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How is a sense of place created, imagined, and reinterpreted over time? That is the intriguing question addressed in this comprehensive look at the 400-year history of Salem, Massachusetts, and the experiences of fourteen generations of people who lived in a place mythologized in the public imagination by the horrific witch trials and executions of 1692 and 1693.
But from its settlement in 1626 to the present, Salem was, and is, much more than this. In this volume, contributors from a variety of fields examine Salem’s multiple urban identities: frontier outpost of European civilization, cosmopolitan seaport, gateway to the Far East, refuge for religious diversity, center for education, and of course, “Witch City” tourist attraction.
EMERSON W. BAKER II
... the pavements of the Main-street must be laid over the red man's grave. -Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Main-street"
Before there was Salem, there was Naumkeag. The Native American name, from the ancient Algonkian language, translates as "the fishing place" and explains why, for centuries before the arrival of English settlers, Native American peoples set their villages along the harbor. Overlooking Massachusetts Bay, reed-thatched weetos, or wigwams, nestled within a ring of wooden palisade fencing. Lazy smoke drifted upward through openings at the tops of these traditional native homes, and wafted over the sparkling waters. It was to the fishing place at Naumkeag that the first wave of English settlers came to plant their Puritan village in 1626. They christened it Salem, after the Old Testament city of peace, a condition they hoped to find in a New World that would be safe from the harassing policies of their king and church.
Puritan Salem began as an outpost on the margins of the English world. It was the original settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was, as well, a borderland-a place of negotiation and accommodation between English and Native American cultures. In time, Salem would come to be known as a bustling cosmopolitan port with a substantial hinterland and numerous overseas trading spheres. It is difficult for us to imagine this community as contested ground, yet in the first half of the seventeenth century, Salem was such a place-a frontier in which natives and pioneers struggled for control. The geographic reality of Naumkeag's rich resources influenced seventeenth-century Salem profoundly and echoes throughout the subsequent history of the town.
Naumkeag, Native American Homeland
For modern readers, Naumkeag and Salem are just two names for the same place. For seventeenth-century Algonkians, however, the names invoked much more. To them, Salem was a name imposed on the place by newcomers. They were told the name meant "peace" in Hebrew and expressed the newcomers' intention to build a community that would be devout in spirit and in harmony with their neighbors-although the Puritans' armor and blunderbusses may have raised some skepticism. The name Naumkeag carried no such ideological connotations. Instead, "the fishing place" was a practical description of a harbor and river that provided the bounty important for the Algonkians' survival. It was the name given by their ancestors, who had occupied the land for generations and who even called themselves "the Naumkeag" to express their integration into this place. Furthermore, the Naumkeag extended the meaning of the name to encompass a tribal territory that occupied much of the coastal north shore of Massachusetts Bay. So, while Naumkeag was a distinct location, the word also referred to a people and to their larger homeland. Existing side by side during the 1620s, these names-Naumkeag and Salem-implied to Native American and English inhabitants the collision of cultures that would necessarily come about in a contested space. As the history of this place unfolded, the Native American inhabitants may have begun to recognize the irony that the founding of a city named for peace would result in so much death and misery.
The renaming of Naumkeag is an example of what can be called an "imperialism of the map." English settlers and explorers very quickly renamed the landscape of New England, to give it a more familiar feel, to promote the region to potential settlers and financial backers, and to make a clear statement of their possession of the land. John Smith had begun this process in 1616 when he created his map of New England. Smith knew the Native American place names, but he renamed these locations after English towns and citizens. Naumkeag became Smith's "Bristol." Although this name, like most of Smith's labels, did not stick, the English continued to rename and thus affirm their ownership of the region.
The names Salem and Naumkeag carry additional layers of meaning for the modern historian who researches through dusty documents to gain an understanding of different peoples' sense of place and of the significance of toponomy-the meanings of place names. An examination of surviving seventeenth-century court records and other legal documents reveals the complete English takeover of Salem's toponomy. We discover that English colonists very quickly imposed familiar English names on landscape features such as rivers and ponds, replacing existing Native American terms. Naumkeag River became Bass River, and Mashabequa River became Forest River. Only a handful of Native American names survived long enough even to be written down by the colonists. Furthermore, the Essex County court records contain few references at all to the Naumkeag's occupation of the land. One of the few documents that survives is a 1666 mortgage for seven hundred acres of land "at the head of Salem to the northwest from said town ... there being at that place a hill where an Indian plantation sometimes had been."
