A History of Salem, North Carolina

On November 29, 1751, a conference of the leaders of the Moravian Church met in London to consider an offer from John Carteret, 2nd Baronet Carteret, 2nd Earl of Granville. The Earl had offered to sell the church up to 100,000 acres of his land in the colony of North Carolina. Under the leadership of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf they decided to accept the Earl's offer. On August 25, 1752, a party of six Brethren, under the leadership of Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg, left Pennsylvania bound for Edenton in North Carolina. In Edenton they met with Granville's agent, Francis Corbin, and made arrangements to seek the land the church would buy.

On September 18, 1752, the Brethren, along with William Churton, Granville's chief surveyor, left Edenton bound for the North Carolina interior. Along the way they were joined by three local men who were hired as guides and assistants. For three months the party searched for suitable land. They went as far west as the mountains near what today is Boone, North Carolina. By mid-December they turned east and followed the Yadkin River. They surveyed some parcels of land near the present day town of Wilkesboro, known then as Mulberry Fields, but they were not satisfied. They pressed on eastward until, by the end of December, they had reached the three forks of the Muddy Creek, in what is today Forsyth County. They began the survey of this "Muddy Creek Land" on December 27, 1752 and completed it on January 13, 1753. In all they surveyed 98,985 acres. Bishop Spangenberg was convinced that this land had been reserved for the Brethren by the Lord. The Brethren departed for Bethlehem, Pennsylvanie arriving on February 12, 1753.

On August 7, 1753, in London, the church purchased the North Carolina land. By the Autumn of the same year a group of men had been selected to begin the North Carolina settlement. On October 8, 1753 a group of fifteen men departed from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania bound for Wachovia. After a journey of almost six weeks they finally arrived on November 17, 1753. Their first night was spent in an abandoned cabin that had been built a year earlier by a man known as Hans Wagner. Around this cabin the first settlers, and those that joined them later, built the first town, known as Bethabara.

As the years passed, the town of Bethabara continued to grow. In June of 1759, a second Moravian town was established. This town, known as Bethania, was located to the north of Bethabara. But, Bethabara was never intended to be the main town of the Wachovia settlement. From the beginning the church leaders had envisioned a town located in the center of the tract. By 1764, word was sent to the residents of Wachovia that the time to build the central town had come. Later that same year scouting parties, under the leadership of Fredrick William Marshall, began searching for suitable locations for the new town, which was to be called Salem. Several suitable sites were found. One by one the sites were presented to the Lord, through the drawing of the lot, for His approval. But, one by one the answer was no. On February 14, 1765 a site was presented to the Lord for His approval. This site was located on one of the hills above the Wach, one of the three forks of the Muddy Creek. This time the lot was drawn and the Lord's answer was yes. The daily text for that day gave the brethren an assurance that this indeed was the Lord's will. The text was from I Kings 8:29, "Let thine eye be opened toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which thou hast said, My name shall be there."

By January of 1766, a road had been built from Bethabara to the place that would become Salem. On Monday, January 6, 1766, the first trees were felled and the town was begun. Once again the daily text assured the brethren that this was the Lord's will. The text for that day was from Isaiah 37:35, "I will defend this city." Over the next five years construction proceeded on the town. Little by little, the residents of Bethabara moved to the new town as accommodations became available. By 1771, there were enough people in Salem to organize them into a separate congregation. On November 13, 1771, the Gemein Haus (Congregation House) was consecrated and the Salem Congregation was formed. The Gemein Haus served as the place of worship until 1800 when the Saal (present day sanctuary) was consecrated. The Sanctuary has been in continuous use, except during times of renovation, since 1800.

In time (1769 and expanded in 1786), a larger Single Brothers House, a Gemein Haus, and other structures grew around a central square. A tavern (first built of wood, but victim of a fire and replaced in 1784 by the current brick structure) was built on the outskirts of town, so that "strangers" (non-Moravians) could be kept at a distance. It proved very popular for travelers through this pre- and post-colonial wilderness, in which Salem was truly a peaceful haven, as well as an excellent source of quality crafted goods.

