Originally settled by Algonkian people as the village of Naumkeag ("the fishing place"), Salem's history began with its founding by the Dorchester Company as a fishing station in 1626. In this guise, the trading post became a platform for the Puritan Great Migration of the 1630s. Its pivotal location enabled the colonists to develop the town as a center for fishing, shipbuilding, and commerce.
Photo Caption: Historic New England's Gedney House
Like other colonial communities, Salem experienced the social tensions pulling its opportunity-seeking citizens away from the control of those who sought to maintain the ideal of a "city upon a hill." Such tensions undermined the stability of every colony. In Salem, they erupted in the notorious Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692-93. Despite such explosions, these no-nonsense, hardworking, energetic Saints carved out of the "Howling wilderness" America's first seaport and, through the early 1700s, the most important commercial center in the colonies.
During the next 100 years, Salem's Ornes, Pickmans, Derbys, and Crowninshields - the dynasties of its "codfish aristocracy" - innovated and refined the techniques that made the West Indies, overseas, and coastal trades an engine of the emerging American economy. Salem tacked to the winds of Revolution, refitting its schooners and sloops for privateering. Then, rebounding bravely from the post-Revolution depression, feisty Salem merchants crafted a fresh vision which encompassed new markets in the Baltic and, especially, the East. The new direction brought West Indian molasses and sugar, Cantonese tea and silk, Indian cotton and spices, South Pacific sandalwood, Arabian coffee, and Sumatran pepper to American shores.
With the calamity of Jefferson's Embargo and the rise of New York and Boston, however, the seeds of Salem's maritime decline were sown. In response, its merchant innovators turned to the next generation of business success - industrialization - or resettled in the more promising economic locations of their commercial rivals.
Over the next centuries, Salem and the North Shore continued to influence the great themes of the American past, making their own special contribution to such historical themes as westward movement, the New England literary Renaissance, the Civil War, industrialization, World Wars, Great Depression, Cold War, the Sixties, and de-industrialization.