The history of Delaware is the story of a small American state, in the middle of the original colonies, and yet until recently often overlooked by outsiders. Still, because of its geographic location and settlement pattern, its population has often been evenly divided on key issues in American history, so that it has seemed to represent the United States in miniature.
Delaware is made up of three counties established since 1680, before the time of William Penn. Each had its own settlement history. Their early inhabitants tended to identify more closely with the county than the colony or state. Large parts of southern and western Delaware were thought to have been in Maryland until 1767. All of the state has existed in the wide economic and political circle of Philadelphia.
Before Delaware was settled by Europeans, the area was home to the Delaware (also known as Lenni Lenape), Susquehanna, and other Native American tribes.
Dutch and Swedish colonies
The Delaware River watershed was claimed by the British based on the explorations of John Cabot in 1497, Captain John Smith and others, and was given the name held as a title by Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr, the Governor of Virginia from 1610 until 1618. At that time the area was considered to be part of the Virginia colony.
However, the Dutch thought they also had a claim, based on the 1609 explorations of Henry Hudson, and under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company were the first Europeans to actually occupy the land. They established trading posts in 1624 at “Hooghe Eyland” (High Island), now Burlington Island, opposite Burlington, New Jersey, in 1626 at Fort Nassau, now Gloucester City, New Jersey, and at Zwaanendael, now Lewes, Delaware in 1631. Peter Minuit was the Dutch Director-General of the New Netherlands during this period and probably spent some time at the Burlington Island post, thereby familiarizing himself with the region.
In any case, Minuit had a falling out with the directors of the Dutch West India Company, was recalled from the New Netherlands, and promptly made his services available to his many friends in Sweden, then a major power in European politics. They established a New Sweden Company and, following much negotiation, he led a group under the flag of Sweden to the Delaware River in 1638. They established a trading post at Fort Christina, now in Wilmington, Delaware. Minuit claimed possession of the western side of the Delaware River, saying he had found no European settlement there. Unlike the Dutch West India Company, the Swedes intended to actually bring settlers to their outpost and begin a colony.
Minuit drowned in a hurricane on the way home that same year, but the Swedish colony continued to grow gradually. By 1644, Swedish and Finnish settlers were living along both sides of the Delaware River from Fort Christina to the Schuylkill River. New Sweden’s best known governor, Johan Björnsson Printz, moved his residence to what is now Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania, where he intended to concentrate the settlements.
While the Dutch settlement at Zwaanendael, or present day Lewes, was soon destroyed in a war with native Americans, the Dutch never gave up their claim to the area and, in 1651, under the leadership of Peter Stuyvesant, built Fort Casimir, now New Castle, Delaware. Three years later, in 1654, Johan Rising, the Swedish governor captured Fort Casimir from Dutch. For the Swedes, this was a catastrophic miscalculation as the next summer, 1655, an enraged Stuyvesant led another Dutch expedition to the Delaware River, attacked all the Swedish communities and forcibly ended the New Sweden colony, incorporating the whole area back into the New Netherland colony.
It was not long, though, before the Dutch too were forcibly removed by the British, who asserted its earlier claim. In 1664, James, the Duke of York and brother of King Charles II, outfitted an expedition that easily ousted the Dutch from both the Delaware and Hudson Rivers, leaving the Duke of York the proprietary authority in the entire area.
But Cæcilius Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, Proprietor of Maryland, claimed a competing grant to lands on the western shore of the Delaware Bay, including all of the present state of Delaware. In deference to the royal will of Charles II to please his brother, James, Duke of York, Calvert did not press his claim. James, the Duke of York, believed he had won the area in war and was justified in ownership. The area was administered from New York as a part of James’ New York colony.
William Penn was granted “Pennsylvania,” which grant specifically excluded New Castle or any of the lands within 12 miles of it. Nevertheless, Penn wanted an outlet to the sea from his new province. He persuaded James to lease him the western shore of the Delaware Bay. So, in 1682, Penn arrived in New Castle with two documents: a charter for the Province of Pennsylvania and a lease for what became known as “the Lower Counties on the Delaware.”
