Salem College's history began in 1766, when the Moravians, an early Protestant denomination, established the village of Salem. Among the town's early residents were 16 girls and women who walked more than 500 miles from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to join the new community. One of them was 17-year-old Elisabeth Oesterlein, who would be the first teacher of what is now Salem College.
Believing that women deserved an education comparable to that given men -- a radical view for that era -- the Moravians began a school for girls in 1772. In 1802, it became a boarding school for girls and young women; in 1866, it was renamed Salem Female Academy. Salem began granting college degrees in the 1890s. Today, the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. ranks Salem College as the oldest women's college in the nation by founding date and the 13th oldest college overall. Salem Academy, a college preparatory/boarding school for girls in grades nine through 12, also shares our 64-acre campus.
In its early years, Salem was run by the unmarried women of the Moravian community, who were known as "Single Sisters." Oesterlein and her fellow Sisters were economically self-sufficient, a rare condition for women of the 18th century. The meticulous records of the Moravians show that Salem educated girls of African-American heritage as early as 1785, and that in the 1820s, the daughter of a Cherokee Indian chief attended the school but left to join the Trail of Tears.
The Moravians' belief in the freedom and responsibility imposed by an education inspires Salem College's exemplary programs today. The traditions of the early Moravians continue to play an important role in the life of the College. Moravian Lovefeasts, the Candle Tea celebration at Christmas, and the Easter Sunrise Service are events that appeal to Salem students as well as visitors from around the world.