Chronicles of America 

Little Delaware

Delaware was the first colony to be established on the river that bears this name. It went through half a century of experiences under the Dutch and Swedes from 1609 to 1664, and then eighteen years under the English rule of the Duke of York, from whom it passed into the hands of William Penn, the Quaker. The Dutch got into it by an accident and were regarded by the English as interlopers. And the Swedes who followed had no better title.

The whole North Atlantic seaboard was claimed by England by virtue of the discoveries of the Cabots, father and son; but nearly a hundred years elapsed before England took advantage of this claim by starting the Virginia colony near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in 1607. And nearly a quarter of a century more elapsed before Englishmen settled on the shores of Massachusetts Bay. Those were the two points most accessible to ships and most favorable for settlement. The middle ground of the Delaware and Hudson regions was not so easily entered and remained unoccupied. The mouth of the Delaware was full of shoals and was always difficult to navigate. The natural harbor at the mouth of the Hudson was excellent, but the entrance to it was not at first apparent.

Into these two regions, however, the Dutch chanced just after the English had effected the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia. The Dutch had employed an Englishman named Henry Hudson and sent him in 1609 in a small ship called the Half Moon to find a passage to China and India by way of the Arctic Ocean. Turned back by the ice in the Arctic, he sailed down the coast of North America, and began exploring the middle ground from the Virginia settlement, which he seems to have known about; and, working cautiously northward along the coast and feeling his way with the lead line, he soon entered Delaware Bay. But finding it very difficult of navigation he departed and, proceeding in the same careful way up along the coast of New Jersey, he finally entered the harbor of New York and sailed up the Hudson far enough to satisfy himself that it was not the desired course to China.

This exploration gave the Dutch their claim to the Delaware and Hudson regions. But though it was worthless as against the English right by discovery of the Cabots, the Dutch went ahead with their settlement, established their headquarters and seat of government on Manhattan Island, where New York stands today, and exercised as much jurisdiction and control as they could on the Delaware.

Their explorations of the Delaware, feeling their way up it with small light draft vessels among its shoals and swift tides, their travels on land--shooting wild turkeys on the site of the present busy town of Chester--and their adventures with the Indians are full of interest. The immense quantities of wild fowl and animal and bird life along the shores astonished them; but what most aroused their cupidity was the enormous supply of furs, especially beaver and otter, that could be obtained from the Indians. Furs became their great, in fact, their only interest in the Delaware. They established forts, one near Cape Henlopen at the mouth of the river, calling it Fort Oplandt, and another far up the river on the Jersey side at the mouth of Timber Creek, nearly opposite the present site of Philadelphia, and this they called Fort Nassau. Fort Oplandt was destroyed by the Indians and its people were massacred. Fort Nassau was probably occupied only at intervals. These two posts were built mainly to assist the fur trade, and any attempts at real settlement were slight and unsuccessful.

Meantime about the year 1624 the Swedes heard of the wonderful opportunities on the Delaware. The Swedish monarch, Gustavus Adolphus, a man of broad ambitions and energetic mind, heard about the Delaware from Willem Usselinx, a merchant of Antwerp who had been actively interested in the formation of the Dutch West India Company to trade in the Dutch possessions in America. Having quarreled with the directors, Usselinx had withdrawn from the Netherlands and now offered his services to Sweden. The Swedish court, nobles, and people, all became enthusiastic about the project which he elaborated for a great commercial company to trade and colonize in Asia, Africa, and America.* But the plan was dropped because, soon after 1630, Gustavus Adolphus led his country to intervene on the side of the Protestants in the Thirty Years' War in Germany, where he was killed three years later at the battle of Lutzen. But the desire aroused by Usselinx for a Swedish colonial empire was revived in the reign of his infant daughter, Christina, by the celebrated Swedish Chancellor, Oxenstierna.

* See "Willem Usselinx," by J. F. Jameson in the "Papers of the American Historical Association," vol. II.

An expedition, which actually reached the Delaware in 1638, was sent out under another Dutch renegade, Peter Minuit, who had been Governor of New Netherland and after being dismissed from office was now leading this Swedish enterprise to occupy part of the territory he had formerly governed for the Dutch. His two ships sailed up the Delaware and with good judgment landed at the present site of Wilmington. At that point a creek carrying a depth of over fourteen feet for ten miles from its mouth flowed into the Delaware. The Dutch had called this creek Minquas, after the tribe of Indians; the Swedes named it the Christina after their infant Queen; and in modern times it has been corrupted into Christiana.

