Family history is full of surprises. Almost every family tree contains an
ancestor so colorful or tragic that you become obsessed with discovering more
about them. If you have early Essex County, Massachusetts, ancestry then you
might uncover a link to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. There were other witch
trials in the colonies, but none as noteworthy as those that occurred in Salem.
If you find a connection on your family tree you’ll end up pleasantly surprised
at the amount of material you can look at for evidence. Rhonda McClure's 2002
Computer Genealogist column, “ 17th-Century
History with a 21st-Century Twist: The Salem Witchcraft Trials on the Internet
” explored web resources on the topic. Her new book, Finding Your Famous
and Infamous Ancestors: Uncover the Rogues, Renegades, and Royals in Your Family
Tree (Betterway, 2003), is a wonderful resource for anyone with
If your ancestor lived in the Salem area at the time of trials you might find
them mentioned in the plethora of manuscripts, books, and articles on the topic.
From primary source documents to interpretations by famous historians to the
websites covered in Rhonda’s earlier article, there is no shortage on materials
While the reasons behind the hysteria are a topic of constant debate, there
are a few known facts. The whole series of episodes began in January 1692 when
two girls — Betty Parris, daughter of minister Samuel Parris, and his niece
Abigail Williams — began exhibiting strange behavior. By June the hunt for
“witches” expanded beyond Salem to Andover, Ipswich, Gloucester, and other areas
in Essex County. The last hangings occurred in September and by May of 1693 all
accused witches still imprisoned were released. The final count was twenty
executed and more than a hundred imprisoned (one died in prison).
Your family history might include both accusers and the accused since
intermarriages occurred. It’s easy to get carried away with excitement tracing a
notable ancestor, especially when you find materials that help tell the story of
his or her involvement in a key event in early American history. It’s a
wonderful melding of history and genealogy. Here’s a method for staying on
track and an overview of resources.
What’s Available in Print?
When researching topics I start with what’s in print because the resources
are easy to locate and often lead to new discoveries. You’ll also save time.
Rather than hunting for documents and sifting through irrelevant ones, start
with the printed sources and consult footnotes to locate those pertinent to your
After first checking the index to see if there are any specific references to
your ancestor, study the text to familiarize yourself with the background
history. This will help you interpret what you do find.
Your local public library should be able to obtain many of the titles listed
below through interlibrary loan. Most are still in print and available in
bookstores (online and otherwise).
Many of the original trial documents are now both in print and online. See
the previously mentioned Computer
Genealogist column by Rhonda McClure for useful links.
The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents
of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692 by P. Boyer and S. Nissenbaum,
eds. 3 vols. (DeCapo Press, 1977)
Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases: 1648-1706 ,
edited by George L. Burr (1914, reprint Barnes and Noble, 1975)
The Salem Witch Trials: A Primary Source History of the Witchcraft
Trials in Salem, Massachusetts (Primary Sources in American
History) by Jenny MacBain (Rosen, 2003) Written for
children from grades five to twelve, this title uses original documents to
explain the crisis.
There are numerous books on the Salem Witch Trials as historians reinterpret
the evidence. Here’s a select list of publications on the topic.
Witch Trials: A Day-To-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege by
Marilynne K. Roach (Cooper Square Press, 2002) This 600+ page book offers a
exhaustive chronological approach to the topic.
Hunting for Witches: A Visitor's Guide to the Salem Witch
Trials by Frances Hill (Commonwealth Editions, 2002) A visit to
Salem is a must for anyone with ancestry related to the witch trials. This book
guides the visitor through the streets of Salem to the significant houses,
churches, and landmarks of the time.
In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of
1692 by Mary Beth Norton (Knopf, 2002) One of America’s
leading historians uses newly discovered sources to analyze the factors that led
to the hysteria. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, Witchcraft in Colonial New
England by Carol F. Karlsen (New York: W. W. Norton &
Company, 1987). This classic work describes how gender relations, social
structure, and the role of women in Colonial society led to accusations of
The Salem Witch Trials Reader by Frances Hill (DeCapo
Press, 2000) This overview of facts and myths of the trials includes
commentary on firsthand accounts, the works of previous historians, and the
literary works that drew inspiration from the crisis.
There are three helpful resources to assist you in finding articles. The
Periodical Source Index (PERSI) on Ancestry.com contains citations for relevant articles in
both genealogical and historical publications. I discovered resources by using
“Massachusetts” and “Salem” as search terms in the locality index. Not all were
pertinent to the time period but it was easy to browse through the hits.
America: History and Life, a finding aid for academic journals, is
available at college and university libraries. It’s a very useful index, but can
be difficult to locate if you don’t live near a facility that has a
My public library subscribes to InfoTrac, a database that indexes magazines.
I use this to identify articles in popular magazines and some academic journals.
It’s easy to use and some of the articles are available in a full-text version
that eliminates having to track down the issue and make copies. Check with the
reference staff at your local public library to see what periodical indexes they
have available in print or via computer.
The Phillips Library at the Peabody
Essex Museum (East India Square, Salem, Massachusetts 01970) is a major
research center for the local history of Essex County. Items in their collection
relating to the Salem Witch crisis include court documents, maps, and vital
records. Many of these materials are online at The Salem Witch
Trials Documentary Archive . If you want to use their resources in person,
it is best to contact the reference staff in advance of your visit at
978-745-9500, ext. 3014.
Explore the Past
Planning a family history trip to visit the haunts of your Witch Trial
ancestors is simple. The
Salem Office of Tourism & Cultural Affairs has a variety of resources
for tourists on their website. Search their calendar of events, learn about
local history, and plan your trip all via their website.
Find your ancestors in historical journals, discover who they are in original
documents, and walk in their footsteps. Every new discovery will help you
understand more about your family and their role in an important period in