Hawthorne's first American ancestor, William Hathorne [the family spelled the named differently then], came to Massachusetts colony from England in 1630; he became a member of the House of Delegates and a major of the Salem Militia. His son John Hathorne was one of the judges during the Salem witchcraft trails of 1692; unlike the majority of his colleagues, he refused to repent his role once the hysteria had passed.
Here is part of Hawthorne's description of them in his preface:
"The figure of that first ancestor, invested by family tradition with a dim and dusky grandeur, was present to my boyish imagination, as far back as I can remember. It still haunts me.... I seem to have a stronger claim to a residence here on account of this grave, bearded, sable-cloaked, and steeple-crowned progenitor, who came so early, with his Bible and his sword, and trode the unworn street with such a stately port, and made so large a figure, as a man of war and peace, a stronger claim than for myself, whose name is seldom heard and my face hardly known. He was a soldier, legislator, judge; he was a ruler in the church; he had all the Puritanic traits, both good and evil. He was likewise a bitter persecutor; as witness the Quakers, who have remembered him in their histories.... His son, too, inherited the persecuting spirit, and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.... I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by themas I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to existmay be now and henceforth removed....."
Hawthorne then recounts the trials and boredom of working as the main customs inspector or surveyor in the Custom-House in the port of Salem, Massachusetts, a job he got through political connections and lost 3 years later when the party he favored was voted out of office. He invents finding a scarlet letter among the many commercial items stored in the warehouse to be "surveyed" by him:
"...My eyes fastened themselves on the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.
"While thus perplexed, and cogitating, among other hypotheses, whether the letter might not have been one of those decorations which the white men used to contrive, in order to take the eyes of Indians, I happened to place it on my breast. It seemed to methe reader may smile, but must not doubt my word, it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, as of burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered, and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor."