Where did the name of South Berwick’s Witchtrot Road come from?

Rev. George Burroughs headstone at Salem, MAThe earliest mention of “Witchtrot” found so far is in an 1834 South Berwick deed.  A property on Old South Road is identified as being on the way to Witchtrot.  The legend of Witchtrot Road comes from local story telling, by generations of South Berwick folk.  The name is associated with the Salem witch trials and a minister from Wells named Rev. George Burroughs.

Reverend Burroughs was the minister at the Wells meeting house.  He was held in high regard in Wells, an Indian fighter and a hero, for leading the successful defense of the village garrison during a recent Indian attack.  However, he had formerly been the minister in Salem village, where he had made some enemies among some of the townspeople.  He also was at odds with Cotton Mather, the politically powerful Puritan minister of Massachusetts Bay.   

In 1692, three men burst into the dwelling house of Burroughs, then living in Wells with his wife and children.

The men had traveled from Salem with a summons to take Rev. Burroughs prisoner and bring him to Salem village to stand trial for witchcraft.   The minister was so certain of his innocence, that not only did he agree to go immediately and peaceably, but also offered to get them to Salem more quickly by way of a backwoods shortcut from Wells, through Tatnic, directly to a wading place across the Salmon Falls River in present-day South Berwick.

Sarah Orne Jewett described what happened next, in “The Old Town of Berwick.”  The three Salem men, riding horseback with Reverend Burroughs, found themselves in isolated and unfamiliar territory as a thunderstorm broke out.  They later claimed that Reverend Burroughs cast a spell upon them.  The horses seemed to fly through the air, and the lightning flashed blue, and there were awful gleams around Burroughs’ head, as he led them onwards. Of the four men, only Burroughs showed no fear.  The Salem men believed the whole situation to be the work of the devil, as they assumed they were in the presence of a powerful witch.  Their terror was worsened as they rode their horses up and down small steep hills in midst of the turmoil of the storm, on a path overhung with huge and wildly waving trees.  That path was today’s Witchtrot Road.

In Salem, Reverend George Burroughs was tried and found guilty of being a witch.  At his hanging, he recited the Lord’s prayer so fervently and so perfectly (servants of the Devil could not do that), that those present hesitated;  however, Cotton Mather, Burroughs’ arch enemy within the church, was present, and declared that Burroughs was indeed a witch and ordered the execution to proceed. George Burroughs was hanged in August, 1692.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  Sarah Orne Jewett, in “The Old Town of Berwick” unwittingly perpetrated a story-telling error which needs to be corrected.  She identified Rev. Burroughs as Stephen Burroughs, who in reality was a 19th century New Hampshire outlaw. Unfortunately, this error in her writing has been often quoted in the later writings of other writers.

(Article by Norma Keim)