Because of this "imperialism of the map," it is difficult to imagine that just a few years before explorer John Smith described Naumkeag, the "fishing place," as a substantial and prosperous Native American community, occupied by a "multitude of people." The people of Naumkeag were a band of the Pawtucket Tribe, an Algonkian-speaking group who occupied coastal New England from the Mystic River northward to Saco or Casco Bay. Their neighbors to the west were the Nipmuck. To the south were the Massachusett, who occupied the Neponset estuary and the south side of Massachusetts Bay. Further south, inhabiting Cape Cod and surrounding lands, were the Pokanoket, led by Massasoit. The Pawtucket, the Massachusett, and the Pokanoket all spoke the same language and were closely related by alliance and trade.
The Pawtucket recognized no supreme sachem (chief) but divided themselves into regional groups under individual ruling families. From the accounts of early explorers such as Samuel de Champlain and John Smith, it is clear that the Pawtucket occupied a series of densely populated farming communities along the harbors and rivers of the region. There were three major groups of Pawtucket within Massachusetts-the Naumkeag, who occupied the lands from Salem to the Mystic River, the Agawam of Ipswich and northern Essex County, and the Pennacook, who occupied the Merrimac River. These various groups were affiliated through kinship, trade, and military alliance.
Because Naumkeag was unusually abundant in natural resources, the people were able to survive comfortably by moving from place to place. One strategy for growing their traditional crops of corn, beans, and squash-quite different from English farming practice-involved cycles of slash-and-burn farming in which fields were quickly cleared, planted, and abandoned. Because they did not fertilize the fields, when crop yields began to drop a village would move a few miles to another location where the soil was more fertile. Another strategy was to move with the seasons, taking advantage of a bounty of natural resources. They fished from the ocean and rivers, hunted for game and wildfowl, and gathered roots, nuts, and berries. But despite the Naumkeag's mobility, they were tied closely to their homeland. They believed they had occupied it since the beginning of time and it was the sacred resting place of their ancestors. They were intimately acquainted with each stream, marsh, and hill, and all the animals were imbued with Manitou, or spirit power. Thus the land did not just provide food and shelter to the Naumkeag; it was linked to their heritage and even their cosmology.
For English colonists, too, Naumkeag was a place apart-one very different from the homeland they had left behind. The Reverend Francis Higginson, one of the early English settlers to Naumkeag, represented the place as he wanted others to see it in his 1630 book, New England's Plantation, or a Short and True Description of the Commodities and Discommodities of That Country. This was a promotional piece designed to lure other Puritans to the New World, and in it Higginson developed the first mythology of Salem, based on the native experience of Naumkeag. Higginson represented Naumkeag as the mythical land of abundance Puritans came to label Salem. For Higginson, Salem connoted not a place of peace, but rather a place of abundance. More than anything else, he was struck by this world of plenty, which contrasted sharply to an England of dwindling natural resources. He used the word abundance repeatedly in referring to items as diverse as herbs, wood products, fish, farmland, and fat turkeys: "For wood there is no better in the world I think, here being four sorts of oak differing both in the leaf, timber, and color, all excellent good. There is also good ash, elm, willow, birch, beech, sassafras, juniper cypress, cedar, spruce, pines and fir that will yield abundance of turpentine, pitch, tar, masts and other materials for building both of ships and houses." The bounty of the waters, where the "abundance of sea-fish is almost beyond believing," matched the bounty of the forest. The fishermen's "nets ordinarily take more than they are able to haul to land, and for want of boats and men they are constrained to let many go after they have taken them, and yet sometimes they fill two boats at a time with them." Higginson also greatly admired the fertility of the soil. He wrote, "It is scarce to be believed how our kine and goats, horses and hogs do thrive and prosper here and like well of this country. In our plantation we have already a quart of milk for a penny, but the abundant increase of corn proves this country to be a wonderment. Thirty, forty, fifty, sixty[fold] are ordinary here. Yea, Joseph's increase in Egypt is here outstripped with us.... It is almost incredible what great gain some of our English planters have had by our Indian corn."
