Digging Up Witch Lore in Old Salem Village: The Rev. Samuel Parris Home

Introduction: In this article, Melissa Davenport Berry writes about the archaeological dig exploring the Salem Witch Trials in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts. Melissa is a genealogist who has a blog, AnceStory Archives, and a Facebook group, New England Family Genealogy and History.

It has been 50 years since Richard B. Trask organized the big dig in Danvers, Massachusetts (originally Salem Village). The project’s goal was to excavate 300 years of buried history through the work of archaeologists, historians, and a legion of volunteers. The chosen spot was the home of Rev. Samuel Parris, the nest hive of the Salem witch hysteria of 1692.

Illustration: Rev. Samuel Parris, 1653-1720, Puritan minister in Salem Village during the Salem Witch Trials
Illustration: Rev. Samuel Parris, 1653-1720, Puritan minister in Salem Village during the Salem Witch Trials; original in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

I did some research to learn more about this, including articles in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. For example, I found an article by Sharon S. McKern in the Boston Record American which detailed the project and its findings.

An article about the Salem Witch Trials, Boston Record American newspaper article 20 June 1971
Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 June 1971, page 198

The Parris house was chosen because “it offered a critical link to the origins of the 1692 witch-craze.” It was in this home, during mid-winter of that year, that Parris’ 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth, and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams (granddaughter of Roger Williams), were afflicted. Tituba, a West Indian slave woman owned by Samuel Parris, was accused of conjuring the devil through sorcery and occult magic, causing the girls to have hysterical fits.

As this article reported:

An article about the Salem Witch Trials, Boston Record American newspaper article 20 June 1971
Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 June 1971, page 198

Prior to the excavation Trask, curator of the Danvers Historical Society, made a big dig into the archives.

An article about the Salem Witch Trials, Boston Record American newspaper article 20 June 1971
Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 June 1971, page 198

After the trials and executions of 1692-1693, Salem Village wanted nothing more than to bury that dark period of its history. However, the young energetic Trask set out “to fill gaps left by guilt-laden and reluctant historians of that troubled time.” The stars lined up and a community project was launched.

Trask enlisted the aid of renowned archaeologist Roland W. Robbins and town manager Robert E. Curtis. Curtis, who caught Trask’s enthusiasm, authorized the use of Department of Public Works equipment, and backhoe operator Charles Cahill worked in unison with Robbins.

Photo: archaeologist Roland Robbins and volunteers probing the area to locate the Parris house foundation
Photo: archaeologist Roland Robbins and volunteers probing the area to locate the Parris house foundation. Courtesy of Richard B. Trask.

The location of the Parris house foundation was discovered in a field owned by Alfred Hutchinson, who permitted the excavation without fees. Hutchinson was descended from Rebecca Nurse, one of the women hanged in 1692 as a witch.

The project drew a crowd of photographers and the story got on record. What was discovered, beyond the foundation? For one thing, they found remnants of the crude lean-to once occupied by Tituba, along with numerous artifacts – nearly 60 bags full, some of which were directly traceable to the Parris household.

Photo: clay pipes found during the archaeological dig in Danvers, Massachusetts
Photo: clay pipes found during the archaeological dig in Danvers, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Richard B. Trask.

Among the artifacts was a fragment of a metal tray engraved with the initials “SPE,” indicating ownership by Rev. Samuel Parris and his wife Elizabeth (nee Noyes). Other treasures included gold coins dating from 1684, clay pipes, earthenware, buckles, food remnants, animal bones, 17th century window glass, brass spoons, silverware, oxen shoes, slipware pieces, portion of a lice-comb, and more than 250 whole bricks. These relics are catalogued and housed in Danvers.

Photo: some of the artifacts uncovered during the archaeological dig in Danvers, Massachusetts
Photo: some of the artifacts uncovered during the archaeological dig in Danvers, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Richard B. Trask.

Trask was amazed by the number of shattered beverage bottles unearthed from the site, which tells us that the Puritans – not nearly as prudish as history portrays them – were prodigious drinkers of wine and ale.

Photo: Richard B. Trask examines the bottom of a 17th century wine bottle
Photo: Richard B. Trask examines the bottom of a 17th century wine bottle. Courtesy of Richard B. Trask.

We owe a great deal to Trask and his team, who reconstructed a significant phase of American history.

Since the time of the big dig, Trask is considered one of the experts on all things relating to the Salem Witch Trials. He has appeared in Smithsonian and History Channel documentaries, consulted for both film (Three Sovereigns for Sarah) and print, and published on the subject. He currently is the head archivist at the Danvers Archival Center located at the Peabody Institute Library in Danvers, Massachusetts.

Stay tuned for more on Rev. Samuel Parris and Salem Village.

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