History And Culture Of Salem

Salem was settled on a prehistoric Native American village and a great trading center. Settled as a fishing and farming village in 1626 by leader Roger Conant (for which a large statue overlooks Salem Common), Salem is as prosperous today as it was in ancient times. Named Salem after the Hebrew word Shalom, meaning peace, the town has never forgotten its past. Here, you'll get a brief history of Salem, and learn why its past defines its present.


The site of Salem was originally a Native American village and flourishing trading center, based on archaeological work. Roger Conant led a fishing crew to settle the village in 1626. The village succeeded based on both farming and fishing. It was named Naumkeag, which means "fishing place" by the Native Americans. Two years later John Endecott of the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought more settlers and became the village leader. Soon after, the village name was changed to Salem.

Witchcraft Trials

Salem is without question most noted for the infamous witch trials that took place here and in nearby Danvers, which was then part of Salem. Nineteen hangings and one crushing were a result of the witch trials that began when both the daughter and niece of a Reverend both became mysteriously ill. As more girls became afflicted with the unknown illness and cried out a supposed townspersons name, hundreds more were imprisoned to await a similar fate with some dying in jail. In 1692, when the trials took place until stopped by the state governor and prisoners released, Salem was a Puritan town with strict laws. The scared residents were fueled by rigid Puritan dogma and the difficulties of life around then, such as smallpox epidemic, threats of war from Native American tribes, feuding families, disgruntled bordering towns, and strong belief in the devil and dark witches with the power to change shape and become invisible to those they tormented. It also believed that the Reverend may have used the girls' illness to build up the church's fading power.


Salem became a major maritime seaport in the 1700s with fishing, shipbuilding and trading flourishing. Trading with Russia, West Indies, China, Africa and Europe helped make the seaport the sixth largest city in the country in 1790, and one of the richest. Many grand homes of Federal architecture, cultural institutions and museums (Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continually operated museum in the U.S.) were begun during this prosperous time in Salem's history. Samuel McIntire, a woodcarver and architect, contributed widely to the structures of the period. A historic district is named in his honor to showcase these buildings. Visit the Salem Maritime National Historic Site to see Salem's rich seaworthy history.

Wartime and Beyond

Its worth as a seaport has also helped during wartime. During the U.S. Revolutionary War, Salem's fleet captured or sunk as many as 600 British ships. Ships were also used in the War of 1812. On February 15, 1935, the U.S. Coast Guard had a seaplane facility in Salem for medical evacuations that proved very useful in locating vessels in trouble. During World War II, these planes patrolled the coast, but in 1970 the air-sea rescue facility was moved to Cape Cod. In 1637 the Army National Guard was essentially begun to help a community in need. To honor this, President Barack Obama in 2013 declared Salem the birthplace of the U.S. National Guard.


With its seaport trading declining in the 1800s, Salem turned to manufacturing and retail. Tanning, cotton and shoes were all manufactured in Salem. Nathaniel Hawthorne, the son of a sea captain, was born in Salem in 1804, worked in the Customs House and saw the rise of industries. His famous books ("The Scarlet Letter" and House of the Seven Gables") are considered classics today. See the house that inspired the latter book. A fire that started in a leather factory in 1914 left thousands without work and homeless.

Culture Defined

With its rich fishing, architectural and seafaring history, Salem is today defined more by the witchcraft trials than any other time in its history. Its police cars are emblazoned with a witch logo, a high school sports team is called the Witches, an elementary school is named Witchcraft Heights, Gallows Hills is now a sports field, witch attractions are plenty and Wiccan culture is prominent. Building on its darker history, almost laughing at it to ensure it won't happen again, is what makes Salem shine at Halloween. Halloween is not just one day, but 31 days. All of October is part of the Halloween celebration with haunted houses, costume parties, historic tours, psychic and tarot readings and magic/witch shops, all culminating in Halloween itself. Salem is "Halloween City."


Today, Salem benefits from its past. It is a tourist destination for all that want to view spectacular examples of Federal-period architecture, learn about early seaport days, relive the witchcraft trials or just go shopping and enjoy the ocean. Salem lives for its past, while letting the future in.

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