They sailed about two and a half miles through its delta marshes to some rocks which formed a natural wharf and which still stand today at the foot of Sixth Street in Wilmington. This was the Plymouth Rock of Delaware. Level land, marshes, and meadows lay along the Christina, the remains of the delta which the stream had formed in the past. On the edge of the delta or moorland, rocky hills rose, forming the edge of the Piedmont, and out of them from the north flowed a fine large stream, the Brandywine, which fell into the Christina just before it entered the Delaware. Here in the delta their engineer laid out a town, called Christinaham, and a fort behind the rocks on which they had landed. A cove in the Christina made a snug anchorage for their ships, out of the way of the tide. They then bought from the Indians all the land from Cape Henlopen to the Falls of the Delaware at Trenton, calling it New Sweden and the Delaware New Swedeland Stream. The people of Delaware have always regarded New Sweden as the beginning of their State, and Peter Minuit, the leader of this Swedish expedition, always stands first on the published lists of their governors.

On their arrival in the river in the spring of 1638, the Swedes found no evidences of permanent Dutch colonization. Neither Fort Oplandt nor Fort Nassau was then occupied. They always maintained that the Dutch had abandoned the river, and that it was therefore open to the Swedes for occupation, especially after they had purchased the Indian title. It was certainly true that the Dutch efforts to plant colonies in that region had failed; and since the last attempt by De Vries, six years had elapsed. On the other hand, the Dutch contended that they had in that time put Fort Nassau in repair, although they had not occupied it, and that they kept a few persons living along the Jersey shore of the river, possibly the remains of the Nassau colony, to watch all who visited it. These people had immediately notified the Dutch governor Kieft at New Amsterdam of the arrival of the Swedes, and he promptly issued a protest against the intrusion. But his protest was neither very strenuous nor was it followed up by hostile action, for Sweden and Holland were on friendly terms. Sweden, the great champion of Protestant Europe, had intervened in the Thirty Years' War to save the Protestants of Germany. The Dutch had just finished a similar desperate war of eighty years for freedom from the papal despotism of Spain. Dutch and Swedes had, therefore, every reason to be in sympathy with each other. The Swedes, a plain, strong, industrious people, as William Penn aptly called them, were soon, however, seriously interfering with the Dutch fur trade and in the first year, it is said, collected thirty thousand skins. If this is true, it is an indication of the immense supply of furbearing animals, especially beaver, available at that time. For the next twenty-five years Dutch and Swedes quarreled and sometimes fought over their respective claims. But it is significant of the difficulty of retaining a hold on the Delaware region that the Swedish colonists on the Christina after a year or two regarded themselves as a failure and were on the point of abandoning their enterprise, when a vessel, fortunately for them, arrived with cattle, agricultural tools, and immigrants. It is significant also that the immigrants, though in a Swedish vessel and under the Swedish government, were Dutchmen. They formed a sort of separate Dutch colony under Swedish rule and settled near St. George's and Appoquinimink. Immigrants apparently were difficult to obtain among the Swedes, who were not colonizers like the English.

At this very time, in fact, Englishmen, Puritans from Connecticut, were slipping into the Delaware region under the leadership of Nathaniel Turner and George Lamberton, and were buying the land from the Indians. About sixty settled near Salem, New Jersey, and some on the Schuylkill in Pennsylvania, close to Fort Nassau--an outrageous piece of audacity, said the Dutch, and an insult to their "High Mightinesses and the noble Directors of the West India Company. " So the Schuylkill English were accordingly driven out, and their houses were burned. The Swedes afterwards expelled the English from Salem and from the Cohansey, lower down the Bay. Later the English were allowed to return, but they seem to have done little except trade for furs and beat off hostile Indians.

The seat of the Swedish government was moved in 1643 from the Christina to Tinicum, one of the islands of the Schuylkill delta, with an excellent harbor in front of it which is now the home of the yacht clubs of Philadelphia. Here they built a fort of logs, called Fort Gothenborg, a chapel with a graveyard, and a mansion house for the governor, and this remained the seat of Swedish authority as long as they had any on the river. From here Governor Printz, a portly irascible old soldier, said to have weighed "upwards of 400 pounds and taken three drinks at every meal," ruled the river. He built forts on the Schuylkill and worried the Dutch out of the fur trade. He also built a fort called Nya Elfsborg, afterward Elsinboro, on the Jersey side below Salem. By means of this fort he was able to command the entrance to the river and compelled every Dutch ship to strike her colors and acknowledge the sovereignty of Sweden. Some he prevented from going up the river at all; others he allowed to pass on payment of toll or tribute. He gave orders to destroy every trading house or fort which the Dutch had built on the Schuylkill, and to tear down the coat of arms and insignia which the Dutch had placed on a post on the site of Philadelphia. The Swedes now also bought from the Indians and claimed the land on the Jersey side from Cape May up to Raccoon Creek, opposite the modern Chester.

