‘Head Witch’ is no more: New book establishes Roger Conant’s place in history | New

SALEM — For tourists who obviously don’t know any better, Roger Conant is the “chief witch” represented by a towering bronze statue in front of the Salem Witch Museum.

But he was in fact a “planter,” a prominent settler considered the father of Salem and today the namesake of streets and public places throughout the North Shore. Decades before the witch trials gave immortality to the seaside town of Salem, Conant was a fisherman and salter, and labor organizer largely omitted from the history books for nearly 400 years.

That is, until a fellow labor organizer sees the need – just in time for Labor Day – to tell another’s story and give Roger Conant his place in the private and public libraries.

“The Founding of Salem: City of Peace”, published by Arcadia Publishing, is a book by local author Benjamin Shallop released towards the end of August. Unlike the countless books filling souvenir shops that deal with the illusion of witchcraft and Salem ghost stories, Shallop’s tells the story of the world that led a handful of European settlers to set sail for Salem.

While Conant’s place in this story has at this point been locally recognized (he has a statue, after all), that hasn’t always been the case.

“The Pilgrim authorities – particularly Governor (William) Bradford – seemed to have made a conscious effort to erase him from history 400 years ago,” said Salem resident Shallop, a member of the Salem Housing Authority. Board and local labor. representative to the Screen Actors Guild. “It’s an injustice not only to Conant but also to Salem’s legacy that I would like to see corrected.”

The Essex Institute, one of two historical institutions in Salem that merged to become the Peabody Essex Museum in 1992, published “Historical Collections” at least four times a year from 1859 to 1993. A recent review of thousands of he articles and topics explored in the publications showed that none focused exclusively on Conant.

Leaving Cape Ann for Salem

This despite the fact that Conant directly led some of the settlers from the then-collapsed colony of Cape Ann to a new opportunity along the coast, on a peaceful strip of land they came to call “Naumkeag”.

“The men and women who first came to Salem were not stern, sin-obsessed Protestant reactionaries who preached fire and brimstone,” Shallop writes in the book’s introduction. “They were fishermen and families of fishermen, salters who preserved fish for transport to Europe, and a few farmers, who planted crops to support and support those who worked in the fishing industry. “

The book, at 144 pages, doesn’t really explore the settlement of Salem until chapter six. Throughout these first 92 pages, he delves into the indigenous culture that populated the region before 1620, the fishing industry that established an empire across the North Atlantic in the early 17th century, the entry of Conant in the salt trade that seasoned London in the 17th century, and the disputes that would define Cape Ann for the two years it operated.

This all happened before 1626, when Conant set foot on an outcrop of land along the North River, now known as March Street. Once Salem was installed, Conant quickly became the first governor of what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.

“He was the one who did the work to build compromise and community around Cape Ann, Naumkeag and, later, Salem,” Shallop said. “The other thing about Roger Conant that really speaks to me is that while researching him, I discovered that he was a member of the Salters’ Company. It was one of the corporations medieval England. This means that he was a trade unionist, a trade union leader in a real and tangible sense.

“I joke that he was a trade unionist,” Shallop admitted, “but he was an active member of an organization that looked a lot like what a trade union is today.”

It’s clear what Shallop had, he said: an opportunity to tell the whole Conant story.

“We seem to have all these huge memorials to Conant around the North Shore,” he said, recounting several from Salem to Gloucester. “We have nothing written about him. There was a kind of… kind of an attempt at a biography that was done about 100 years ago. But it was missing a lot. »

Indigenous past

With this book now written, there are still more issues to address.

Salem’s awareness of its indigenous past expanded while Shallop worked on the book, thanks in large part to the city’s efforts to commission and install a painting of an indigenous leader in City Hall. This effort has led to an ongoing partnership between city officials and current rulers and descendants of the Massachusett tribe.

With that, there’s still a huge problem to solve, Shallop explained: better understanding Massachusetts, which he argues history has often misidentified as “the Naumkeag Indians.” This would allow local indigenous culture to regain its own identity 400 years after settlers arrived in Naumkeag, now Salem, the City of Peace.

The book, Shallop noted, still refers to the local tribe as they chose historically.

“‘Naumkeag’ seems to be, in contemporary times, how people referred to the place of Salem, not the people who lived here,” Shallop said. “I went with ‘Massachusett,’ because that was the best evidence of what the people here were called.”

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or [email protected] Follow him on facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.