A Brief History of the Delaware Colony

Painting of Native Americans Greeting Swedish Settlers by Christian Von Schneidau
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Delaware colony was founded in 1638 by European colonists from the Netherlands and Sweden. Its history includes occupations by the Dutch, Swedish, British—and the colony of Pennsylvania, which included Delaware until 1703.

Fast Facts: Delaware Colony

  • Also Known As: New Netherland, New Sweden
  • Named After: Then-governor of Virginia, Lord de la Warr
  • Founding Country: Netherlands, Sweden
  • Founding Year: 1638
  • First Known European Landing: Samuel Argall
  • Residential Native Communities: Lenni Lenape and Nanticoke
  • Founders: Peter Minuit and the New Sweden Company
  • Important People: James, Duke of York, William Penn

Early Arrivals

The first European arrivals in the area occurred in the early 17th century when the Dutch were involved in establishing many trading posts and colonies around the world including in North America. Henry Hudson had been hired by the Dutch to explore the New World in 1609 and he 'discovered' and named the Hudson River.

By 1611, the Dutch had established fur trading enterprises with the Native Americans called the Lenni Lenape. In 1614, Fort Nassau, on what is the Hudson River near Gloucester, New Jersey, was the earliest Dutch settlement in the New World.

Peter Minuit and the New Sweden Company

In 1637, Swedish explorers and stockholders created the New Sweden Company to explore and trade in the New World, under a charter with Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus. Adolphus died in 1632, and his daughter and successor Queen Christina took over the charter's administration. Christina's chancellor formed the New Sweden Company in 1637 and hired Peter Minuit.

Minuit was a German-born Dutch resident likely of French Huguenot ancestry, who had previously been the governor of New Netherland from 1626 to 1631 and is most well known for the purchase of Manhattan Island. In March of 1638, Minuit and his two ships, Key of Kalmar and the Griffin, landed at the mouth of a river they named Christina, in what is now Wilmington and founded the first permanent colony in Delaware.

Annexed to New Netherland

While the Dutch and Swedes coexisted for some time, the incursion of the Dutch into New Sweden territory saw its leader, Johan Rising, move against some Dutch settlements. In 1655, Peter Stuyvesant, New Netherland's governor, sent armed ships to New Sweden. The colony surrendered without a fight. Thus, the area that was once New Sweden then became part of New Netherland. 

British Ownership

The British and Dutch were direct competitors during the 17th century. England felt they had a claim to the prosperous New Netherland territory due to the explorations by John Cabot made in 1498. In 1660, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England, the Dutch feared the British would attack their territory and forged an alliance with the French against the British. In response, Charles II gave his brother, James, the Duke of York, New Netherland in March 1664.

This 'annexation' of New Netherland required a show of force. James sent a fleet of ships to New Netherland to demand its surrender. Peter Stuyvesant agreed. While the northern part of the New Netherland was named New York, the lower part was leased to William Penn as the 'lower counties on the Delaware'. Penn wanted access to the sea from Pennsylvania. Thus, the territory was part of Pennsylvania until 1703. In addition, Delaware continued to share a governor with Pennsylvania until the Revolutionary War, even though it had its own representative assembly. 

Beginning the War of Independence

In October 1765, Delaware sent two delegates to a congress of the colonies in New York to deliberate on a joint colonial response to recent British measures, in particular, the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. The two men were landholder Caesar Rodney and attorney Thomas McKean: the two men and assemblyman George Read would continue to play a role in the movement for independence. 

Delaware declared its independence from Great Britain on June 15, 1776, and signed the declaration of independence with its fellow colonies on July 4.

Sources

  • Delaware Facts. Delaware Historical Society
  • Munroe, John A. "History of Delaware," 5th ed. Cranbury NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2006.
  • Wiener, Roberta and James R. Arnold. "Delaware: The History of Delaware Colony, 1638–1776." Chicago, Raintree, 2005.