The best place to trade with the Indians for furs was the Schuylkill River, which flowed into the Delaware at a point where Philadelphia was afterwards built. There were at that time Indian villages where West Philadelphia now stands. The headwaters of streams flowing into the Schuylkill were only a short distance from the headwaters of streams flowing into the Susquehanna, so that the valley of the Schuylkill formed the natural highway into the interior of Pennsylvania. The route to the Ohio River followed the Schuylkill for some thirty or forty miles, turned up one of its tributaries to its source, then crossed the watershed to the head of a stream flowing into the Susquehanna, thence to the Juniata, at the head of which the trail led over a short divide to the head of the Conemaugh, which flowed into the Allegheny, and the Allegheny into the Ohio. Some of the Swedes and Dutch appear to have followed this route with the Indians as early as 1646.

The Ohio and Allegheny region was inhabited by the Black Minquas, so called from their custom of wearing a black badge on their breast. The Ohio, indeed, was first called the Black Minquas River. As the country nearer the Delaware was gradually denuded of beaver, these Black Minquas became the great source of supply and carried the furs, over the route described, to the Schuylkill. The White Minquas lived further east, round Chesapeake and Delaware bays, and, though spoken of as belonging by language to the great Iroquois or Six Nation stock, were themselves conquered and pretty much exterminated by the Six Nations. The Black Minquas, believed to be the same as the Eries of the Jesuit Relations, were also practically exterminated by the Six Nations.*

* Myers, "Narratives of Early Pennsylvania", pp. 103-104.

The furs brought down the Schuylkill were deposited at certain rocks two or three miles above its mouth at Bartram's Gardens, now one of the city parks of Philadelphia. On these rocks, then an island in the Schuylkill, the Swedes built a fort which completely commanded the river and cut the Dutch off from the fur trade. They built another fort on the other side of Bartram's Gardens along the meadow near what is now Gibson's Point; and Governor Printz had a great mill a couple of miles away on Cobb's Creek, where the old Blue Bell tavern has long stood. These two forts protected the mill and the Indian villages in West Philadelphia.

One would like to revisit the Delaware of those days and see all its wild life and game, its islands and shoals, its virgin forests as they had grown up since the glacial age, untouched by the civilization of the white man. There were then more islands in the river, the water was clearer, and there were pretty pebble and sandy beaches now overlaid by mud brought down from vast regions of the valley no longer protected by forests from the wash of the rains. On a wooded island below Salem, long since cut away by the tides, the pirate Blackhead and his crew are said to have passed a winter. The waters of the river spread out wide at every high tide over marshes and meadows, turning them twice a day for a few hours into lakes, grown up in summer with red and yellow flowers and the graceful wild oats, or reeds, tasseled like Indian corn.

At Christinaham, in the delta of the Christina and the Brandywine, the tide flowed far inland to the rocks on which Minuit's Swedish expedition landed, leaving one dry spot called Cherry Island, a name still borne by a shoal in the river. Fort Christina, on the edge of the overflowed meadow, with the rocky promontory of hills behind it, its church and houses, and a wide prospect across the delta and river, was a fair spot in the old days. The Indians came down the Christina in their canoes or overland, bringing their packs of beaver, otter, and deer skins, their tobacco, corn, and venison to exchange for the cloth, blankets, tools, and gaudy trinkets that pleased them. It must often have been a scene of strange life and coloring, and it is difficult today to imagine it all occurring close to the spot where the Pennsylvania railroad station now stands in Wilmington.

When doughty Peter Stuyvesant became Governor of New Netherland, he determined to assert Dutch authority once more on the South River, as the Delaware was called in distinction from the Hudson. As the Swedes now controlled it by their three forts, not a Dutch ship could reach Fort Nassau without being held up at Fort Elfsborg or at Fort Christina or at the fort at Tinicum. It was a humiliating situation for the haughty spirit of the Dutch governor. To open the river to Dutch commerce again, Stuyvesant marched overland in 1651 through the wilderness, with one hundred and twenty men and, abandoning Fort Nassau, built a new fort on a fine promontory which then extended far out into the river below Christina. Today the place is known as New Castle; the Dutch commonly referred to it as Sandhoeck or Sand Point; the English called it Grape Vine Point. Stuyvesant named it Fort Casimir.

