Written by: Jay Menice
Though not the only significant series of witch trials to take place in this period, the Salem witch trials of 1692 were ultimately the most intense and devastating witch hunt to take place in colonial America. Living hundreds of years later, we still search for answers, wondering what caused these strange and tragic events to take place. Over time, historians have proposed a diverse array of theories, each identifying different factors and events that warrant serious consideration.
While there will most likely never be one single answer to explain the actions of this dark year, it is important to understand the events and circumstances that led to 1692. Religious, social, political, and environment factors created an environment of growing fear and tension. Significant conflict was building in both Salem Village, and on a larger scale, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in the years leading up to the Salem witch trials. Here we have a timeline of significant events taking place in both England and its colony in the years before the Salem trials. It is helpful, if not essential, to consider these factors when studying the events that took place in Salem in 1692.
1603-1625: Reign of King James I in England. Consolidating Scotland and England under his rule, this reign creates the unified Kingdom of Great Britain.
1620: Puritan migration begins. Though often used interchangeably, the terms Puritan and Pilgrim, describe two groups within the early New England settlers. Pilgrims are English separatists who heavily criticize the corruption within the Church of England and seek to form independent local churches. In contrast, Puritans hope to “purify” the Church of England through reform.
1626: Naumkeag (Salem) is founded by Roger Conant from Cape Anne.
1629: King Charles I grants a charter to the Massachusetts Bay Company.
1630: Massachusetts Bay Colony is settled by a group of approximately 1,000 pilgrims. John Winthrop and Thomas Dudley are appointed Governor and Deputy Governor respectively. Governor Winthrop declares, “There shall be a city on a hill.”
1642-1651: Period of English Civil Wars. Conflicts between King Charles I and opposition within England, Scotland, and Ireland result in his execution and the exile of his son. Oliver Cromwell rules as lord protector during the republican Commonwealth, promoting the Puritan religion until his death in 1658.
1645-1715: Coldest period of the Little Ace Age. Stretching from approximately 1500 to 1850, there are highly irregular weather patterns across the Northern Hemisphere. In colonial America, there are freezing winters and brutally hot summers.
1660- Following the fall of the Commonwealth, the English monarchy is restored, resulting in the return of King Charles II. Dying with no legitimate heir in 1685, he is succeeded by his brother, James II.
1666: A number of Salem farmers petition to hire their own ministers, due to the arduous hike, especially through the harsh conditions of winter ice and snow, to Salem Town’s meeting house.
1669-28: Villagers refused to pay taxes for the Salem Town meeting house, demanding contributions to their meeting house. At a stalemate, matters are taken to the court.
1672: Salem Town allows Salem Village to build a meeting house and hire their own minister, though the Village is still technically part of the Salem Town church. Villagers still have to go to Salem Town to receive sacraments and accept new members. Factions begin to emerge opposing the minstrel candidates. This year, James Bayley is appointed the first minister of Salem Village.
1673: People living on the boundary of Salem Village, tied to Salem town church, feel they have the right to hire and fire ministers. In Salem Village, the faction opposing Bayley’s ministry increases. As a result, his salary is not paid.
1675-1676: King Phillip’s War in Southern New England and Maine escalates with the Indigenous inhabitants. This conflict results in massive causalities on both sides. Given the close proximity of Essex County, and Salem specifically, to the northern frontier, many refugees settle in this area.
1676: King Phillip’s War continues to produce enormous casualties on both sides. Several individuals involved in the later Salem trials survive raids during this time. During this year, Wabanaki attacks in Falmouth Maine force one-year-old Mercy Lewis and her parents to flee to an island at Casco Bay. Both Mercy’s grandparents and other family members are killed during the raids. The year prior, the nearly two-years-old Susanna Sheldon also became a war refugee.
1680-1683: The factional dispute continues in Salem Village. George Burroughs, a refugee of the northern Native American wars, replaces James Bayley as minister of Salem Village.
1683- After protracted salary disputes, George Burroughs also resigns as minister of Salem Village and returns to Maine. Deodat Lawson becomes the third ministerial candidate in Salem Village.
