Salem Village, Massachusetts – Witch Hunt City


Massachusetts Bay Colonists

Massachusetts Bay Colonists

Out of sorrow and chagrin, out of dread,

was born a new love for the land which

 had been desecrated, but, somehow

 also consecrated, in the blood of innocents.

In 1623 a group of colonists attempted to set up a fishing establishment at Cape Ann, on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Though the project failed, a few men led by Roger Conant, refused to give up and in 1626 settled in Naumkeag, which was later renamed Salem in 1629. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was issued a charter by the monarch of England in 1629 giving them the rights of autonomy and self-rule. The colonists were intent upon establishing a commonwealth where the Puritan Church could exist without the interference of the Church of England. Ministers began arriving in 1629 and the settlers began to organize a church.  Around 1630, settlers converted an existing Naumkeag Indian trail into the Old Ipswich Road, creating a connection to the main cities of Salem and Boston.

However, the land in Salem Towne was not fertile, so many settlers moved outside the “city” and numerous small communities emerged including Salem Village, Beverly, Andover, Topsfield, Wenham, and many others. The land where Salem Village was situated was once controlled by the Naumkeag branch of the Massachusett tribe. The village was permanently settled in 1636.

In the 1630s the communities grew as more and more people immigrated to the area due to the repressive government of King Charles I in England. At about the same time, the Pequot Indian War erupted which lasted from 1634-1638.

By 1640 Salem would be the second most important colonial town next to Boston, but the high rate of immigration began to slow. This was due to the Puritans being in power in England and the persecution had ended. At that time, the colony became more self-sufficient and claimed sovereignty. In the 1650’s the colonies prospered. In Salem, as well as other areas, the church became the most prominent organization.

Salem Village, located about five miles north of Salem Towne, was also growing and developing its own identity and separate interests. In 1666 Salem Village petitioned for a separate church, but, was denied. However, the farmers continued to make requests, due to the distance from town. Finally, Salem Village was granted the right to build their own church and hire a minister in 1672. However, the villagers would remain members of the Salem Towne Church, which would govern the smaller church. The village was also permitted to establish a committee of five, to assess and gather taxes from the villagers – including church-members and non-church members, for the ministry. Though villagers continued to participate in Salem Towne’s life, voted in Salem Towne elections, and paid most Salem Towne taxes, for the first time, they had a degree of autonomy.

The village members immediately began to build the Salem Village Meeting House and search for a minister. While the church was under the guidelines of the larger Salem Towne Church, the ministers were not ordained, and as a result, could not administer communion or admit candidates to formal church membership. From the beginning, there was conflict from those in Salem Towne who opposed the building of a separate church, as well as those in Salem Village, regarding the choice of a minister. Over the next several years the dissension would divide the community, making enemies of friends and family members. Though this was not unusual in many New England communities, many historians believe that Salem Village had a greater amount of conflict than was typical. During the 1670s-80s the new church’s first three ministers would all step down, unsatisfied with the position, the church, and the village itself.

Salem Village Meeting House

Salem Village Meeting House

The first minister, Reverend James Bayley, arrived in Salem Village in October 1672. An inexperienced pastor, just three years out of Harvard, Bayley walked into conflict. From the beginning, some members of the village felt that Bayley was hired “upon the invitation of a few.” Like other fledgling communities, the procedures for hiring were informal and irregular.

Even though there were dissenters, things went well at first, and in June 1673, Bayley was invited to remain in his post. Five farmers donated 40 acres of land to him and the minister began to build a house. However, that same year, 14 villagers fell into arrears on their taxes for the church support, officially designating the discontent of some church members.

The central issue was actually who had the authority to call or dismiss a minister in Salem Village, making it a highly political conflict. Because the village was not an “official” town, the only authority in the village was the church, which angered many villagers who attended other churches in nearby communities. The tissue mushroomed to such proportions that it was taken to the county courts, the Salem Towne Church, and even the Colonial Legislature. Though the Salem Church advised the dissidents to submit to Bayley’s continued ministry “without any further trouble,” the conflict continued.

By 1679, a minority of the village, led by Nathaniel Putman and Bray Wilkins, had turned fully against Bayley, accusing him of neglecting his church duties and omitting family prayers in his own household. With the Village deeply divided over the legitimacy of his call, Bayley finally gave up the fight and left Salem Village in 1680. He would then minister for a few more years in Killingworth, Connecticut, before giving up the profession and becoming a doctor in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, his departure did little to ease the dissension in the village. However, the village inhabitants, both church members, and non-members selected a committee, headed by Nathaniel Putman to look for a new minister.

Reverend George Burroughs executed for witchcraft

Reverend George Burroughs executed for witchcraft

The second minister, George Burroughs, who had graduated from Harvard in 1670, arrived in Salem Village in 1680. As one of his conditions for coming, Burroughs had stipulated “that in case any difference should arise in time to come, that we engage on both sides to submit to counsel for a peaceable issue.” Though this was the common language in 17th century New England, it, no doubt, had more significance for Burroughs, who had probably learned from Bayley something of what confronted him.

The differences were not long in arising and Burroughs found himself in the midst of the conflict taking place in the village. Some villagers accused him of being abusive to his wife. It was to Burroughs that Jeremiah Watts wrote his letter of April 1682, lamenting the disputes of Salem Village, saying “brother is against brother and neighbors are against neighbors, all quarreling and smiting one another.” With many villagers not paying their taxes, Burroughs was not always being paid and borrowed money from the Putnam family.

By early 1683, the minister’s salary was not being paid at all, and in March, Burroughs simply stopped meeting his congregations. The Reverend Burroughs then accepted an offer to resume his ministerial duties at Casco Bay, which had been reorganized. He stayed there until the community was once again destroyed by Indians in 1690. He then moved to Wells, Maine.

Unfortunately, his brief time in Salem Village would come back to haunt him. In May 1692, during the Salem witch trials, based on the accusation of the Putnams, who had sued him for the previous debt, Burroughs was charged with witchcraft, arrested and brought back to Salem. He was executed on August 19, 1692.

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