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Early History
It was the largest earthquake in the history of the new American republic that brought the first settlers to Salem. The New Madrid (Missouri) quake of 1811 - the quake that caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards and church bells to ring as far away as Boston - sent Capt. Samuel Young searching for a more hospitable home. Finding abundant game and tranquillity when he reached present-day Salem, he made camp on what is now the courthouse square.

In the 1820's, a severe drought hit northern and central Illinois, which contributed to the wagon loads of people traveling to southern Illinois to obtain food and grain for themselves and their livestock. As this was compared to the Biblical story of Israel going to Egypt to purchase grain, southern Illinois become known as "Egypt" and also "Little Egypt." Salem became the "Gateway of Little Egypt."

Salem was founded in 1823 as the County Seat of the newly formed Marion County. It is situated halfway between the Indiana and Missouri borders on what was originally the Vincennes-St.Louis Road, now U.S. Highway 50 (which goes from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco). Thus, Salem evolved into a stagecoach stop on the Vincennes Trail. Salem snoozed while the western migration of land-hungry settlers passed though its gates. Although most of the conestogas rolled through Salem, enough stopped to deposit their cargoes that Salem was eventually incorporated as a village in 1855. There is a legend of gold associated with one particular stagecoach stop.