Historical Profile

SALEM, the "City of Peace," holds the proud distinction of being not only the second oldest settlement in New England, but also the second incorporated city in Massachusetts. Salem was first settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and his associates who came from a fishing settlement at Cape Ann, four years before the settlement of Boston.

The first colony of settlers arrived in 1628 under the leadership of Captain John Endicott. The Indian name for the locality was Naumkeag. Salem has played a prominent part in our country's history. In fact, during Revolutionary times, the first armed resistance in this-country to British authority, was made by a party of Salem patriots at the North Bridge in this city on Feb. 26, 1775. By raising the draw bridge, they prevented Col. Leslie and his British troops from seizing patriot army stores and ammunition, hidden in North Salem.

Commercially, Salem's name has been known to the whole world, holding almost supremacy in commerce during the early part of the 19th century. Her ships were pioneers in the India trade and opened up commerce with Africa, China, Russia, Japan, and Australia. Salem can boast of more noted men among her earlier residents than among any other American City.

Salem is currently a city of approximately eight square miles, however, in early colonial times, Salem encompassed most of the North Shore. Over the years, there have been many geographical changes to Salem, as you can see by following:

  • Bounds between Salem and Saugus (now Lynn) and Salem and Marble Harbor (now Marblehead) were established March 4, 1635.
  • On September 7, 1643, part of Salem, called Enon was established as Wenham.
  • May 14, 1645, part of Salem called Jeffry's Creeke, was set off as the Town of Manchester.
  • May 2, 1649, part of Salem was set off as the town of Marblehead.
  • October 19, 1658, bounds were established between Salem and Topsfield.
  • October 14, 1668, part of Salem, called Bass River, was set off as Town of Beverly.
  • June 20, 1728, part of Salem was included in the new town of Middleton.
  • January 28, 1752, part of Salem was set off as the district of Danvers, which afterwards became a town. Much of this territory had long been known as Salem Village.
  • September 11, 1753, a part of Salem was annexed to Beverly.


City Hall was built in 1837-38 under the supervision of Mayor Leverett Saltonstall and a committee appointed for that purpose. The cornerstone was laid on September 6, 1837. Artifacts buried beneath the cornerstone included copies of local newspapers, the Mayor's speech for the organization of City Government (May 9, 1836), and the new City Charter.

In 1837, under the administration of President Andrew Jackson, the United States Treasury held a surplus in the amount of nearly Forty Million Dollars. This surplus was distributed to the various states, which in turn distributed this money to the cities and towns. City Hall was built from this surplus revenue, as Salem's share was nearly $34,000.00. The building and furnishings cost approximately $22,878.00 when finished, and this is perhaps one of the few municipal structures in existence paid for without taxing the citizens.

City Hall was first occupied by the City Council on the evening of May 31, 1838. A formal dedication was held on June 8, 1838. Since 1837, the building has served as the focal point for the decision making process in Salem.

The City Hall is architecturally significant because of its excellent Greek Revival design. It is perfectly proportioned and in spite of its comparatively small size, gives a feeling of strength and dignity. The architect, Richard Bond(1797-1861) was described in contemporary reports as "an architect of great fame," "an architect of high reputation" and "a distinguished architect." He also designed Gore Hall --the old Library at Harvard, the Bowdoin Square Church in Boston, both no longer standing. The facade is reminiscent of Robert Mills, with the ceiling rosettes in the Chamber exact duplicates of those done by Alexander Parris for Faneuil Hall Market in Boston.

The City Hall is located on Washington Street, the main thoroughfare of Salem, with commercial structures on either side of it. Completed in 1838, this two-story building is late Greek Revival in style. The original dimensions were 32 feet high, 45 feet wide and 68 feet long. The side and rear elevations are unadorned brick while the main facade is dressed granite. Three bays wide, this facade is broken by four giant pilasters, one on each corner and one on either side of the recessed center bay. The bays are set with tall windows, 6 over 6. The central entrance is reached by a short flight of granite steps; a cast iron lamp on a bracket projects from above. The tall front double doors are made of mahogany with brass studs outlining the center panels.

The pilasters support a massive entablature whose frieze is decorated with carved stone laurel wreaths. A parapet rises from the entablature and, over the center bay, this forms a partial pediment. The latter is topped by a gold leaved eagle which is an exact copy of the original hurricane-damaged one done by Samuel Mclntire. The original eagle was part of the gateway to Salem Common.

The first floor is occupied by various city offices. The Mayor's office and City Council Chambers are on the second floor, unaltered since 1838. The Council Chamber is notable for its fine center and corner rosettes in the ceiling, repeated in the corner rosettes of the fluted door and window tiering. The original furnishings are still used in the Council Chamber.

The building was enlarged in 1878 by an extension in the rear which in no way altered its original appearance as seen from the street. The extension doubled the size of the building and brought all existing city offices under one roof.

Among the historic items inside the building are the following:

  • The Indian deed, dated 1686, on parchment, in obsolete handwriting. The original is in a vault in the City Clerk's office; a copy is displayed in the Council Chamber. The deed, for which the Indians were paid 20 pounds, establishes title to the land for the Selectmen of Salem from the heirs of the Indian Nanepashemet.
  • Letters from President George Washington, Governor Samuel Adams, and John Hancock, addressed to the citizens of the City of Salem. Copies are on display in the front hallway of City Hall.
  • Three plaques: one a memorial to the U.S.S. Maine, made from metal recovered from the ship; the other, given by the crew of the U.S.S. Salem in 1909 to commemorate their visit to the City during Old Home Week; and the third is to honor Salem's Veterans who served during the Persian Gulf War, dedicated on Dec. 7, 1991, (50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor).
  • Portraits of General Henry Kemble Oliver; General Philip Sheridan; Leverett Saltonstall, the first Mayor; Marquis de Lafayette (a copy by Charles Osgood of a painting by S.F.B. Morse); George Washington (a copy of a Gilbert Stuart Painting, done by his daughter, Jane); also a copy of a Stuart painting done for William Kerin Constable and given to the City by Abiel Abbott Low, a Salem native; Andrew Jackson, as a young man by Major R.E.W. Earle, 1833.
  • Records of the City from 1634 to the present, are also in the City Clerk's vault.

