North America

Salems Legacy:

Best known today for an aberrant blip in its long history--six months of witch hysteria in 1692--Salem, Massachusetts' true legacy lies not in witchcraft but in its golden decades of commercial ascendancy resulting from its enormously prosperous maritime trade with the Orient.

By Rod Lopez-Fabrega

Thanks in no small part to author Arthur Miller's timely 1953 play, "The Crucible", memories were revived of the city of Salem, Massachusetts as a focal point of witchery in seventeenth century colonial America. For a short six-month period in 1692, the Salem suburb of Danvers was indeed the scene of a hysterical outburst by emotionally suppressed Puritan youngsters and of the infamous witch hunts that followed. Quickly discredited when the wives of influential politicians were falsely implicated, the event, nevertheless, left its mark on Salem, to be stirred up periodically by Hollywood's imagination.

Salems Legacy

In truth, there is much more to this New England coastal town. A tour of modern-day Salem makes a stop at the Counting House. This imposing brick structure, topped by a glittering, gold-plated eagle, is America's very first Custom House. It is a fitting architectural testament to Salems golden age. Peter LaChappelle, chief of visitor services for the Salem Maritime National Historic Site explains, "After the Revolutionary War, one of the things England did was to say to its former colony, 'Now that you have signed the Treaty of Paris and ended the revolution, you can no longer trade with any of our other colonies. Survive as an independent nation. Develop your own military force. Find your own places with which to trade.'"

This was a serious blow to the developing economy of the young nation since its livelihood had, in large part, depended on its lucrative exports of salted cod and rum to the West Indies. Mr. LaChappelle continues, "During the Revolutionary War, Salem had established privateer ventures along with its growing clipper ship navy. In fact, these privateers succeeded in capturing and sinking 455 British ships and taking on their cargoes from all over the world as prizes of war. The post-revolution lesson Salem learned from this was the enormous potential of international trade." Salems entrepreneurial businessmen found their own places with which to trade.

Daring seamen, their ships traveling around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, developed a hugely successful "China Trade": commerce with China, India, Indochina and the Malay Archipelago. Cargoes included tea and silks from China, cotton goods from India, sugar, hemp and indigo from the Philippines, pepper from Sumatra and spices from Batavia. Adds Mr. LaChappelle, "Great fortunes were made by these Salem ship owners; and it is estimated that by 1819, custom duties coming into the Salem Counting House supplied 95% of all federal revenues for the newly formed government of the United States and approximately 12 % of the nation's revenues." He concludes, "What did we do with that income? Well, we bought Louisiana, we bought Alaska, and we basically funded our own independent army and navy."

Fame, The Salem Privateer

One of the visitor attractions of today's Salem is to sail on the meticulously accurate reconstruction of Fame, a 31-ton schooner built in Gloucester, Massachusetts shortly before the war of 1812. Though the original vessel was built for fishing, her speed and weatherliness made her ideal as a privateer. On her very first cruise as a privateer, she captured Concord, a 300-ton ship headed for Plymouth, England with a cargo of masts, spars, staves and lumber and Elbe, a 200-ton square-sterned Scottish brigantine headed for Liverpool. Returning triumphantly to Salem with her prizes of war, Fame's owner, Benjamin Upton made a profit of $4,690.67--nearly ten times what Fame had cost to build in the early nineteenth century. The owners of the English and Scottish ships who were captured by Fame would then have to seek restitution from Lloyd's of London, who insured most ships. In 2002, owner and operator Capt. Michael Rutstein and his dedicated friends and crewmembers undertook the challenging task of researching the original Fame, turning over construction to Harold Burnham, scion of a noted shipbuilding family with 350-year-old credentials for designing and building wooden boats in the area. Today, the exact replica of Fame is entering its second season taking visitors out for cruises in Salem Sound for a taste of sailing in a genuine privateer.

The Peabody Essex Museum

Another benefit that derived from the China Trade was the wealth of "curiosities" brought back by these enterprising sailors. Donna Desrochers, public relations manager of the Peabody Essex Museum, repository of thousands of these items, explains, "The PEM is the oldest continually operated museum in America. It was founded in 1799 by Salem sea captains who were members of the East India Marine Society. In order to become a member, you had to travel around Cape Horn or Cape Hope, and you had to bring back curiosities from around the world. 'Curiosities' had a different connotation than we think of today. It was really objects of wonder. The idea was that, if Americans wanted to be traders on the world stage, they had better understand how people in different parts of the world lived."

The Collection

Now, with a spectacular $125 million expansion including a soaring new wing designed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, the museum's 2.4 million works are presented "using the best exhibition design concepts available to museums today". This world-class museum has extensive collections from China, Japan, Korea, India, the Pacific Islands and Africa as well as Native American art and artifacts. The museum is noted as having the largest collection in the world of objects designed expressly for export to America. It also holds major collections of maritime history and art and the nation's premier collection of American decorative arts and objects from New England.

Cleopatra's Barge

One telling exhibit in the Peabody Essex Museum that illustrates the fabulous wealth that had accrued to Salem is a reconstruction of the lounge of Cleopatra's Barge, a pleasure yacht built in 1816 by entrepreneur George Crowninshield. Some call it the country's first cruise ship. He had it constructed with the finest craftsmanship available and outfitted it with fine furnishings in the Federal and Neo-Classical styles and all the accoutrements of royalty. His intention was to sail Cleopatra's Barge to Europe with the express hope of hosting Napoleon himself on board and becoming the toast of the continent. He received quite a bit of attention as his yacht, gilded and herringboned on one side and striped on the other sailed into European ports, but Napoleon snubbed him, and Mr. Crowninshield returned home only to die unexpectedly the following year.

