Salem, an Ozark plateau town, 1,180 feet above sea level, was laid out, 1851, as the seat of newly organized Dent County. The town was named by early settler David R. Henderson for Salem, North Carolina, and the county name honors local pioneer and Missouri legislator Lewis Dent.
Before dawn on Dec. 3, 1861, a skirmish took place here that is often called the Battle of Salem. About 120 Union troops led by Maj. W.D. Bowen defeated around 300 pro-Southern state troops led by Col. T.R. Freeman and remained in control of Salem, strategic point on the road to the railway terminus at Rolla. Union forces occupied Salem throughout the war, except briefly in 1864, when raiders burned the courthouse and jail. The courthouse was rebuilt, 1870.
Salem grew with the coming of the St. Louis, Salem, and Little Rock R.R. (Frisco), 1872, and with the development of iron resources in the area in the 1870's. Dent County, with 33 iron mines, was one of the state's top producers until 1915. Northeast is Sligo, once a booming company town. A furnace was put in blast there, 1880.
Salem, seat of a farming and lumbering county, lies in a region of level plateau and rugged hills, territory claimed by the Osage tribes until their 1808 land cession. The first pioneers largely from Tennessee came to settle the area in
Back Sidethe 1820's. The first school chartered in the county was Union Independent Academy, to the south at Lake Springs, 1857. The Salem Academy opened in a newly completed building, 1872.
Montauk State Park, southwest of Salem, was acquired by the state in 1927. There, 930 feet above sea level, in a setting of timbered hills, Montauk Springs emerge in an open valley to send forth daily some 40 million gallons to form the headwaters of the beautiful, spring-fed Current River.
Indian Trail State Forest, northeast of Salem, was established in 1924. The White River Trail, much used by the Indians and later by the pioneers, passed through Dent County northeastward, crossing the forest. To the east, Dent County forms a part of Clark National Forest, established, 1933-39. Seeps and springs in the forest form the source of the historic Meramec River.