On March 18, 1673, John Fenwick purchased in trust, an area known as West Jersey from Edward Byllinge for 1,000 pounds. On September 23, 1675 Fenwick's ship dropped anchor in the Delaware River and he came ashore naming the new land Salem, which is the Hebrew word for peace. This was the first permanent English settlement in the Delaware Valley.
In addition to Salem, which was to be the capital of his proprietary, John Fenwick conceived plans for laying out towns in several areas including the area now known as Carneys Point, Finn's Point Town and Cohansey (Greenwich). Salem Town possessed several attributes which gave the area lasting appeal as a center of commerce and development. Tanners, merchants, hatters, fur traders, blacksmiths and carpenters were among the early businessmen. Public auctions were held regularly at the fair grounds located at the foot of Broadway which was surveyed in October 1675. Many of the earliest residences built on Market Street and Broadway were on 10 or 16 acre "town lots", though none of these structures remain standing. Town plans of 1845 and 1850 show that most of the building lots along East and West Broadway had been developed by 1850.
Salem's early shipping industry, based on the wharves along both Fenwick Creek and Salem Creek, received shipments from Philadelphia, Boston and the Caribbean. The colony grew slowly at first, due in part to competition for settlers among contemporary colonies in the area, and also because of Fenwick's poor relationship with other proprietors. Nonetheless, the town of Salem was incorporated in 1695. New roads including Salem St., (later Fenwick Street, then East Broadway), were built and activity reached a hectic pace with the advent of the Revolutionary War.
Although no actual battles were fought here, the City was involved in the British pursuit of "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who had come to Salem County seeking food for the starving patriots at Valley Forge. Salem was also indirectly involved in the skirmishes at Quinton and Hancock's Bridge. Revolutionary soldiers are buried in St. John's Cemetery, in the Baptist Cemetery on Yorke Street, and Methodist Cemetery on Walnut Street. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, a ferry service was established from the foot of Broadway to Supawna Road, thence to the Delaware shore.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the construction of new homes accelerated, and the first newspaper published in Salem, The Gazette, appeared in 1816. In 1817 a movement began to relocate the county seat to Woodstown, which is closer to the geographic center of the county. This effort was defeated, and Salem remains the county seat to this day.
In 1820, legend has it that Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson introduced the tomato to Salem County farmers. While there appears to be little substance to the legend, it is nonetheless true that tomato agriculture and related industry developed into the major economy in this area after the Civil War. Johnson was born on the "Netherlands Plantation", about a mile from Salem, on July 23, 1771. In 1790 he graduated from the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Johnson served with the Second Regiment of the New Jersey Brigade during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, and rose to the rank of full colonel in the state militia in 1817. He served in the State Assembly in 1821, 1823, and 1825. In 1826 he organized the county's first agricultural and horticultural society. In 1845 he helped organize the New Jersey Historical Society, and served as its first vice president. Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson died in 1850.
In the later part of the 1800's, industrial development became more prominent in the City. One of the most important industries in Salem was the manufacturing of machinery. The Ayars Machine Company moved from its original location in Othello, near Greenwich, Cumberland County, to #1 Ward Street in 1873 and produced canning machinery, mowers and other implements. The Salem Glass Works, established in 1863, is now the container division of the Anchor Glass Corporation which is located on Griffith Street, Salem. In 1883 the Salem Glass Works was the most important industry in town and employed 350 persons in the manufacture of bottles and fruit jars. Gayner Glass Works, founded by John Gayner in 1874, specialized in the hand blowing and pressing of glass. The site of the Gayner glassworks at the corner of Front Street and Broadway is now part of the City's Port district.
Tanning and glassmaking remained major industries throughout the nineteenth century. Glassmaking found expanded markets in the 1860's with the development of canning and pickling industries near the Broadway Street wharves. In 1883, Owen L. Jones controlled an extensive canning establishment on Fifth Street composed of four large buildings and a warehouse devoted exclusively to the canning of tomatoes. Another canning factory operated at the end of Hubbell Avenue late in the 19th century.
The City of Salem served as an important depot for imports as well as an outlet for local agricultural and manufactured products until the late nineteenth century. The first railroad in Salem County ran to Elmer where it connected with the Camden-Bridgeton line. A train depot was built on Grant Street in 1882 when the railroad bridged Fenwick Creek from Claysville. Between 1830 and 1850, the population of Salem grew from 1,570 to 3,052.