1684- King Charles II revokes all charters under English dominion, including the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter, only renewing them after a demonstration of loyalty to the crown. The independent nature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, built upon a foundation of Puritan ideology, makes King Charles particularly hesitant to reissue a charter. Under the original charter, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was remarkably autonomous, more so than any other colony. It allowed the colonial government to establish its own legal code, that, while based in English law, was specific to the colony. Without a charter, the colony loses considerable autonomy, including the ability to elect their own governing officials. This also jeopardizes land ownership, as the removal of the charter voids existing land titles. Of even greater concern is the fear that the revocation of the Puritan influenced charter marks the downfall of the great Puritan experiment. Distraught by the thought that the work of their forefathers would come to naught, many worry the City on a Hill will never be attained.
1685: Charles II dies. James II becomes king of England.
1686: King James appoints Sir Edmund Andros as Governor of the Dominion of New England. The new governor has dominion over territories of Maine, Plymouth, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Governor Andros enthusiastically alters laws, passes new taxes, and founds the first Anglican church in New England, Boston’s South Church. Under his rule, Quakers And Baptists are allowed worship freely. Many interpret this action as a spiritual crisis and threat to the City on a Hill.
1688-1689- The Glorious Revolution begins in England. Roman Catholic King James II enacts policies of religious intolerance that lead to the successful invasion of the Dutch Prince William of Orange. King William III and his wife, Mary II, are made joint monarchs of England. When news of the revolution reaches Boston, an uprising overthrows the unpopular Andros government. A temporary government based on the original charter is established to retain order in the wake of this upheaval.
1688-1697: Fighting between colonists and Native tribes resumes. This conflict is known as the Second Indian Wars or King William’s War. In addition to the rising causalities, taxes are increased to meet the mounting costs of the war, leading to a rise in inflation. This conflict leads to another large influx of refugees to Salem and the surrounding areas. Abigail Hobbs, Susannah Sheldon, Sara Churchwell, Mercy Short, all refugees from Maine, are later witnesses during the Salem witch trials. Having experienced the loss of family members, their communities, and homes, one can understand how these young women and children may have feared the devil lurking in the wilderness all around them.
1689: Samuel Paris becomes the first ordained minister of Salem Village. Though popular with certain prominent family’s in the Village, including the influential Putnam family, others oppose his appointment. Joseph Porter, Joseph Hutchinson, Daniel Andrew, Joseph Putnam and Francis Nurse vote not to pay Paris’s salary for a year. Salem Village falls into a deeper factional crisis, divided between those for and against Samuel Parris.
1692: There are many factors that contribute to the rise in fear, paranoia, and tension in the years leading up to the witch trials. One must consider how outbreaks of smallpox, Native attacks, wars, religious disputes, and harsh weather conditions would be interpreted by the people of this time. For the Puritans, this trouble is a cosmic sign. Behind it all is the belief the devil is lurking around every corner, seeking to ignite a moral panic and conspiracy of witches.
In this fearful climate, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris suddenly fall ill with strange and frightening symptoms. By mid-February, a local physician diagnoses this behavior as the result of bewitchment. As word of the illness spreads throughout Salem Village, and eventually Essex County, others begin to fall ill with the same alarming symptoms. The afflicted complain disembodied spirits stab and choke them and report terrifying visions. Soon, the afflicted identify these specters, naming neighbors, acquaintances, and total strangers as witches. Those who do not act in accordance with accepted social norms, such as outsiders and beggars, are the easiest to suspect. In Salem Village, the first accusations name a slave, a woman who married beneath her station, and a beggar. As fear continues to spread, those who are not obvious suspects are also accused, in many cases driven by old family feuds and rumors.
Because Massachusetts law is still uncertain, an emergency court is established. This special court, the Court of Oyer and Terminer, is led by elite members of the colony. Though the court attempts to conform to existing English law, the legal limbo posed by the freshly appointed charter leaves the court to make determinations based on their own research and judgment. For this reason, the controversial spectral sightings are used as admissible evidence for a conviction.
This unique court, combined with the years of infighting in Salem Village and massive tension across the colony, lead to the largest and most intensive witch-hunt to take place in the colonies. By the time the trials come to an end, 25 people are dead—five die in prison awaiting trial, 19 are executed by hanging, and one man is pressed to death after refusing to recognize the authority of the court.