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Cottages of the Salem Settlers

What did the earliest homes in Salem look like?

While there are 11 houses in Salem that date to the 1600s, the earliest confirmed home in Salem is the Pickering House, dating to 1664. This and all others were built when Salem was already established as a settlement for over 34 years. None of the the earliest shelters, the first homes of the English settlers survive (that we know of; there could be evidence buried somewhere in the framing of an existing house). While we will never know for sure what the temporary shelters in Salem would have looked like, there are some examples that you can view and tour for yourself in Massachusetts.

The English brought their traditional ways of homebuilding to New England.

Simple cottages were common throughout the Southern English countryside. One-room versions were the quickest sort of shelter that could be erected and still give a sense of home. Take a 3d tour of this traditional 17th century English cottage preserved at the Weald and Downland Living History Museum.

Once the settlers landed, likely the first task was to set about harvesting trees for building shelter. The first few weeks they may have slept on board the ship and gone ashore during the day to shape the timber frames. Shelter was a priority but there was only enough time to erect the smallest 'cottages'. They were almost entirely one-room shelters, not much larger than 250sf. The Governor would eventually live in the 'faire house', likely the only 2 story house in the settlement. Most other families had to live, sleep and work in single drafty, dimly-lit, smoky room covered in by a frame of massive timbers, walls of boards and a roof of bundled, dried marsh reeds.

There are a couple of examples of first shelters within the North Shore, many of them you can visit.

Pioneer Village, Salem

The first living history museum in the country was established at Salem in 1930. Created by antiquarians as a set for the live recreation of the 1630 landing of John Winthrop (the first Governor of Massachusetts and orator of the "city upon a hill" sermon). It was preserved by the citizens and opened as an interactive museum with costumed actors playing roles of ancient citizens as they authentically worked amongst the old houses and their gardens.

Many of the houses are of the one-room

Today Pioneer Village is open to the public, seasonally. The trees have all grown in around the structures. Originally they would have all been cut down for firewood and the land would be nearly bare of trees. But the mature trees make for a very romantic visual as if the village is buried deep in the forest.

Plimoth/Patuxet, Plymouth

One of America's most well-known living history museums, the recreation of the Plimoth Plantation from the 1620s. A collection of one-room homes arranged around a sloping hill; the exact configuration of the city which can still be seen (with updated architecture) in downtown Plymouth.

The interiors are perfect examples of rustic simplicity forced upon them by their religion and environment. Windows were generally just holes in the wall, supported by a simple frame, with an interior wooden shutter that slides over the hole - as seen on the wall in the far left corner of the room. One or two of these windows would provide the only access to natural light and air. The floor was packed dirt. The timber frame, exposed on the ceiling would have been hand-hewn by an axe from trees cut down in the immediate area.

Plimoth/Patuxet is located an hour South of Salem, it's worth the drive for the ability to be truly transported back.

Alexander Knight House, Ipswich

30 minutes north of Salem is a reconstructed one-room house built by the town for Alexander Knight and his family after a series of disasters. Its details were recorded in the town records and recovered in the early 2000s in what would turn out to lead to a multi-year volunteer-led reconstruction process using traditional materials and techniques. Today it is cared for by the Ipswich Museum and open alongside original grand Post-Medieval and Federal mansions to tour.

The home can be viewed on South Main Street in Ipswich, and a tour is highly recommended through the Ipswich Museum.

Also in Ipswich, but not open to the public, is the Shatswell Planters Cottage, reportedly built in 1646.

Thanks for reading!



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