According to a brief history compiled for the 150th anniversary of our town, Salem’s origins go far deeper than her incorporation in 1819. Though settled by Europeans as early as 1664, the original land was called Paugwonk, a name affiliated with a Mohegan tribe who had settled near what is now called Fairy Lake. Until 1705, the land was used as a primary hunting ground for the Mohegans.
Though the land comprising today’s Salem was held by both Lyme and Colchester, the two towns eventually decided to sell off portions to various patrons. Between 1718-1729, approximately 6500 acres in southern Salem (Lyme) and another 1500 acres in northern Salem (Colchester) were acquired by Colonel Samuel Browne, a “transplant” from Salem, Massachusetts. In 1725 Browne was given permission by Lyme and Colchester officials to establish his landholdings as the parish of New Salem. Originally, wheat was the key agricultural product coming out of the area with much of it being shipped to Boston.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, Connecticut was a British colony and Colonel Browne, being a Tory, was sympathetic to the Crown rather than with the cause of the Patriots. He left Salem in 1774 and was eventually appointed the governor of Bermuda in 1780. In the meantime, Browne’s landholdings were forfeited to the State of Connecticut in February 1779, whereupon various segments were deeded to small farm owners. Between 1769 – 1786, New Salem was further reduced in size by the establishment of Chesterfield and Montville.
Finally, in 1819, the boundaries of Salem were fixed and the town was incorporated. At the time, it was a prosperous farming community with blacksmiths, gristmills and taverns. Thus were the early years of New Salem’s history carved out by God.
In 1725, the General Assembly authorized that a tax be levied for the support of a church. The following year two acres were deeded on what is now called Music Vale Road on which to place a church, burial ground and training field. The people felt the need for a meeting house “for ye public worship of God, in ye new parish partly in Colchester and partly in Lyme commonly called New Salem.” And so it was that in 1728 a “Prisbotyrian Meeting House” was built on Music Vale Road.
Within 50 years, that building would suffer complete destruction and a new site was selected on the corner of what is now Witch Meadow Road and route 85 (once known as the Governor’s Highway.) This site was home to two separate buildings, the last of which was demolished and the materials recycled towards the construction of the current Meeting House located on the Salem Town Green. This last building was erected in 1838, while the church itself was experiencing a time of great prosperity.
Up until 1890, the property, pastor’s salary and operational costs for the cemetery were coordinated by the Ecclesiastical Society of New Salem. In that year, by order of the General Assembly of the State of CT, The Congregational Church of Salem became incorporated. In that same year, the Ecclesiastical Society of New Salem turned over all it’s property consisting of buildings, grounds, burial grounds and records to the Salem Church. Also around that time, the Salem Church joined with the Ecclesiastical Society of New London and adopted their statement of faith.
The Salem Church has cycled between times of want and prosperity with membership to match. Much of this was due to dramatic reductions in the town’s population prior to WWII. Now The Congregational Church of Salem is vibrant and active with many families and individuals worshipping God together.