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Colonial America | Colonies | Delaware (Est. 1638)

Made up of just three small counties, Delaware (formerly New Sweden) attracted much attention, greed, and strife in the 17th and 18th centuries. Delaware sits in a desirable and strategic location at the mouth of the Delaware River on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay.

Delaware struggled for its place on the colonial map, but it was a colony destined for mighty deeds. When the time came to fight for independence of the thirteen colonies, Delaware boldly answered the call.

Delaware Flag

Learn more about the state of Delaware.

Before the arrival of the first European settlers, the Delaware River Valley was inhabited by a group of American Indians called the Lenni Lenape, which means "original people." Renamed the "Delaware" by European settlers, the Lenni Lenape tribe was comprised of three large groups settled between southern New York to northern Delaware. The southernmost group lived along the northern part of present-day Delaware. The Nanticoke people lived in southwestern Delaware along the Nanticoke River. The Minqua came from Pennsylvania to trade furs along the Delaware River.

Learn about the native inhabitants
of Delaware, the Lenape Indians.

On December 7, 1787, Delaware
was the first state to ratify the
U.S. Constitution and join the union.
Click to read more Delaware firsts.

The Spanish and Portuguese are believed to have made explorations of the Delaware coastline in the early 16th century. Henry Hudson, an English explorer hired by the Dutch East India Company, discovered what would become known as the Delaware River and the Delaware Bay in 1609. He did not explore the area, however. One year later, Captain Samuel Argall—the same Englishman who had kidnapped Pocahontas—was blown off course and sailed into the Delaware Bay. He named a point of land on the western shore Cape De la Warr, in honor of Thomas West, Lord De la Warr, the first governor of the English colony of Virginia. The Delaware River and Bay were first explored in depth by Captain Cornelius Hendricksen. In his journal, Hendricksen recorded trading with American Indians for various types of furs and hides, including sable, otter, mink, and bear.

In 1631, the first European settlement was attempted when the Dutch West India Company, in partnership with a Dutch merchant captain named David Pietersen de Vries, established a tobacco-growing and whaling industry at Zwaanendael near the present town of Lewes. Within the first year, the settlement was destroyed and its inhabitants were massacred in what is believed to be the result of a dispute that began over the theft of a tin plate bearing the Dutch coat of arms.

Kalmar Nyckel ship

The Kalmar Nyckel, the Tall Ship of
Delaware, set sail from Sweden
in 1637 carrying 24 passengers to
establish the first permanent
settlement in the Delaware Valley,
New Sweden.

Unlike most English companies, the Dutch West India Company hoped to expand trade rather than set up colonies. In contrast, in 1637, Swedish, Dutch, and German stockholders formed the New Sweden Company to establish a colony. Several of the members of the Dutch West India Company offered their services to the New Sweden Company. One of them, Peter Minuit, the former Director-General of New Netherland, led an expedition of settlers from Sweden and set sail in late 1637 on the Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip.

They arrived in March, 1638, and the expedition built a fortified trading post on the site of present-day Wilmington. It was named Fort Christina in honor of Sweden's 12-year-old queen. Minuit secured a deed from the American Indians for the land extending north from Bombay Hook to the Schuylkill River, which flows into the Delaware River at what is now Philadelphia. The territory was named New Sweden.

More than a dozen expeditions arrived in New Sweden over the next 17 years, bringing Swedish, Finnish, and Dutch emigrants, as well as supplies. Additional land was purchased, and the colony spread to both sides of the Delaware River.

New Sweden prospered during the governorship of Johan Björnsson Printz (1643–1653). The settlers built forts, mills, and houses up and down the Delaware River. Trade with local American Indian groups flourished, and many colonists planted tobacco.

Log Cabin
Log cabins were first introduced in
America by the Swedes in Delaware.

In 1651, the Dutch West India Company attempted to gain control of New Sweden, believing that the company still held rights to the area. Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Netherland, led Dutch troops in building Fort Casimir at present-day New Castle. Under the administration of the colony's last governor, Johan Rising, New Sweden captured the fort in 1654. Stuyvesant returned in greater numbers the following year and took back the whole territory, including the fort. This act effectively ended Swedish influence and participation in the colonization of North America.

The English and the Dutch were in constant competition with one another over trade and colonies in North America. These tensions eventually led to a series of wars between them, which were fought between 1652 and 1674. In 1664 England took over all of New Netherland and the Dutch possessions in the Delaware Valley. This prompted the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which resulted in England's possession of the Dutch territories in 1667. The Duke of York annexed Delaware, and for 18 years it was governed by England as part of the colony of New York (formerly New Netherland). Swedish and Finnish inhabitants were allowed to retain their lands, practice their own religion, and be governed by their own court system. Settlers from England and from surrounding English colonies moved to Delaware, causing the population to increase rapidly.

William Penn

Read about William Penn,
founder of Pennsylvania and
proprietor of Delaware for a
brief period.

In 1682, William Penn, a Quaker who founded the neighboring Pennsylvania colony, requested lands from England for a sea route to Pennsylvania. The Duke of York consented and granted Penn all the land between New Castle and Cape Henlopen, which included most of what is now Delaware. Delaware then came under the proprietorship of Penn, but it was administered separately from Pennsylvania as a distinct entity called the "three counties of Delaware" or the "Lower Counties." Charles Calvert, or Lord Baltimore, had founded the colony of Maryland and argued against William Penn, claiming the land along the Delaware River for himself. His claim was denied by England, which prompted a long-running dispute between Penn and Baltimore (and later generations of influential people in Maryland and Pennsylvania) over boundary issues. The argument over the Maryland-Delaware boundary was finally put to rest in 1769 with the demarcation of the Mason-Dixon line.

Penn signed a peace treaty with the Lenni Lenape in 1682, and no further conflict occurred between American Indians and the Delaware settlers until the French and Indian War in 1754. Many of the Delaware Indians had moved west in an attempt to stay ahead of white settlement, and most of them already lived in Ohio by the time the French and Indian War broke out along the coast.

The people of Delaware wanted independence from the strong influence of Pennsylvania's large population of Quakers. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, was a religious body that dominated Philadelphia, and the people of Delaware feared the rapid economic growth of the Pennsylvania colony. They were equally unwilling to become the property of Lord Baltimore and Maryland.

Finally, the establishment of a separate assembly was granted to the people of Delaware. The town of New Castle hosted the first assembly meeting in 1704, serving as Delaware's capital. While the assembly passed laws and made decisions about the economy and government in Delaware's three counties, the colony was still technically under the authority of Pennsylvania's governor.

Delaware State Quarter

Learn more about the 1999
commemorative Delaware
state quarter.

Explore facts and symbols
of Delaware.

Delaware was the deciding state in whether or not to declare independence from Great Britain. History was made when a delegate named Caesar Rodney rode his horse from Delaware to Philadelphia to cast Delaware's vote in favor of independence from Great Britain. Riding through thunder, lightning, and a heat wave, Rodney's act of courage is depicted on the commemorative Delaware state quarter issued by the United States Mint in 1999.

During the Revolutionary War, Delaware provided 4,000 men to fight for independence. In fact, Delaware fought not just for freedom from England, but for independence from Pennsylvania, as well. In 1787, Delaware was the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, becoming the first state in the new federal union.

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