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History of Salem

In Salem, Mass. we are still making history. Only here can you climb aboard a reconstructed 1797 merchant ship, tour America’s oldest continuously-operated museum, and immerse yourself in the stories surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692 – all in the same day!

Long before English colonizers arrived, the land we call Salem today was home to a thriving indigenous community. The Naumkeag band of the Massachusett tribe used this area as a seasonal fishing village. Salem’s stories include the history of its name – which means “City of Peace” – and the conflicts that occurred in the 1600s, shortly after the name was given. Early settlers struggled to survive in Salem, and their struggles have left a mark on this city that has endured nearly four centuries.

Due to a combination of social, religious, political and legal factors, 14 women and five men were hanged for the crime of witchcraft in Salem in 1692. Another man was pressed to death for refusing to stand trial, and an additional five people died in jail. This was at a time when most European people believed that witches were real and could cause harm. It is estimated that between c. 1550 – 1750, about 50,000 people were legally executed for the crime of witchcraft in Europe and its colonies. Before 1692, witch trials in New England had generally been infrequent, local occurrences involving few people. The Salem trials were different mainly because of the sheer number of people — about 175 — accused during the course of the crisis. 

The Witch Trials lasted for a short period of American history but left an indelible mark. The post-1692 history saw the rise of Salem as a global force in fishing, shipbuilding, overseas trade – where millions of dollars were made by Salem sea captains in what’s known as the Great Age of Sail. In the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution brought leather tanneries and cotton mills to Salem. As a New England seaport, Salem’s merchants played various roles in the Atlantic Slave Trade in the 1700 and 1800s and many were enslavers in Salem.

America’s first millionaires lived in Salem. Their fortunes were made in the Great Age of Sail and the legacy of this time can be seen in the forms of incomparable architecture and unique museums. Of national note, the city was also home to the first muster in 1637 on Salem Common, marking the birthplace of the National Guard.

Salem has been a popular destination for hundreds of years. Visitors include Presidents George Washington and John Quincy Adams, and artists Maurice Prendergast and Edward Hopper. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell called Salem home as did popular Impressionist artists Philip Little and Frank Benson. In popular culture, Salem has been featured in a number of television shows and movies including Bewitched, Hocus Pocus, Hubie Halloween and many more.

Salem is worth a visit for a day or a stay. Besides the history, Salem is home to a vibrant culinary and arts community and the harbor side location is breathtaking in all seasons.  To learn more about the history and activities, please visit Destination Salem. To learn more about Salem’s connection to the region, please visit North of Boston