Salem, Massachusetts, (population 40,407) was first settled in 1626. Originally called Naumkeag (Fishing Place) by Native Americans, it was renamed Salem, from the Hebrew word “shalom” (peace), in 1629.
While best known for the 1692 witch trials, Salem was also prominent in military history, beginning with the first muster on Salem Common in 1636, to which the National Guard traces its roots.
Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799) was Salem’s most prominent merchant and probably America’s first millionaire. His ships were the first to sail beyond the Cape of Good Hope, opening trade with China, then Russia, Japan, Africa, and Australia. Salem ships carried cod and lumber to the West Indies and returned with molasses, rum, spices, tea, sugar, ivory, and coffee.
By 1790, Salem was the nation’s sixth largest city, and the richest per capita. As shipping declined through the 19th century, the city turned to manufacturing. A 1970s shift in philosophy from redevelopment to preservation helped stimulate Salem’s budding tourism industry, which, along with health care and higher education, is the foundation of Salem’s current economic base.
Salem is the birthplace of author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804) and carpenter Samuel McIntyre (1757), who helped develop the Federal Style as the first uniquely American architectural design.
Among Salem’s many historic attractions are Pioneer Village, a recreation of the town as it would have appeared in 1630, and the Witch House, the only remaining Salem structure with direct ties to the 1692 witchcraft trials. The Peabody Essex Museum, founded as the East India Marine Society in 1799, encompasses historic New England homes; the Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old merchant’s home brought over from China; and the Phillips Library.
Salem also boasts the first designated National Historic Site, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The old waterfront area was designated a National Historic Site in 1938 because of the importance of commercial shipping to the early U.S. economy, the significance of the port of Salem, and the quality of the surviving seaport features. The site includes three wharves, the Custom House, and several historic residences and stores, remnants of the shipping industry that prospered in Massachusetts Bay’s oldest seaport well into the last century.
The town observes a number of annual heritage events, including Salem Heritage Days in August, the summertime Salem Maritime Festival, Sundays in September Walking Tours, and First Muster in April.
Designated a Preserve America Community in November 2008.
For more information
City of Salem Historical Commission
Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary – Maritime History of Massachusetts