Our History

Salem Oak Tree

Salem Oak

Salem County comprises 349.75 square miles and is located in the southwestern part of the state. Its name, derived from the Hebrew word “Shalom,” meaning “peace,” Salem County is the site of the first permanent English speaking settlement on the Delaware River in 1675. The first European arrivals, however, were Dutch traders followed by Swedes and Finns in 1638 who established “New Sweden,” of which Salem County was a part. An attempt at English settlement followed in the 1640s, but failed after a few years. From the outset, relations between the county’s native peoples, the Lenni Lenape, and the Europeans were generally peaceful, so that when English Quaker John Fenwick arrived in 1675, he and his fellow colonists would build upon these relatively peaceful precedents. Local tradition maintains that Fenwick treatied with the Lenni Lenape beneath the “Salem Oak,” still a revered landmark in Salem City.

Fenwick’s arrival marked the beginning of the first Quaker colony in North America, predating Philadelphia and Pennsylvania by seven years. Fenwick’s colony, known as the Salem Tenth, originally encompassed both present-day Salem and Cumberland Counties, and slowly began attracting settlers reflecting the developing diversity of the Middle Atlantic colonies. Salem City was planned as the “shire town” of the little colony, and remains so today as the seat of Salem County government. Nonetheless, Fenwick’s settlement was relatively quickly outpaced by nearby Philadelphia as the region’s commercial and cultural hub, due largely to that city’s more favorable location. Salem County’s towns and villages developed as local and regional centers of trade.

Historic Hancock House

Hancock House

The county was the scene of some military activity during the American Revolution. Both the Continental and British armies occupied the county in 1778 while on foraging expeditions. The British occupation came to be known as the Salem Raid, during which time several skirmishes occurred with members of the local militia. Most horrific, however, was the Hancock House massacre in which the Queen’s Rangers carried out a surprise raid on the militia’s outpost at Hancock’s Bridge, bayoneting a number of militiamen to death. The house remains as an historic shrine, rescued from destruction through the efforts of the Salem County Historical Society in the 1930s.

A stop for the Underground Railroad


The ending of the Revolution marked the last time that war directly touched Salem County soil. The events leading up to the Civil War, however, greatly affected the county’s citizenry. One route of the Underground Railroad passed through the county, and a documented station survives today in Salem City, as well as a number of other associated sites. Salem County has long been home to an important African-American community. Mt. Pisgah A.M.E. Church in Salem was founded in 1800 and is one of America’s oldest African-American churches. During that war, nearby Fort Delaware was used as a prison for captured Confederates, and the remains of soldiers who died there lie in Finns Point National Cemetery in Pennsville.

Industrial development did not take place to any great degree until the mid-nineteenth century, with the notable exceptions of the glassmaking and shipbuilding industries. Casper Wistar established the first successful glassworks in America in 1739 in Alloway Township, and the Reeve Brothers operated a prosperous and technologically innovative shipyard in Alloway village in the early 19th century. Most industrial activity, however, began in earnest in the 1860s, including glassmaking, food processing, ice cream, and the floorcovering manufactures. With this modest industrial expansion also came an accompanying growth in population, although the county remained largely rural and agricultural. One of the most interesting settlements of the late 19th century – the Alliance Colony – was established as an agricultural colony for Jewish immigrants in the 1880s in Pittsgrove Township and environs. In the late 19th century the DuPont Company established a gunpowder works in Carney’s Point, initiating a great period of industrial expansion spurred on by the military needs of World War I.

An improved and expanded network of highways in the 20th century, including the construction of the Harding Highway (US Route 40), the Delaware Memorial Bridge, New Jersey Turnpike, and Interstate 295, have perhaps brought about more change locally than any other single factor, for these transportation improvements mitigated the county’s previously isolated location. While the county still remains largely agricultural, urban and industrial sites have developed in the riverfront communities. Despite this growth, however, the county retains to a remarkable degree its traditional character. An astonishing array of historic architecture survives throughout the county, including a unique concentration of 18th century “patterned brick” buildings in which dark-hued brick were used to create designs on exterior walls. One early example, the Abel and Mary Nicholson House (1722), in Elsinboro, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. Two National Register Historic Districts are also to be found in Salem City. State and county organizations also maintain a number of historic sites including Fort Mott State Park and Finns Point National Cemetery (Pennsville), the Hancock House Historic Site (Hancock’s Bridge), Finns Point Rear Range Light (Pennsville), Church Landing Farm (Pennsville), the Lower Alloways Creek Log House Museum (Canton) and the Dickinson House (Woodstown). The county’s oldest and largest historical organization, the Salem County Historical Society, maintains an extensive museum and research library in a complex of historic buildings in Salem City. In addition, a number of historically significant houses of worship are maintained by religious organizations. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the large number of residents who can trace their family histories here a century and more, including many descendents of the original settlers.

Quaker founder John Fenwick boasted in 1675 that Salem County was a “terrestrial Canaan, where the land floweth with milk and honey.” Three centuries later, the county remains a land rich in history and scenic beauty and one of the Northeast’s most unspoiled rural areas.

Reprinted from the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, Courtesy Rutgers University Press