Two groups of Native Americans lived in the Delaware region when European explorers first visited the area. The Lenape lived along the Delaware River; English settlers later called them the “Delaware.” The Nanticoke lived along the Nanticoke River in the southwestern part of the state.
Early explorations of our coastline were made by the Spaniards and Portuguese in the sixteenth century, by Henry Hudson in 1609 under the auspices of the Dutch, by Samuel Argall in 1610, by Cornelius May in 1613, and by Cornelius Hendricksen in 1614.
During a storm, Argall was blown off course and sailed into a strange bay which he named in honor of his governor. It is doubtful that Lord De La Warr ever saw, or explored, the bay, river, and state which today bears his name. In 1631, 11 years after the landing of the English pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the first white settlement was made on Delaware soil.
A group of Dutchmen formed a trading company headed by Captain David Pietersen de Vries for the purpose of enriching themselves from the New World. The expedition of about 30 individuals sailed from the town of Hoorn under the leadership of Captain Peter Heyes in the ship De Walvis (The Whale). Their settlement, called Zwaanendael, meaning valley of swans, was located near the present town of Lewes on the west bank of the Lewes Creek, today the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal.
Arriving in the New World in 1632 to visit the colony, Captain de Vries found the settlers had been killed and their buildings burned by the Indians.
This settlement is commemorated by the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.
No further attempts at colonization were made on Delaware soil until 1638, when the Swedes established their colony in present Wilmington, which was not only the first permanent settlement in Delaware, but in the whole Delaware River Valley and North America. In 1637, a colonial charter was granted under the Swedish child queen, Christina, encouraging trade, settlement and the spreading of the gospel. In November of that year, Captain Peter Minuit sailed from the town of Gothenburg, Sweden with two ships, Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar) and Vogel Grip (Griffen), landed about March 29, 1938. The location of the first Swedish settlement was at "The Rocks," on the Christina River, near the foot of Seventh Street. The fort constructed by the settlers was named for Queen Christina: the village, Christinahamn. The fort served not only as a safe dwelling, but also as the center of cultural life in what they called "New Sweden." Perhaps most importantly, the fort was crucial economically, protecting the Christina River trade and a communication link connecting the colonies of New England, New Amsterdam, and New Sweden with the Maryland and Virginia colonies.
On water, the Kalmar Nyckel made four successive trips from Sweden, and returned to solidify the settlement in 1640 and 1641. That is a record unchallenged by any other colonial vessel. Later, she served the Swedish Navy in the Swedish-Danish War, then became a merchant ship, and finally was lost off the City of Kalmar in the late 17th Century. New Sweden became known as Willingtown (after local merchant Thomas Willing) in 1731, and ultimately named Wilmington in 1739.
The most important Swedish governor was Colonel Johan Printz, who ruled the colony under Swedish law for ten years, from 1643 to 1653. He was succeeded by Johan Rising, who upon his arrival in 1654, seized the Dutch post, Fort Casmir, which the governor of the Colony of New Netherlands had built in 1651, on the site of the present town of New Castle.
Rising governed the Swedish Colony from his headquarters at Fort Christina until the autumn of 1655, when Peter Stuyvesant came from New Amsterdam with a Dutch fleet, subjugated the Swedish forts, and established the authority of the Colony of New Netherlands throughout the area formerly controlled by the Colony of New Sweden. This marked the end of Swedish rule in Delaware, but the cultural, social, and religious influence of these Swedish settlers has had a lasting effect upon the cultural life of the people in this area and upon subsequent westward migrations of many generations. Old Swedes (Holy Trinity) Church built by the Swedes at Wilmington in 1698 was supplied by the Mother Church with missionaries until after the Revolution. It is one of the oldest Protestant Churches in North America.
Fort Christina State Park in Wilmington, with the fine monument created by the noted sculptor, Carl Milles, and presented by the people of Sweden, perpetuates the memory of these first settlers and preserves "The Rocks" where they first landed.
Following the seizure of the colony of New Sweden, the Dutch restored the name of Fort Casmir and made it the principal settlement of the Zuidt or South River as contrasted with the North or Hudson River. In a short time the area within the fort was not large enough to accommodate all the settlers so that a town, named New Amstel (now New Castle), was laid out.
The year 1681 marked the granting of the Province of Pennsylvania to William Penn by King Charles II and the arrival of Penn's agents on the Delaware River. They soon reported to the proprietor that the new province would be landlocked if the colonies on either side of the Delaware River or Bay were hostile. As a result of Penn's petition to the Crown for the land on the west side of the Delaware River and Bay below his province, the Duke of York in March 1682 conveyed, by deeds and leases now exhibited by the Delaware State Archives in the Hall of Records at Dover, the land included in the Counties of New Castle, St. Jones, and Deale. On October 27 of the same year, William Penn landed in America first at New Castle and there took possession from the Duke of York's agents as Proprietor of the lower Counties. On this occasion, the colonists subscribed an oath of allegiance to the new proprietor, and the first general assembly was held in the colony. The following year the three Lower Counties were annexed to the Province of Pennsylvania as territories with full privileges under Penn's famous "Frame of Government."
Also in this year, the counties of St. Jones and Deale were renamed Kent and Sussex Counties respectively.