The tables were now turned: the Dutch could retaliate upon Swedish shipping. But the Swedes were not so easily to be dispossessed. Three years later a new Swedish governor named Rising arrived in the river with a number of immigrants and soldiers. He sailed straight up to Fort Casimir, took it by surprise, and ejected the Dutch garrison of about a dozen men. As the successful coup occurred on Trinity Sunday, the Swedes renamed the place Fort Trinity.

The whole population--Dutch and Swede, but in 1654 mostly Swede--numbered only 368 persons. Before the arrival of Rising there had been only seventy. It seems a very small number about which to be writing history; but small as it was their "High Mightinesses," as the government of the United Netherlands was called, were determined to avenge on even so small a number the insult of the capture of Fort Casimir.

Drums, it is said, were beaten every day in Holland to call for recruits to go to America. Gunners, carpenters, and powder were collected. A ship of war was sent from Holland, accompanied by two other vessels whose names alone, Great Christopher and King Solomon, should have been sufficient to scare all the Swedes. At New Amsterdam, Stuyvesant labored night and day to fit out the expedition. A French privateer which happened to be in the harbor was hired. Several other vessels, in all seven ships, and six or seven hundred men, with a chaplain called Megapolensis, composed this mighty armament gathered together to drive out the handful of poor hardworking Swedes. A day of fasting and prayer was held and the Almighty was implored to bless this mighty expedition which, He was assured, was undertaken for "the glory of His name." It was the absurdity of such contrasts as this running all through the annals of the Dutch in America that inspired Washington Irving to write his infinitely humorous "History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty," by "Diedrich Knickerbocker." It is difficult for an Anglo-Saxon to take the Dutch in America seriously. What can you do with a people whose imagination allowed them to give such names to their ships as Weigh Scales, Spotted Cow, and The Pear Tree? So Irving described the taking of Fort Casimir in mock heroic manner. He describes the marshaling of the Dutch hosts of New York by families, the Van Grolls of Anthony's Nose, the Brinkerhoffs, the Van Kortlandts, the Van Bunschotens of Nyack and Kakiat, the fighting men of Wallabout, the Van Pelts, the Say Dams, the Van Dams, and all the warriors of Hellgate "clad in their thunder-and-lightning gaberdines," and lastly the standard bearers and bodyguards of Peter Stuyvesant, bearing the great beaver of the Manhattan.

"And now commenced the horrid din, the desperate struggle, the maddening ferocity, the frantic desperation, the confusion and self-abandonment of war. Dutchman and Swede commingled, tugged, panted, and blowed. The heavens were darkened with a tempest of missives. Bang! went the guns; whack! went the broadswords; thump! went the cudgels; crash! went the musket-stocks; blows, kicks, cuffs, scratches, black eyes and bloody noses swelling the horrors of the scene! Thick, thwack, cut and hack, helter-skelter, higgledy-piggledy, hurly-burly, heads-over-heels, rough-and-tumble! Dunder and blixum! swore the Dutchmen; splitter and splutter! cried the Swedes. Storm the works! shouted Hardkoppig Peter. Fire the mine! roared stout Rising--Tantarar-ra-ra! twanged the trumpet of Antony Van Corlear;--until all voice and sound became unintelligible,--grunts of pain, yells of fury, and shouts of triumph mingling in one hideous clamor. The earth shook as if struck with a paralytic stroke; trees shrunk aghast, and withered at the sight; rocks burrowed in the ground like rabbits; and even Christina creek turned from its course, and ran up a hill in breathless terror!"

As a matter of fact, the fort surrendered without a fight on September 1, 1655. It was thereupon christened New Amstel, afterwards New Castle, and was for a long time the most important town on the Delaware. This achievement put the Dutch in complete authority over the Swedes on both sides of the river. The Swedes, however, were content, abandoned politics, secluded themselves on their farms, and left politics to the Dutch. Trade, too, they left to the Dutch, who, in their effort to monopolize it, almost killed it. This conquest by their High Mightinesses also ended the attempts of the New Englanders, particularly the people of New Haven, to get a foothold in the neighborhood of Salem, New Jersey, for which they had been struggling for years. They had dreams of a great lake far to northward full of beaver to which the Delaware would lead them. Their efforts to establish themselves survived in one or two names of places near Salem, as, for example, New England Creek, and New England Channel, which down almost into our own time was found on charts marking one of the minor channels of the bay along the Jersey shore. They continued coming to the river in ships to trade in spite of restrictions by the Dutch; and some of them in later years, as has been pointed out, secured a foothold on the Cohansey and in the Cape May region, where their descendants are still to be found.

Back to: The Quaker Colonies