Despite English mythologizing of Pawtucket lands such as Naumkeag, the place was far from idyllic. For the native population, living off the land could be difficult, particularly in the late winter when food was scarce, a time they referred to as the "starving time." Compounding the challenges to survival, the Pawtucket had enemies who coveted what food and resources they did have. In 1607, war broke out between the Pawtucket and their allies and the Micmac of Nova Scotia. From the beginning, the war went badly for the southerners, and they suffered from a series of devastating Micmac raids that inflicted substantial casualties. One of the victims of the war was Nanapeshamet, the sagamore (chief) of the Naumkeag, who was killed by Micmac raiders about 1619. After his death, his widow and two eldest sons ruled his domain. Her name has been lost, for surviving documents refer to her only as the "Squaw Sachem"-a reference to this woman's unusual position of authority. The eldest son, Wonohaquaham (known to the English simply as John), was the sagamore at Mystic (now Medford, Massachusetts). The second son, Montowompate (dubbed James by the English), was sagamore of Saugus. The last raid of the war took place at Agawam in 1631, while the Agawam were entertaining their neighbors, the Naumkeag. The Micmac killed seven and wounded many more, including John, James, and the Agawam sagamore, Masconomet.
Scarce resources and war were not the only trials the natives of Naumkeag had to face. A tragic result of European contact was that more native peoples succumbed to disease than to warfare, and this experience, also, shaped the meaning of Naumkeag. From 1616 to 1619, a great pandemic raged among the Pawtucket and their neighbors in coastal New England. Historians have not discovered the specific disease; however, this clearly was a "virgin soil" epidemic-a European disease that spread rapidly through a Native American population that had no prior exposure, and therefore no resistance. In such circumstances, "harmless" childhood diseases such as chickenpox and measles, which arrived with European explorers, soon became killers. The great pandemic killed an estimated 70 percent of the native population of coastal Massachusetts. In some communities, the devastation may have gone as high as 90 percent, as contagion spread through densely populated villages. Although the lack of solid data makes it extremely difficult to determine pre-epidemic populations, one estimate has placed the pre-1616 Pawtucket population at twenty-one to twenty-four thousand; after the plague, they numbered in the hundreds. In 1631, Thomas Dudley wrote that Sagamores John and James "command not above 30 or 40 men for aught I can learn. Near to Salem dwells two or three families." Historians estimate that for each warrior in a tribe, approximately eight persons might be added to calculate the total in the community. This provides us with a rough estimate of three hundred American Indians between the Mystic River and Naumkeag in 1631, with only a couple of families left in Naumkeag. The Naumkeag bore the brunt of the epidemic, for Dudley estimated that Passaconaway, the Pawtucket sagamore on the Merrimac River, commanded four hundred to five hundred men. These numbers would see an even greater reduction in 1633, when a smallpox epidemic hit eastern New England. The impact of this attack was particularly devastating, for the victims included Sagamore John, Sagamore James, "and most of his folks." There were so few Naumkeag left that, before he died, John asked Boston's Rev. John Wilson to raise his orphaned son. At this point, the leadership of the few remaining Naumkeag fell to the Squaw Sachem and her youngest son, Winnapurkit, alias Sagamore George or George No-Nose.
The result of this warfare and recurring disease was a near disintegration of Pawtucket society. Naumkeag was a very different place when English settlers first arrived in 1626 than it had been even ten years before. A relict population, living in what has been described as a "widowed land," greeted them. Francis Higginson observed that the Indians "do generally confess to like well of our coming and planting here; partly because there is abundance of ground that they cannot possess nor make use of, and partly because our being here will be a means both of relief to them when they want, and also a defense from their enemies, wherewith (I say) before this plantation began, they were often endangered." The English were a source of coveted European trade goods, including knives, axes, kettles, fishhooks, and woven textiles. They also were welcome allies who could provide protection against the onslaught of the Micmac.
Excerpted from Salem Copyright © 2004 by Dane Anthony Morrison and Nancy Lusignan Schultz. Excerpted by permission.
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Preface for the General Reader
Preface for Instructors and Students
Salem Enshrined: Myth, Memory and the Power of Place - Nancy Lusignan Schulz and Dane Anthony Morrison
Salem as Frontier Outpost - Emerson W. Baker II
Salem as Religious Proving Ground - Christopher White
Salem as Enterprise Zone, 1783-1786 - Robert Booth
Salem as Athenauem - Matthew G. McKenzie
Salem as Citizen of the World - Dane Anthony Morrison
Salem as Nation's Schoolhouse - Rebecca R. Noel
Salem as Hawthorne's Creation - Nancy Lusignan Schultz
Salem as Architectural Mecca - John V. Goff
Salem as Global City, 1850-2004 - Aviva Chomsky
Salem as Crime Scene - Margaret Press
Salem as Witch City - Frances Hill
Salem's House of Seven Gables as Historic Site - Lorinda B. R. Goodwin
Coda: Montage of Brick and Water - J. D. Scrimgeour