TALES FROM SALEM
Mention Salem and immediate images of witches put to death by righteous Puritans comes to mind. That’s the biggest attraction in that historic colonial settlement north of Boston. A museum features the evils of witchcraft and burnings at the stake for unfortunate lady citizens suspected of casting spells or failing to show enough penance in their religious duties.
However, Salem is also known for America’s first millionaire, Elias Haskel Derby who took over a prosperous family trading company and made his home town in Salem, the most important seaport in colonial New England. During the American Revolution, the patriots needed supplies and ships to combat the overwhelming strength of the British redcoats sent to put down the rebellion against the Crown.
The Continental Congress issued charters to seafarers to be privateers and prey on the English fleet off the Atlantic coast. The Derby enterprise was one of the most successful of the authorized pirates and ended the war with a fortune and a fleet of ships ready to trade. The ambitious Derby scion, Elias, who never went to sea in the family enterprise, made Salem the center of Yankee trade and very wealthy port in the process.
In 1790 at the birth of the new United States of America, Salem was the 6th largest city.
A day trip from Boston by ferry or car to explore the highlights this picturesque city is an option, but spending a few days in Salem will open new insights into colonial history and the importance of seafaring to the new American colonies.
Start with a walking tour of the harbor waterfront and into the old section of Salem with its famous rows of federal-style mansions of the rich merchants. The next stop should be the Peabody-Essex Museum, a major resource of the maritime life that made Salem rich and famous in colonial days.
One of the oldest (1799) museums in America, the Peabody houses a major collection of marine art, early American art and furniture and owns 24 historic houses in Salem. I found the marine art to be especially impressive with a large collection of the 19th century Massachusetts artist, Fitz Henry Lane. A complete tour does require most of the day.
On a Salem visit I took the waterfront and city street tour known as the Moby Duck, an amphibious carrier. Currently it is not in service due to a conflict with state officials over public access to the waterfront. The alternative would be the Salem Trolley that would take you through the historic district and help you locate the principle sites to visit. If you prefer a waterfront tour, there are a number of historic sailing vessels that offer tours of the Salem harbor.
Typical of a guided tour, the driver is always full of local legends, sometimes questionable but always very entertaining. Here are a few that I learned on the Moby Duck circuit.
Millionaire Derby was given a new home on the waterfront not suitable for his bride. He built a larger home next door, but the persnickety lady was not satisfied because of the small of fish. So he built a huge mansion on the hill above the wharf. They lived there only one bleak winter because the house was impossible to heat, and they both died of pneumonia.
Pineapples are a sign of hospitality, seen everywhere in Salem as gate posts and entry decor with the custom spreading to other New England ports. Legend says a Salem sea captain noted that South Seas natives sheaved their spears with a pineapple to greet the clipper ships with a sign of welcome, not hostility. They held the fruit spear high above their heads like a ceremonial emblem.
The tradition of pineapples continues today in many historic seaport towns and even used as the logo for friendly B&B’s and country inns. I even saw a pineapple gate post in Mendocino, California. Typical of legends, there is no historic support for the use of pineapple to sheave a spear. However, pineapple was a delicacy imported by the early West Indies traders of New England. Any hostess who served pineapple was considered extremely hospitable to share such a rare treat.
Not to be missed on your walking tour of Salem is the House of Seven Gables, made famous by author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was a lifetime resident of Salem. A tour introduces you to the lifestyle of a wealthy merchant in colonial times. Another legend claims that the structure was significant because in colonial times each gable required a window, and windows were a sign of wealth due to the property taxing method of the times.
Your visit to Salem is a nice extension of touring the colonial areas of Boston, where the roots of American democracy developed by the patriots provoking the revolt against the Crown at the Boston Tea Party. If you are driving to Salem, the sure to take the Freedom Trail through Lexington and Concorde where the first shots were fired.
Massachusetts is aflame with fall color from late September into October, an ideal time to visit this area. Many guided tours are available in each of these colonial locations by checking tourist information on the Internet. Most cities have direct flights into Boston.
Photo of Salem Witch Museum: J.P. Ford