Delaware and New Jersey as Dutch and Swedish Colonies

Delaware isn't a state many people visit, or think about on a regular basis. It's the second smallest by area and sixth smallest by population, largely off the beaten track in terms of travel and transport. New Jersey by contrast gets a lot more notoriety, but often as the butt of jokes. Did you know, though, that Delaware and New Jersey have some pretty interesting and unique early colonial history? I bet you didn't, so keep reading to find out more.

I discovered that Delaware is the final state I need to collect on my Flag Counter, so yes, this is in some ways a self-interested post. However, I actually started writing this with the emphasis on New Jersey, so after my discovery with Flag Counter I decided to talk about them both. I've never exactly been sure why New Jersey gets picked on so much. From my Far West perspective, I don't see much to differentiate it from Maryland or Connecticut - medium-to-small East Coast states with a few big cities and lots of suburbia. Perhaps New Jersey is bullied because it's wedged between the huge urban centers of New York and Philadelphia. My only real experience of New Jersey (recounted here) was quite suburban indeed: I visited Princeton after getting on their admissions waitlist, and then I never went back.

a map of New Sweden
Once I came to Georgetown, I found there were a lot of Hoyas from New Jersey, and I continued to hear their state ridiculed. Back in March, I heard a classmate talking about how relatively uninteresting learning the history of her state was. I intervened upon hearing this low-point in state pride, since I figure every state has history worth taking an interest in. I asked her, "Did you know New Jersey was actually a Swedish colony?" She didn't, and I bet YOU didn't either.

I certainly hadn't known that Delaware and New Jersey (or rather certain parts of them) made up a Swedish colony. I had discovered it weeks earlier, reading The Founders of America by Francis Jennings. In it, Jennings would often refer generically to "the British, the French, the Dutch and the Swedes" who colonized northeastern North America, and for some time I was entirely confused by his constant inclusion of Sweden. I had known that Scandinavians became involved in the colonization of a few islands in the Caribbean - and made money off of slave plantations and the like - but in fact New Sweden was a colony on the Delaware River, and though it only lasted seventeen years (1638-1655), it is certainly an interesting episode in the 17th century history of the eastern United States.

Peter Minuit
Before and after New Sweden, of course, Native people inhabited the Delaware River area, but the region was claimed by the Dutch as New Netherland, centered on the settlement of New Amsterdam, now New York. (See my attitude toward our acceptance of such wide-ranging land claims here.) The Europeans themselves knew how tenuous such claims were, so Sweden established its colony in spite of Dutch disapproval. Ironically, the founding expedition that departed Sweden in 1637 was led by Peter Minuit, the Dutch-German explorer who helped found New Netherland and New Amsterdam during the previous decade. The expedition built Fort Christina at the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware's largest city. In following years there were more settlers shipped in, more forts and communities built, interaction with Natives conducted, and profits from trade collected. The settlers were also involved with lands now in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

As often happens in this sort of Euro-centric view of North American history, conflict on the other side of the Atlantic sparked changes in the colonial status quo. When the Second Northern War started in 1655, the Dutch took the opportunity to conquer New Sweden and incorporate the settlers into New Netherland. This lasted fewer than ten years, however, as the British conquered the colony in the fall of 1664 at the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, thereby helping lead to a consolidated strip of British claims along the eastern seaboard of the continent that became what Americans know as "the thirteen original colonies."

So, even if New Jersey continues to be a common punchline and Delaware is mostly ignored, no one should say they don't have some interesting history. Whenever I'm in either state next, I'll be sure to look for some 17th century forts.

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