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Salem as Frontier Outpost: Life in Seventeenth Century Salem
Content Session Material

Theme: Salem as Place: Local History in a National Context
Salem as Frontier Outpost: Life in Seventeenth Century Salem
July 13, 2004
Emerson Baker, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of History, Salem State College (

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus created by Emerson Baker Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, Department of History, Salem State College (


Salem started as an outpost at the margin of the English world – the original settlement of Massachusetts Bay. It was a borderland – a place of negotiation and accommodation between English and Native American cultures. Even as the Indians dwindled in number and Salem evolved into a commercial entrepot, the frontier was never far away. This initial theme of Salem as a frontier is one that would echo throughout in the subsequent history of the community. For example, historians now see the conflict with Native Americans in King William’s War as creating a hysteria that helped to trigger the Salem witchcraft outbreak.

A set of provocative readings will focus our attention on the complexities and consequences of establishing and trying to sustain an Anglo settlement in Naumkeag, that place which is now called Salem. These readings and our discussion highlight key primary sources:, historic maps and Native American land deeds. Our focus will be on both what these sources can/do tell us about the past and how they tell us what they do.

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Required Reading

Secondary Sources:
Baker, Emerson. “Salem as Frontier Outpost,” in Dane Morrison and Nancy Schultz, eds., Salem: Place, Myth and Memory. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004, 20-41.

Baker, Emerson and James Kences. “Maine, Indian Land Speculation, and the Essex County Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692,” Maine History, 40, no. 3 (2001): 159-189. (Also available online.)

Primary Sources:

Higginson, Francis. New England’s Plantation, or a Short and True Description of the Commodities and Discommodities of that Country (London, 1630). Reprinted in Everett Emerson, ed., Letters from New England: The Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1629-1638 (Amherst, 1976). 29-38. (Also available online.)

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Reading Questions

  • What is a frontier? Does Salem qualify as one in the seventeenth century?
  • What evidence exists today that Essex County was ever occupied by Native Americans?
  • Do you think it possible to tie Essex County Witchcraft to the frontier? Why or why not? What do you think caused the outbreak on 1692?
  • Do maps and mapmakers have the power to “dispossess?”
    Why did people in early New England make maps?
    Has reading this article changed how you look at or think about maps? If so, how?
  • Why is Higginson writing? Who is his audience? Does this effect what he says? Which do you feel is more accurate and reliable a source? The maps described by Harley, or Higginson’s description?
    Does Higginson’s Salem sound at all like the place we know today? How has it changed?

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