Salem, Massachusetts Historical Background

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United States Genealogy > Massachusetts > Essex County > Salem > Historical background

Historical Background[edit | edit source]

Salem Village was founded at the mouth of the Naumkeag River in 1626. It was originally called Naumkeag (a Wampanoag Indian name) until it was renamed three years later. Settlers came from England after reading books published by Captain John Smith about the glories of this new country. The books were distributed to gentry in the principal towns of Cornwall and Devonshire, England. A patent was granted by King James on November 3, 1620 to the Duke of Lenox and a council of about forty men to rule and govern the planting in New England. Captain John Mason and William Bushnell were commissioned on May 29, 1620 to secure the land and suppress the neighborhood.[1] They arrived in about 1621.

The colonists that propagated this land were a break-off of the Plymouth colony. Roger Conant, a religious Puritan, who had come in 1622 was not in sympathy with the Pilgrim’s religious position and removed to Nantasket which is a beach community on the shores of Salem.  Roger Conant directed a company of fisherman.[1]  The town was incorporated in 1629 under the name Salem a derivative of Jerusalem meaning city of peace.

Salem Village, which was originally a parish to Salem, is now called Danver’s Massachusetts.    This city is in the county of Essex.  The county was created by the Massachusetts General Court on May 10, 1643, when it was ordered "that the whole plantation within this jurisdiction be divided into four sheires".[2]   Essex initially contained Salem, Lynn, Wenham, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Gloucester, and Andover.  It now has two county seats, Salem and Lawrence. Its county government was abolished in 1999 and consolidated under the state. The county records for colonial periods are housed in the Massachusetts Archives. The original court system from 1600 to the Revolutionary War was ecclesiastical based English system and jurisdictions were by parish. The king of England directed the courts according to Charters, so tax records and ecclesiastical courts were held in quarter sessions. Wills and probates for the seventeenth and eighteenth century are currently housed in the Massachusetts Archives as well as the early court records.  For wills of the nineteenth and twentieth century there is the Probate Office of Essex County  located in Salem. This office holds printed, transcribed versions of wills from 1635 to 1681.

Early map collections, journals, histories and diaries are not held in public libraries but more specifically special historical institute libraries. Cemetery surveys are best referenced in databases online or at NEHGS. The book by David Allen Lambert, of NEHGS, Guide to Massachusetts Cemeteries, is a prime source.

  1. 1.0 1.1 Sidney Perley, "History of Salem, Massachusetts 1626-1637 Vol 1 (Salem, Massachusetts: S. Perley, 1924-1928) pp 54-55, 62 & 78.
  2. William T. Davis "Bench and Bar of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Boston, Massachusetts: the Boston History Company, 1895) p 44.