William Penn had inherited James’ claims and thus began nearly 100 years of litigation between Penn and Baltimore, and their heirs, in the High Court of Chancery in London. The settlement of the legal battles was started by the heirs’ agreeing to the survey performed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon between 1763 and 1767. Their work resulted in the famous Mason-Dixon line. The final adjudication of the settlement was not completed until the eve of the American Revolution. The settlement was a major reason for the close political alliance between the property owners of the Lower Counties and the Royalist Proprietary government.
In William Penn’s Frame of Government of 1682, he established a combined assembly for his domain by providing for equal membership from each county and requiring legislation to have the assent of both the Lower Counties and the Upper Counties of Chester, Philadelphia and Bucks. The assembly meeting place alternated between Philadelphia and New Castle. Once Philadelphia began to grow, its leaders resented having to go to New Castle and gain agreement of the assemblymen from the sparsely populated Lower Counties. In 1704 members of the two regions mutually agreed to meet and pass laws separately from then on. The Lower Counties did continue to share a governor, but the Province of Pennsylvania never merged with the Lower Counties.
The Mason-Dixon line forms the boundary between Delaware and Maryland; it is known as the Transpeninsular Line. The border between Pennsylvania and Delaware is formed by an arc known as The Twelve-Mile Circle laid out in the seventeenth century to clearly delineate the area within the sphere of influence of New Castle. A small dispute lingered until 1921 over an area known as The Wedge, where the Mason-Dixon line and The Twelve-Mile Circle left a fragment of land claimed by both Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The British invaded Delaware and partially occupied it from September 1777 until June 1778. The battle was fought between British and Hessian troops under Generals Charles Cornwallis, William Howe, and Wilhelm von Knyphausen and the colonial troops under General George Washington.
The engagement began August 30, about two miles south of the bridge. The Americans harried the lead forces of the British Army. However, the roughly 700 colonials were greatly outmanned and outgunned. Washington’s troops were slowly driven back.
By September 3, the colonials had dropped back to Cooch’s Bridge. A handpicked regiment of 100 marksmen under General William Maxwell laid an ambush in the surrounding cover. Over the ensuing battle, several British and Hessian charges were repelled, but the Americans soon depleted their ammunition and called a retreat.
The property was taken by the British, and several buildings were burned. General Cornwallis used the Cooch house as his headquarters for the next week as the British regrouped. American casualties numbered around 30.
Shortly after General Howe moved his troops out. On September 11, he defeated the colonials in the Battle of Brandywine and subsequently captured the colonial capital of Philadelphia.
State of Delaware
Delaware was one of the thirteen colonies which revolted against British rule in the American Revolution. After the Revolution began in 1776, the three counties became “The Delaware State,” and in 1776 that entity adopted its first constitution, declaring itself to be the “Delaware State.” Its first governors went by the title of “President.”
The oldest black church in the country was chartered in Delaware by former-slave Peter Spencer in 1813 as the “Union Church of Africans,” which is now the A.U.M.P. Church. The Big August Quarterly which began in 1814 is still celebrated and is the oldest such cultural festival in the country.
The government of Delaware never formally abolished slavery; however a large portion of the states slaveowners voluntarily freed their slaves.
During the American Civil War, Delaware was a slave state that remained in the Union (Delaware voters voted not to secede on January 3, 1861). Delaware had been the first state to embrace the Union by ratifying the constitution, and would be the last to leave it, according to Delaware’s governor at the time. Although most Delaware citizens who fought in the Civil War served in regiments on the Union side, some did, in fact, serve in Delaware companies on the Confederate side in the Maryland and Virginia Regiments.
Two months before the end of the Civil War, however, Delaware voted on February 18, 1865 to reject the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution and so voted unsuccessfully to continue slavery beyond the Civil War. Delaware symbolically ratified the amendment on February 12, 1901—40 years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery ended in Delaware only when the Thirteenth Amendment took effect in December 1865. Delaware also rejected the 14th amendment during the Reconstruction Era.