
  • Salem harbor 1770s
  • Great-Salem-Fire
  • Salem: Willows Park

Salem's settlement

1692 & Peace?

Europeans settled Salem in 1626, when Roger Conant's fishermen arrived. Two years later, he yielded leadership in government to John Endecott. Since this transition was peaceful, the settlement's name became "Salem," of semitic origin ("salaam" in Arabic, "shalom" in Hebrew), meaning "peace, fulfillment, well-being."

Puritans in Massachusetts sought religious freedom, but were intolerant of other religions or denominations. Authoritarian with themselves, they suppressed individualism in favor of shared religious experiences. Labor and dogmatism were the best signals of honesty and integrity.

Puritans feared demons, considering witchcraft a felony. In June 1692, the odd behavior of two girls aroused demonic fears, leading to the Salem witch trials, with at least 19 hanging at Gallows Hill, now a park.

Shipping around 1800

Privateers & China

During the Revolution, Salem launched many privateers. Given some 1,700 letters of marque, nearly 800 vessels voyaged as privateers and captured or destroyed some 600 British ships.

By 1790, Salem was the country's sixth largest city, and wealthiest per capita. Its port was among the world's busiest, with miles of wharves, exuding the fragrances of tea, pepper and cinnamon imported from China and East India. in addition, Salem exported codfish to Europe and the West Indies, and imported sugar and molasses from the West Indies. The merchant expeditions to China would trade along the way with Europe and Africa, turning over the merchandise four or five times.

"Boston was the Spain, Salem the Portugal, in the race for Oriental opulence," according to historian Samuel Morison. Its seafaring prowess was recorded in Salem's city seal of 1839: "Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum", meaning "To the farthest port of the rich Indies." Much of this maritime era is preserved in the Peabody Essex museum, the nation's oldest continuously operated, including even Chinese buildings. The painting here depicts tea production in China.

Yet the War of 1812 destroyed the merchant fleet, and thereafter shipping lost business to Boston and New York, in part due to its silting harbor.


Regeneration & fire

In the 1800s, industry of tanning leathers and shoemaking regenerated Salem's economy as shipping was retiring.

However, it was a leather factory in 1914, some 100 years later, that set off the Great Salem Fire. Over 400 homes burned down, 1350 buildings affected, leaving over 20,000 homeless and 10,000 jobless.

Surviving the fire was the Samuel McIntire Historic District, now the greatest concentration of 17th and 18th century domestic structures in America, as well as City Hall, America's oldest continually run city hall.


Cliffs Notes - Salem's Puritans - Salem's history - Salem: Historical Profile
Smithsonian Magazine - Shipping in Salem
Wikipedia Great Salem Fire of 1914
Wikipedia - Salem - history