Where do Salems come from?

From Salem, New Hampshire, to Salem, Oregon, there are relatively few cities and towns of consequence in the United States named Salem. Even when you add in the variants, the number doesn't rise over a dozen. The official urbanized areas named Salem number just nine. (A population of more than 5,000 according to the Census Bureau is what it takes to be an official urbanized area.) The nine, and their approximate population as of 1994 (perhaps I should buy a new World Almanac) are:

  • Salem, Illinois -- 7,500
  • Salem, Indiana -- 5,600
  • Salem, Massachusetts -- 38,000
  • Salem, New Hampshire -- 25,700
  • Salem, New Jersey -- 6,800
  • Salem, North Carolina1 -- 143,500
  • Salem, Ohio -- 12,200
  • Salem, Oregon -- 108,000
  • Salem, Virginia -- 23,700

1This North Carolina city, the largest Salem of any on the map, is sometimes called Winston-Salem by those who know no better.

While Salem is unique in Indiana (as it is in the cosmos, to be sure), there is a New Salem, IN (a crossroads on U.S. 52 southeast of Indianapolis) and a North Salem, IN (west of Indianapolis at the intersection of State roads 75 and 236).

(Just in case you were wondering, there are Washington counties in 31 states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.)

The Biblical Salem

The name Salem is found in the Bible. Genesis 14:18 tells us Salem was the home of Melchizedek, a priest who blessed Abraham: "And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. 19And he blessed him and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; 20and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!"

Salem is derived from "shalom," the Hebrew word for "peace." Jerusalem, King David's city, is "foundation of peace." The link between Salem and Jerusalem may have inspired the idea that Melchizedek himself was an ancestor of David, which was given poetic expression in Psalm 110: "You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek."

(The real significance of this may have been political: David probably needed a little traction against the sons of Levi, who held fast for a couple of thousand years to the idea that they were the only legitimate priests of Yahweh in Israel. Whatever the reason, it worked for Jesus as well. In Hebrews 5:5, Paul extends the idea that David was a priest to take in the Son of David as well: "So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee"; 6 as he says also in another place, "Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.")

King David and Salem, Indiana are entangled in another way, as well. In "Blue Highways," a wonderful book about his wanderings across America, William Least Heat Moon writes about yet another Salem, this one in New Jersey:

    Salem, a colonial town to the west, was abundant with old buildings and homes that would be museums most anywhere else in the country, but here they were just more declining houses, even though many stood when the men of Salem sent beef to Valley Forge to help save Washington's troops from starvation. The town is the birthplace of Zadock Street, a restless fellow who left New Jersey in 1803 to make his way into the new western territory. As he went, he and his sons founded towns in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa, and named them all Salem; in Ohio, his Salem sprouted North Salem, West Salem, South Salem, Lower Salem, and Salem Center. Americans can be thankful that Zadock Street was not born in Freidberger or Quonochontaug."

(The King David connection in this one? It's Zadock Street's namesake. Surely you remember that David had two priests, Abiathar and Zadok?)

I hereby petition the Salem city council to rename a major thoroughfare in the town to be (what else?) Zadock Street. (12/7/00)

That's such a good story it's a shame it might not be true. The Salem, Ohio Web site, for instance, says of the town, "Founded and settled by the Friends (a.k.a. 'Quakers') religious group in 1806, the city was active in the early anti-slavery movement of the early-to-mid 1800's. Still standing are many of the beautiful homes connecting the famous Underground Railroad with their hidden rooms and secret passageways." The dates match Moon's, but there's no mention of the Streets, and Moon doesn't tell us whether Zadock Street was a Quaker, which might make a connection, however tenuous.

Salem, Indiana, may have had an altogether different genesis, too. Lulie Davis wrote in The Sesquicentennial History that "Salem was born of necessity. On December 21, 1813, the Legislature passed an act creating Washington County from parts of Clark and Harrison Counties. Early in 1814 organization of the county began. One of the first steps was to select a location for the county seat. A committee, consisting of Joseph Paddox, Peter McIntosh and Ignatius Abel of Harrison County, and Marston G. Clark and Joseph Bartholomew of Clark County, was appointed. They met January 17, 1814 at the house of William Lindley, the present home site of Oris Gilstrap on South Main Street. Several days were spent viewing sites. Royce's Lick was the first to be considered. Other sites were Mill Creek, Fort Hill, Beck's Mill, and the confluence of Royce's Fork of Blue River and Brock Creek. The last named site was chosen.

"In selecting a name for the town, Mt. Vernon was suggested; but rejected because it could not be correctly pronounced by the German settlers. Washington was considered. The Commissioners permitted their hostess, Mrs. William Lindley, to choose the name, and she selected Salem, after her home town in North Carolina." (4/23/01)

Back | Home