Salem was first settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and his associates who came from a fishing settlement at Cape Ann (14-miles to the northeast), four years before the settlement of Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The first colony of settlers arrived in 1628 under the leadership of Captain John Endicott. The Indian name for the locality was Naumkeag. At first the settlement was named Naumkeag, but the settlers preferred to call it Salem, derived from the Hebrew word for peace.
Upon this being settled, John Winthrop, with others, joined the company, and he was elected its governor on the 29th of October, 1629. On the 12th of June, 1630, he arrived in Salem, and held his first court at Charlestown on the 28th of August. (Upham)
Everyone who had received a town lot of half an acre was allowed to relinquish it, receiving, in exchange, a country lot of fifty acres or more. Under this system, a population of a superior order was led out into the forest. Farms quickly spread into the interior, seeking the meadows, occupying the arable land, and especially following up the streams. (Upham)
Salem Village was a fast-growing farming area on the northern edge of Salem Town. The town was a prosperous port engaged in commerce, fishing, shipbuilding, and other activities associated with a trading and urban area. The village, roughly 5 to 7 miles from the town’s meeting house, constituted, in effect, a parish or ward of the town, and served as its agricultural hinterland.
The 1692 population of Salem Town and Village was about 2,000 residents, with Salem Village numbering between 500 and 600. (Tulane)
Witchcraft Craze in Europe
A “witchcraft craze” rippled through Europe from the 1300s to the end of the 1600s. Because of religious changes, people became more interested in the devil and heresy. This led the elite in the Church to construct an idea of witches who were the devil’s servants and who plotted to kill and harm Christians.
The factors that promoted the Witch Craze included the growing Catholic and Protestant rivalry and the need to ensure the population’s religious conformity. Then there were the genuine social tensions because of the endemic warfare, inflation, economic changes, and social change.
This created a situation where there was a need to control the population, and witches were used to venting popular discontent and warn the poor not to become rebellious.
Women were the chief victims of the Witchcraft Craze, and this was due to social change where single women increased in numbers, which led to tensions, and these were released in widespread charge of witchcraft against unmarried females. Tens of thousands of supposed witches – mostly women – were executed.
Fear and Suspicion in Salem
There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village families and rivalry with nearby Salem Town combined with a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion.
In 1689, English rulers William and Mary started a war with France in the American colonies. Known as King William’s War to colonists, it ravaged regions of upstate New York, Nova Scotia and Quebec, sending refugees into the county of Essex and, specifically, Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (Salem Village is present-day Danvers, Massachusetts; colonial Salem Town became what’s now Salem.)
The displaced people created a strain on Salem’s resources. This aggravated the existing rivalry between families with ties to the wealth of the port of Salem and those who still depended on agriculture.
In addition to all this, the whole sea-coast was exposed to danger: ruthless pirates were continually prowling along the shores. Commerce was nearly extinguished, and great losses had been experienced by men in business. A recent expedition against Canada had exposed the colonies to the vengeance of France. (Upham)
The province was encumbered with oppressive taxes, and weighed down by a heavy debt. The whole amounted, no doubt, inclusive of the support of the ministry, to a weight of taxation, considering the greater value of money at that time, of which we have no experience, and can hardly form an adequate conception. The burden pressed directly upon the whole community.
In the midst of this general distress and local gloom and depression, the great and awful tragedy, whose incidents, scenes, and took place. (Upham)
Salem Witch Trails
Soon, prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem; their names had been “cried out” by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England – the practice of witchcraft.
Controversy also brewed over Reverend Samuel Parris, who became Salem Village’s first ordained minister in 1689, and was disliked because of his rigid ways and greedy nature. The Puritan villagers believed all the quarreling was the work of the Devil.
In January of 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits.” They screamed, threw things, uttered peculiar sounds and contorted themselves into strange positions. Another girl, Ann Putnam, age 11, experienced similar episodes. (Hayton, Smithsonian)
William Griggs, the village doctor, was called in when they failed to improve. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in arresting between 140 and 150 people for witchcraft and the hanging deaths of 19 men and women. In addition, one man was pressed to death; several others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed.
Following the trials and executions, many involved publicly confessed error and guilt. On January 14, 1697, the General Court ordered a day of fasting and soul-searching for the tragedy of Salem. In 1702, the court declared the trials unlawful.
In 1711, the colony passed a bill restoring the rights and good names of those accused and granted 578 pounds 12 shillings (total) restitution to their heirs.
It was not until 1957 – more than 250 years later – that Massachusetts formally apologized for the events of 1692.
In August 1992, to mark the 300th anniversary of the trials, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel dedicated the Witch Trials Memorial in Salem. Also in Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum houses the original court documents, and the town’s most-visited attraction, the Salem Witch Museum, attests to the public’s enthrallment with the 1692 hysteria. (Hayton, Smithsonian Magazine)
“These people were victims of hysteria, and they paid deeply with their lives,” said Massachusetts State Representative Paul E. Tirone.
The history lesson, he said, is one that modern Americans should keep in mind, if they are tempted to eye their neighbors with suspicion.
“Sometimes when things like this happen we need to take a breath, and look at it,” Tirone said. ”We just can’t paint blame with a wide brush.” (NY Times)
Click the following link to a general summary about the Salem Witch Trials: