Salem was founded at the mouth of the Naumkeag River in 1626 (it was originally called “Naumkeag” and was renamed “Salem” three years later) by a company of fishermen from Cape Ann led by Roger Conant, and incorporated in 1629. The name "Salem" is related to the Hebrew word "shalom" and Arabic word "salasm," both meaning "peace." “Naumkeag” also means “peace.” Conant was later supplanted by John Endicott, the governor assigned by the Massachusetts Bay Company.
In 1627, a patent was solicited from England and it was obtained by a group led by John Endicott who arrived in Naumkeag in 1628. Endicott and the other settlers of the New England Company now owned the rights to Naumkeag. Fortunately for the peaceful continuity of the settlement, Conant remained in Salem and, despite what must have been a disappointment for him, he acceded to Endicott's authority as the new governor.
Conant built the first house in Salem on what is Essex Street today, almost opposite the Town Market. In 1639, his was one of the signatures on the building contract for enlarging the meeting house in Town House Square for the First Church in Salem. This document remains part of the town records at City Hall. He was active in the affairs of the town throughout his life. In 1679, he died at the age of 87. Salem originally included much of the shore north of Boston, including Marblehead. Most of the accused in the Salem Witch trials lived in nearby 'Salem Village,' although a few lived on the outskirts, now known as Danvers. Salem Village also included Peabody and parts of present-day Beverly. Middleton, Topsfield, Wenham and Manchester-by-the-Sea, too, were once parts of Salem. One of the most widely known aspects of Salem is its history of witchcraft allegations, which started with Abigail Williams, Betty Parris, and their friends playing with something called a Venus glass and egg. Salem achieved further legal notoriety as the site of the Dorothy Talbye trial, where a mentally ill woman was hanged for murdering her daughter, because at the time the Massachusetts common law made no distinction between insanity and criminal behavior.
On February 26, 1775, patriots raised the drawbridge at the North River, preventing British Colonel Alexander Leslie and his 300 troops from seizing stores and ammunition hidden in North Salem. A few months later, in May 1775, a group of prominent merchants with ties to Salem, including Francis Cabot, William Pynchon, Thomas Barnard, E. A. Holyoke and William Pickman, felt the need to publish a statement retracting what some interpreted as Loyalist leanings and to profess their dedication to the Colonial cause.
During the Revolution, the town became a center for privateering. By 1790, Salem was the sixth largest city in the country, and it was a world-famous seaport, particularly in trade with China. Codfish was exported to the West Indies and to Europe. Sugar and molasses were imported from the West Indies, tea from China, and pepper from Sumatra. Salem ships also visited Africa, Russia, Japan and Australia. During the War of 1812, privateering resumed.
Prosperity would leave the city with a wealth of fine architecture, including Federal-style mansions designed by one of America's first architects, Samuel McIntire, for whom the city's largest historic district is named. This collection of homes and mansions from Colonial America are now the greatest concentrations of notable pre-1900 domestic structures in the United States.
The wealth of architecture in Salem can be directly attributed to the Old China Trade, which was ongoing for years with America and Great Britain. Incorporated as a city on March 23, 1836, Salem adopted a city seal in 1839 with the motto "Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum," Latin for "To the farthest port of the rich East." Nathaniel Hawthorne was overseer of the port from 1846 until 1849. He worked in the Customs House near Pickering Wharf, his setting for the beginning of The Scarlet Letter. In 1858, an amusement park was established at Salem Willows, a peninsula jutting into the harbor. It should be noted that up until the War of 1812, the port of Salem, Massachusetts was the center of trade in America.
However, shipping would decline through the 19th century. Salem and its silting harbor were increasingly eclipsed by Boston and New York. Consequently, Salem turned to manufacturing. Industries included tanneries, shoe factories and the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company. More than 400 homes burned in the Great Salem Fire of 1914, leaving 3,500 families homeless from a blaze that began in the Korn Leather Factory. The fire ripped into one part of the city, but historical places including Chestnut Street and City Hall were spared from the fire, leaving much of Salem's architectural legacy intact, which helped it develop as a center for tourism.