The Yin Yu Tang House

A highlight of a visit to the Peabody Essex Museum is to tour the newly inaugurated Yin Yu Tang House. Discovered in the little country village of Huang Cun about 250 miles southwest of Shanghai by Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese Art for the museum, the house had been the residence of the Huang family of tradesmen for more than 200 years. Ms. Berliner made a fortuitous visit to the little village just as the Huang family was having a reunion to make the decision to sell their ancestral home. The house was well preserved and a fine example of Anhui-style architecture from the esthetically and historically rich Huizhou region of China. Ms. Berliner immediately recognized that the house, occupied by eight generations of one merchant's descendants was a perfect embodiment of the history of China as well as of the family that lived there over the 200 years of its existence. She convinced the directors of the PEM to make the purchase. The house was dismantled and shipped to Salem in 2,700 crates where a small army of American and Chinese preservation architects, traditional carpenters, artisans and scholars prepared it for exhibition. Now, the Yin Yu Tang house is preserved in Salem for the interest of visitors and scholars. The context is just right for location of this house in the New England city that brought so much of the best of China to the awareness of America.

The House of the Seven Gables

Yet another site of interest for the visitor to Salem is The House of the Seven Gables. Built in 1668, the house originally had only five gables. It is one of the few remaining homes in America from this precise Colonial period and is very much in context with Salems history. Famed American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne grew up here, son of a Salem sea captain and descendant of Judge John Hathorne, one of the witch trial judges in 1692. Nathaniel was not proud of that connection, and he added the "w" to his name to disassociate himself from his Puritan ancestor. In the 1840's, Hawthorne secured a position as purveyor of the ports of Salem. His office was in the Counting House where he worked four hours a day for an annual salary of $1,100. The job must not have fully occupied him as he began his novel "The Scarlet Letter" while there. Perhaps it was his divided concentration during the three years that he served in the Counting House that led to his dismissal from the job--possibly the best thing that could have happened to Hawthorne as he now dedicated himself to his writing. Eventually, he produced "The House of the Seven Gables" which met with great acclaim--so much so that he was able to convince the owners of the five-gabled house to add two more gables to match his novel. His rationale was that, "Seven gables sounds better than five."

Today, still undergoing restorations, The House of the Seven Gables--officially the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion--is an authentic representation of the home of a wealthy merchant's eighteenth-century home. The mansion is the center piece of a cluster of nine historic buildings that include a gift shop situated in the restored home of Retire Beckett, a master shipbuilder and designer of the first American yacht; a restored counting office where a prosperous ship owner tallied his cargoes; a reception center; and more. The site's Colonial gardens overlook Salem harbor with its anchorage for pleasure craft. It is the site every August of the Short Ships festival, a gathering of a great variety of restored vintage boats and a counterpoint to the Tall Ships extravaganza held annually in Boston Harbor. Throughout the year, the association that manages the site offers a full schedule of special lectures, tours and educational activities. Very elaborate plans are in the works for a spectacular Christmas 2004 event in which various rooms in the mansion will be decorated as they might have been during the holidays in novels of that period such as Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women".

The Salem Witch Museum

Located in a Gothic revival building across from the Salem Common, the Salem Witch Museum offers a dramatic and necessary explanation of the notorious events of 1692. Thirteen dramatically lighted sets with figures and narration explain, step by step, how the witchcraft hysteria engulfed Salems rigidly Puritanical suburb of Danvers for a six-month period in the late seventeenth century. The presentations are followed by an explanation of inquisitorial pogroms through the ages and the abuses and miscarriages of justice that resulted, including the trial of the likes of Joan of Arc. Finally, as designed by Alison D'Amario, director of education for the museum, the presentation concludes with a powerful reminder of the 1954 McCarthy trials and the communism hysteria that blighted our own recent history. However, it must be added that Halloween has its lighter side in Salem, and the city is crowded every October with revelers having a good time.

The Salem Inn

Accommodations for tourism are plentiful in Salem, but one inn must be singled out. The Salem Inn is located in the heart of the city's historic residential area, its three buildings surrounded by handsome restored town houses that are testament to the wealth that accrued from the China Trade to this seafaring entrepreneurial New England village. The Inn's three historic and architecturally significant period buildings offer 41 spacious and comfortable rooms, suites and housekeeping apartments, all within one block and all within walking distance of almost all of compact Salems historical, cultural and recreational sights and attractions. The three buildings are 1854 wood frame Italianate Curwen House, the Captain West House and the Peabody House. Service throughout is friendly, prompt and amazingly unobtrusive, thanks to the hands-on direction of owners and Innkeepers, Diane and Richard Pabich. A welcoming sherry decanter and glasses are always available in the entry of the Curwen House for the enjoyment of guests. Complimentary breakfast is served in the basement every morning, starting at 8:00 am--early enough for visitors to get an early start exploring this fascinating and historically significant New England town.

Getting There

Salem is located 16 miles north of Boston on the Atlantic coast. It is a convenient 30-minute drive or train ride or a one-hour bus ride from Boston and a 25-minute drive from Logan International Airport. Train service is on the Newburyport/Rockport Commuter Rail Line from Boston's North Station and bus service is from the Haymarket Square & South Station in Boston on bus #450 of #455 or bus # 459 from Logan Airport's Terminal C.

Photo Credits:

Crucible photos = Courtesy of Upper School Drama Production, St. Andrews, Austin, TX; Fame Schooner = Courtesy of Capt. Michael Rutstein; Halloween Revelers = Christine Danko;

Rod Lopez-Fabrega and Mary Ashcraft.