Witch Trial Information


In 1654, Elihu Yale sent two of his employees to Atjeh, the greatest independent kingdom on Sumatra, to establish the pepper trade. The last bulk cargo of pepper entered Salem, Massachusetts from Sumatra on November 6, 1846, on the brig Lucilla. Ever since the RAJAH of Salem had loaded the first Susu pepper, Salem had held a predominant position in that trade. So important had its position been, that a hundred years later, in Australia, whole peppercorns were still known as "Salem Pepper".

In March of 1839, an Ordinance was adopted providing for the City Seal. The Council ordered a seal showing "A ship under full sail, approaching a coast designated by the costume of the person standing upon it and by the trees near him, as a portion of the East Indies; beneath the shield, this motto: "Divitis Indiae usque ad ultimum sinum," signifying "To the farthest port of the rich east"; and above the shield, a dove, bearing an olive branch in her mouth. In the circumference encircling the shield, the words "Salem Condita A.D. 1626" "Civitatis Regimine Donata, A.D. 1836."

This is the same seal used today on all official documents and records. The City Clerk is the custodian of the City Seal. Only official documents of the the City of Salem may contain the seal of the City. It is a violation of State law, and Local Ordinances, to use the City Seal in any capacity not related to official City of Salem business.


Salem operated under a town government until the City Charter was accepted on March 23, 1836, making it the second chartered city in Massachusetts.

As early as 1805, the inhabitants of Salem were discussing and moving toward a change in the form of government in Salem from a town government to a city. For many years, no changes took place. However, in January of 1836, a town meeting was called to acquire a consensus of the feelings of the inhabitants.

It was decided that a committee would be formed, consisting of three members of each ward, to meet with the selectmen and reach a decision. In February of 1836, the committee reported that it was in agreement that it was time to change our form of government to that of a city, and instructed the selectmen to petition the General Court of the Commonwealth and ask that the town be incorporated as a City.


On March 23, 1836, Governor Edward Everett approved an act "to establish the City of Salem. and at a meeting of the citizens on April 4, 1836, held in what is now referred to as "Old Town Hall", it was voted overwhelmingly to accept the Charter. Salem was now only the second city to he incorporated in the State..Boston being the first.

In April of that year, the first city elections were held to elect a Mayor, six Aldermen-At-Large, and six Common Councillors from each of the four wards. This form of government is referred to as a bicameral legislative body.


Salem operated under a town government until the City Charter was accepted on March 23, 1836, making it the second chartered city in Massachusetts. The original charter, with a bicameral legislative body, was replaced by the Commission form in 1913. This form, consisting of four commissioners and a mayor, was supplanted in 1916 by the present form of city government, called "Plan B Government".


Plan B City Government provides for a Mayor, and City Council of eleven members, seven elected from the wards, and four at-large.


The Mayor is elected for four years in November of unevenly numbered years. He or she is the administrative head of the city and chairperson ex-officio of the School Committee, the Board of Library Trustees, and the Board of Trust Fund Commissioners. He or she acts with the City Council and School Committee to carry out city business.

The Mayor appoints their office staff, the City Solicitor, and the Assistant City Solicitor without City Council confirmation. The appointment of most city department heads, and members of the various boards and commissions, however, require City Council confirmation.

The Mayor has the right to veto any order, resolution, or ordinance passed by the Council. However, his or her veto may be overturned by a two-thirds vote of all councillors.

After reviewing and revising the estimates prepared by department heads, the Mayor submits the budget to the City Council for final action.

The Mayor approves all municipal payrolls, vouchers, contracts and instruments; he or she recommends bond issues, legislation and orders to the City Council, and represents the city with other levels of government.

As the general administrator of all city departments, the Mayor is consulted by department heads pertaining to the city's welfare.


Under the City Charter, the City Council, is composed of eleven members, one elected from each of the seven wards and four elected at-large.

The City Council is primarily the legislative branch of the city government. As the legislative body, the Council confirms appointments made by the Mayor and appropriates all monies necessary to city operation. It can approve, disapprove, or reduce the amount of appropriations, but not add to the appropriation.

The Council receives orders recommended by the Mayor and petitions from the public, and acts on them after committee study. The City Council also has the power to enact Ordinances and other regulations.

A majority of the City Council constitutes a quorum and the affirmative vote of a majority of all the members of the Council is necessary for the adoption of any motion, resolution, or ordinance. In some instances, adoption by a 2/3 vote of the members is required by statute.

All legislative sessions, whether full Council or Committee, must be public. Every matter must he put to a vote, and a full and accurate journal of Council or Committee action must be kept.

Meetings of the City Council are held on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month at 7:00 p.m. in the Council Chamber in City Hall, and are open to the public. Special Meetings may be held at the call of the President or City Clerk, with the approval of six Councillors. Regular Meetings of the City Council are now taped and broadcast on SATV, Channel 15, in Salem.