After 1682, a long dispute ensued between William Penn and Lord Baltimore of the Province of Maryland as to the exact dominion controlled by Penn on the lower Delaware.
In 1698, the Kalmar Nyckel's settlers constructed the handsome and substantial Holy Trinity Church, later to be named Old Swedes, just a few hundred yards upstream from "The Rocks." Old Swedes still stands today, one of the oldest continuously functioning churches in the United States. In addition, Old Swedes Church is the site of historic observations (such as the 350th Anniversary of the Swedes' landing, and the U.S. Bicentennial), and serves as a focal point for many visits from European and American tourists.
The dispute continued between the heirs of Baltimore and Penn until almost the end of the colonial period. In 1776 at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Delaware not only declared itself free from the British Empire, but also established a state government entirely separate from Pennsylvania. Delaware's boundaries were surveyed in 1763-68 by the noted English scientists, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.
With the advent to the Revolution nearly 4,000 men enlisted for service from the small state. The colonial wars had built up the militia system and supplied a number of capable officers who led the troops of Delaware in all the principal engagements from the battle of Long Island to the siege of Yorktown. The only Revolutionary engagement fought on Delaware soil was the battle of Cooch's Bridge, near Newark, on September 3, 1777.
An important stimulus to the recovery of the state's economy after the war was the invention in 1785 by Oliver Evans of Newport, Delaware, of automatic flour milling machinery, revolutionizing the industry.
In the following year, John Dickinson of Delaware presided over the Annapolis Convention, which called for the Federal Constitutional Convention, that met in Philadelphia the next year. When the new Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, Delaware was the first of the thirteen original states to ratify the Constitution of the United States. This unanimous ratification took place in a convention of Dover on December 7, 1787, whereby Delaware became "The First State" of the new Federal Union. Proud of this heritage, Delawareans continue to honor the traditions which made them the First State to ratify the United States Constitution, the document that continues to protect our nation's justice, strength, and liberty.
Delaware's present constitution was adopted in 1797 and is the third one the state has had. It has been modernized with many new amendments since then. Today, Delaware has a cabinet form of government.
The General Assembly, Delaware's lawmaking body, is comprised of a House of Representatives, whose 41 members are elected for two-year terms, and a Senate, whose 21 members are elected for four-year terms. Half of the Senate seats are contested in each general election.
The State Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and four associate justices. All members are appointed by the governor, with confirmation by the Senate, for a term of 12 years.
Several industries grew in importance for Delaware following the war.
In 1795, the textile industry increased as a cotton mill was built on Brandywine Creek. In 1802, Frenchman Éleuthére Irénée du Pont founded a gunpowder mill near Wilmington. The Du Pont Company soon established Wilmington as the “Chemical Capital of the World.” Thomas Gilpin built the country’s first papermaking machine in 1817. This industry grew tremendously in Delaware, as did shipbuilding. Thousands migrated to Delaware for work. By 1850, its population reached 91,532.
Although Delaware was considered a slave state, Quakers living in the state hated slavery. Delaware, located between the North and Deep South, freed thousands of slaves as they passed through the state on the Underground Railroad. Delaware remained in the Union during the Civil War (1861-1865). More than 12,000 Delawareans fought for the North and a few hundred fought for the South. At the end of the war, all slaves were freed.
In 1899, the Delaware Corporation Law lowered corporate tax and made it easier to create businesses in Delaware. Several companies were established in Delaware during the early 1900s. Increased tax revenue from these companies allowed the government to make improvements in education, public welfare, and roadways. The Du Pont Highway, the country’s first divided highway, was begun in 1911. A state board of welfare, a state highway department, and a state income tax were all introduced to Delaware during this time.
During the Great Depression (1929-1939), thousands of Delawareans lost their jobs. The federal government provided jobs building roads and parks. World War II (1939-1945) also helped end the Depression. Delaware provided soldiers, ships and gunpowder. Du Pont chemist Wallace Carothers discovered nylon in 1938, which was then used to produce parachutes.
Delaware’s economy grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1951, the Delaware Memorial Bridge opened making travel to and from the state much easier. Many factories expanded and large new corporations, such as Chrysler, General Foods, and General Motors, moved into Delaware. The state’s population also increased dramatically, reaching almost 450,000 in 1960.
Although a southern state, Delaware began desegregation of schools before the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954. In 1950, black students were allowed to attend the University of Delaware. By 1952, black and white students began attending the same high schools. All segregation of restaurants and public facilities ended in 1963. Many black people moved to Delaware during this time; several settled in Wilmington.
Environmental improvements were made during the 1970s. In 1971, the Coastal Zone Act was passed that banned construction of industrial plants along the Delaware coastline. This protected beaches and helped to improve water and air pollution. In 1973, about 1,500 abandoned homes in Wilmington were sold for a dollar, with the requirement to fix up the building. Several new homeowners moved back to the city. Legislature districts were redrawn in 1971 and 1981.
A mild economic depression during the 1970s found many Delawareans without work. The Financial Center Development Act of 1981 allowed many out-of-state banks to have headquarters in Delaware. More than 20,000 new jobs were created. In 1980, the state adopted a constitutional limit that restricted government spending to 95 per cent of the government’s expected revenue. This improved the state’s economy. The tourist industry also increased. By 1993, more Delawareans had jobs than ever before.