Puritan Communities: Was Salem Village Unique?
Salem village in 1692 is something every student learns about in their basic American history course. They learn about the witchcraft trials, and the hangings that followed. They learn about Increase and Cotton Mather, father and son on opposite sides of the issue of witchcraft. If they are lucky, they learn about Rev. Samuel Parris and what led some to like him and his judgments, and others to despise him.
But they do not typically learn about the Porters and the Putnams, the two big families of Salem Village. They do not learn about the Anti- and Pro-Parris groups led by these families. They do not learn about the group wanting to be separate from Salem Town or about how they clashed with the group wanting to stay. They do not learn what happened in Salem after the trials were over. Without learning about these things, students assume that Salem Village is unique and full of insanity. But with these things, this political turmoil, in mind, one comes to realize that Salem village, though its witchcraft trials were unique, in and of itself was a normal village with normal village problems, though better documented than many others.
Generalizing the towns of early New England can be dangerous. Each town has its own story, with people from different areas and backgrounds residing in each. With this is mind, one has to ask if there can even be something considered the ‘typical’ town. Town and villages, even ones within a few miles of each other, could vary in many different ways. The way land was distributed was a common variation, as was what crops the townspeople were prone to plant and when. Marketing arrangements between towns differed in areas as well, as did the type of labor that prevailed.1
People coming overseas from England typically came in groups, sometimes whole villages would move to New England together. But when they did not or when outsiders mixed in, it often resulted in conflict. Most villages in England were set up either as a manorial village, with open fields, an incorporated borough or an enclosed farm village. Trying to accommodate the needs of everyone who came to New England led to a huge variety in the set up of New England towns. Immigrants had to adjust to each other, leading to tension but eventually cooperation. But towns also sometimes did exclude “such whose dispositions do not suit us, whose society will be hurtful to us.”2
But even with these differences, it is good to take note that most villages were small, intimate and essentially cooperative. The people dealt with each other every day, went to church, gossiped and did what needed doing. The ‘perfect’ town had peace, unity and order. The people were conservative and resisted change. But no town was always perfect, it just was not possible.
In most towns in New England, the government, the minister, and the sermons were not ‘home grown’, meaning that they came from areas not around the town and thus had different ideas about how things should be done. This eventually and inevitably led to conflict over a myriad of things. The majority of these were religious disagreements, and many of them happened within the ministry before the public even got wind of them.
One of the more interesting New England towns, and a well-documented one at that, is the town of Sudbury. From 1655 to 1657 there was a major clash in the town between two groups of people. The younger generation, those raised in the town, were resisting the restrictions placed on them by the older, the founders of the town. The biggest of these restrictions was how land was distributed. The younger generation was against how the older generation did things and sought to change them. However, the older, having created the rules, did not wish to allow the change. This led to a split within the town, and eventually led to the formation of the town of Marlborough.
There are a few interesting things to note about the town of...
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