Salem remained a church-governed town until the mid-1800s. The church sold some of its land just north of Salem in 1849 to create the new county seat, a town that was named Winston in 1851. In 1913, Salem merged with neighboring Winston to become Winston-Salem, which is the county seat of Forsyth County.


The first building project in Salem was the construction of two cabins to house the workers who were building the town. On June 6, of 1766, the first stone was laid for the first permanent building, which was to be a private home. The year 1767 saw the construction of additional housing and also a pottery and a blacksmith shop. From 1767 to 1771, construction proceeded on the new town. Building projects during this time span included:

1767- The two story or Second House and the Third House (completed)
1768- The Fourth and Fifth Houses and the Pottery (completed)
1769- The north (half-timbered) portion of the Single Brothers House (completed)
1770- Construction begun on the Tavern and the Mill
1771- The Gemein Haus and the Miksch House (completed)

By the fall of 1771, both the buildings and the population of Salem had reached sufficient numbers to establish a separate congregation. (The people of Salem were members of the Bethabara congregation up until this point.) On November 13, 1771, the Gemein Haus was consecrated and the Salem congregation was formed. The Gemein Haus served as the main place of worship for the community until 1800.


Congregation House - Salem, NC - 1771

Salem continued to grow and prosper. During the dark days of the American Revolutionary War times were especially hard on the peace-loving Moravians. Their neutrality brought suspicion and contempt upon them from those on both sides of the independence issue. Surviving through the war, with much hardship, the Moravians of Salem continued to build their town after the end of the hostilities. On July 4, 1783, the people of Salem, following a decree that had been issued by Governor Alexander Martin of the state of North Carolina, celebrated the return of peace with three services that lasted throughout the day. One of these services is still observed to this day. The service is sponsored by Home Moravian Church and is held on the morning of July 4th at 8:30 a.m., with a band prelude at 8:00 a.m.. This service is open to the public.

In the year 1791, the President of the United States, George Washington, visited for two days in the town of Salem. His main reason for visiting the town was to see the water delivery system that the Brethren had installed. Through a series of hollowed wood logs the Brethren were piping water from springs located some distance away to cisterns located throughout the town. Some of the major buildings, such as the Single Brothers House and the Tavern had the running water piped directly into the buildings.

By 1798, the need for the community to have a building exclusively for worship services resulted in plans being made to build a church building for the congregation. On May 25th of that year, the land was staked out and construction was begun on the new Saal. The Saal took two and a half years to complete, being finished and consecrated on November 9, 1800. Except during times of renovation, the church, now known as Home Moravian Church, has been in continuous use.

From its founding in 1766 through the 1800s, Salem was a "congregation town". All of the land within the town belonged to the church. The church controlled who lived within the towns limits and what could be built upon the lots. By the mid 1800s, the church's control on the town began to ease. In 1854, church ownership of the property began to be transferred to the individuals that lived on the lots. In 1856, Salem was incorporated and began functioning as any other town. In 1859, the town of Winston was established on the northern border of Salem as the seat of government for the newly created county of Forsyth. By 1913, the two towns had merged to form Winston-Salem. As the new town grew the old Moravian town began to deteriorate from neglect. By the 1940s, the old town was slowly disappearing in the name of "progress". Concerned citizens realized that if action were not taken, the town of Salem and its historic buildings would soon be gone, forever.


Salem Female Academy - 1805

Through the tireless efforts of members of the community, plans were made to halt the destruction of the old town. On May 22, 1950, the non-profit organization, known as Old Salem, Inc., was formed. Throughout the 1950s property was acquired and restorations were made to the buildings. As the work proceeded through the 1960s the town began to regain its once noble appearance. Though the job is yet to be completed, Salem stands today very much like the town it once was. Many of the restored buildings are administered by Old Salem, Inc. and are open to visitors that have purchased an admission ticket.


Salem was granted a US Post Office on October 1, 1792, and its first Postmaster was Mr. Gottlieb Shober. On June 15, 1899, the towns of Winston and Salem were merged as the new county seat of Forsyth County, and its PO has been in operation ever since.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved