The history of Delaware as a political entity dates back to the early colonization of North America by European American settlers. It is made up of three counties established since 1638, before the time of William Penn. Each county has had its own settlement history. Their early inhabitants tended to identify more closely with their county, than Delaware as a whole. Large parts of southern and western Delaware were thought to have been[clarification needed] in Maryland until 1767. All of the state has existed in the wide economic and political circle of Philadelphia.

Native Americans

Before Delaware was settled by Europeans, the area was home to the Lenni Lenape (also known as Delaware), Susquehanna, Nanticoke, and other Native American tribes. After the Swedish, Dutch colonists settled Delaware, with the native people trading with Delaware settlers for around a half-century.[1]

Dutch and Swedish colonies

Main articles: New Sweden and New Netherland

Nautical chart of the Dutch colony Zwaanendael and Godyn's Bay (Delaware Bay), 1639
Nautical chart of the Dutch colony Zwaanendael and Godyn's Bay (Delaware Bay), 1639

The Delaware watershed was claimed by the English 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: Fort Wilhelmus in 1624 at "Hooghe Eyland" (High Island), now Burlington Island, opposite Burlington, New Jersey; Fort Nassau, near Gloucester City, New Jersey, in 1626; and at Zwaanendael, now Lewes, Delaware, in 1631.[2] Peter Minuit was the Dutch Director-General of New Netherland 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 disagreement with the directors of the Dutch West India Company, was recalled from New Netherland, and quickly made his services available to his many friends in Sweden, then a major power in European politics. They established a Swedish South Company, aimed at settling the territory of New Sweden, 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. 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 ("swan valley"), 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. Three years later, in 1654, Johan Risingh, the Swedish governor, captured Fort Casimir from the 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.[3]

British colony

Main article: Delaware Colony

It was not long, though, before the Dutch too were forcibly removed by the English, who asserted their 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 Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore, Proprietor of Maryland, claimed a competing grant to lands on the western shore of 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 (19 km) of it. Nevertheless, Penn wanted an outlet to the sea from his new province. He persuaded James to lease him the western shore of 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".

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; this begins at 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.

American Revolution

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 Battle of Cooch's Bridge was the only major military engagement of the Revolution that took place on Delaware soil. The engagement began August 30, 1777, about 2 miles (3 km) south of Cooch's Bridge (located in present-day Newark). 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 afterward, 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.

Delaware had a Loyalist insurrection in April 1778 called the Clow Rebellion.

In 1783, the independence of the United States and therefore Delaware was confirmed in the Treaty of Paris.


Delaware was the first state to ratify the United States Constitution.

Éleuthère Irénée du Pont arrived in America from France in 1800 and founded the young United States' largest gunpowder factory on the banks of the Brandywine River just north of Wilmington in 1804. His DuPont firm (now the world's fourth largest chemical company) was the U.S. military's largest supplier of gunpowder by the beginning of the Civil War, and his descendants, the du Pont family, are now one of the richest and most successful families in the country.

The oldest African American 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 construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal between 1802 and 1829 brought significant shipping interests to Delaware, expanding the state's commercial opportunities.


Census year New Castle
of state
of state
of state
Delaware total
1790 19,688 33% 18,920 32% 20,488 35% 59,096
1800 25,361 39% 19,554 30% 19,358 30% 64,273
1810 24,429 34% 20,495 28% 27,750 38% 72,674
1820 27,899 38% 20,793 29% 24,057 33% 72,749
1830 29,720 39% 19,913 26% 27,115 35% 76,748
1840 33,120 42% 19,872 25% 25,093 32% 78,085

Delaware in the Civil War

Slavery had been a divisive issue in Delaware for decades before the American Civil War began. Opposition to slavery in Delaware, imported from Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania, led many slaveowners to free their slaves; half of the state's black population was free by 1810, and more than 90% were free by 1860.[4] This trend also led pro-slavery legislators to restrict free black organizations, and the constabulary in Wilmington was accused of harsh enforcement of runaway slave laws while many Delawareans kidnapped free blacks among the large communities throughout the state and sold them to plantations further south.[4]

During the 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.[citation needed] 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. Delaware was the one slave state from which the Confederate States of America could not recruit a full regiment.[citation needed]

Fort Delaware, circa 1870 by Seth Eastman (1808 - 1875).
Fort Delaware, circa 1870 by Seth Eastman (1808 - 1875).

By 1862, Fort Delaware, a harbor defense facility that was located on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River and had been designed by chief engineer Joseph Gilbert Totten circa 1819, was pressed into service as a prison for Confederate prisoners of war, political prisoners, federal convicts, and privateer officers.[5][6][7] The first prisoners of war (POWs) were confined in the fort's interior in casemates, empty powder magazines, or one of two small rooms in the sally port. The first general from the Confederate States of America to be housed at the fort was Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew.

Prison conditions were initially "tolerable," according to research conducted by students at the University of Delaware. "In its first year of operation in 1862, the population varied from 3,434 prisoners in July to only 123 later that year due to routine prisoner exchanges between the North and the South." But by the summer of 1863, following multiple military engagements including July's Battle of Gettysburg, "the fort's population had swollen to over 12,000 due to the influx of prisoners from the battles at Vicksburg and Gettysburg," a change in numbers which soon began to negatively impact the quality of life for POWs.[8]

As realization dawned that more housing would be needed for the increasing number of POWs captured by Union troops, officials at the fort embarked on a construction program in 1862, building barracks for enlisted men which came to be known as the "bull pen."[9] A 600-bed hospital was also built, as were barracks for the Union soldiers who would be brought in to guard the increasing POW ranks.

The first Confederate prisoner to die at Fort Delaware was Captain L. P. Halloway of the 27th Virginia Infantry. Captured at Winchester, Virginia on March 23, 1862, he died at the fort on April 9.[10] By the end of the war, the fort had held almost 33,000 prisoners, roughly 2,500 of whom died as the conditions continued to deteriorate. Half of the deaths were reportedly due to an outbreak of variola (smallpox) in 1863. Other causes of death included: diarrhea (315), inflammation of the lungs (243), typhoid fever and/or malaria (215), scurvy (70), pneumonia (61), erysipelas (47), gunshot wounds (7), and drowning (5).[11][12] In addition, 109 Union soldiers and 40 civilians also died at the fort during the war.[13]

Among the political prisoners held at Fort Delaware was the Rev. Issac W. K. Handy, who had commented in December 1863 that the Civil War had tarnished one of the nation's most cherished symbols, the American flag. Arrested for comments made during a dinner, he was jailed without trial and, because habeas corpus had been suspended by this time during the war, he was then held at the fort for 15 months.[14]

Two months before the end of the Civil War, on February 8, 1865, Delaware voted to reject the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution and so voted to continue slavery beyond the Civil War. The gesture proved futile when other states ratified the amendment, which took effect in December 1865 and thereby ended slavery in Delaware. In a symbolic move, Delaware belatedly ratified the amendment on February 12, 1901 – 35 years after national ratification and 38 years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Delaware also rejected the 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment during the Reconstruction Era.


After the Civil War, Democratic governments continued to dominate the South. The Delaware legislature declared blacks as second-class citizens[citation needed] in 1866 and restricted their voting rights despite the Fifteenth Amendment, ensuring continued Democratic success in the state throughout most of the nineteenth century. Fearful that the 1875 Civil Rights Act passed by Congress might establish social upheaval, Delaware legislators passed Jim Crow laws[citation needed] that mandated racial segregation in public facilities. The state's educational system was segregated by operation of law.[citation needed] Delaware's segregation was written into the state constitution, which, while providing at Article X, Section 2,[citation needed] that "no distinction shall be made on account of race or color", nonetheless required that "separate schools for white and colored children shall be maintained."[citation needed]

Since 1900

In 1952, Gebhart v. Belton was decided by the Delaware Court of Chancery and affirmed by the Delaware Supreme Court in the same year. Gebhart was one of the five cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education,[citation needed] the 1954 decision of the United States Supreme Court which found racial segregation in United States public schools to be unconstitutional.

The end result of the Gebhart and Brown litigation was that Delaware became fully integrated, albeit with time and much effort. Some[who?] argue that while the state of race relations was dramatically improving post-Brown, any progress was destroyed in the wake of the rioting that broke out in Wilmington in April 1968 in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis[citation needed]. Delaware's response to the Wilmington riots was heavy-handed in the opinion of some[who?], involving the virtual occupation[opinion] of the city for over one year by the Delaware National Guard.

See also


  1. ^ Johnson, Amandus The Indians and Their Culture as Described in Swedish and Dutch Records (1917)
  2. ^ Gehring, Charles T. (1995), "Hodie Mihi, Cras Tibi", New Sweden in America Swedish-Dutch relations in the Delaware Valley, University of Delaware Press, ISBN 0-87413-520-6
  3. ^ Johnson, Amandus, Johan Classon Rising: The last governor of New Sweden (1915)
  4. ^ a b "The Growth of Delaware's Antebellum Free African American Community". Retrieved 17 June 2017.
  5. ^ Dobbs, Kelli W. and Rebecca J. Siders. Fort Delaware Architectural Research Project. Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware, Center for Historic Architecture and Design, 1999.
  6. ^ American state papers : documents, legislative and executive, of the Congress of the United States, From the First Session to the Second Session of the Eighteenth Congress, Inclusive. Commencing December 27, 1819, and ending February 28, 1825. Vol. Class V. Military Affairs Volume II. Washington, DC: Gales and Seaton. 1834. ISBN 9780893085148. OCLC 767962786, 54935102, 3386664.[page needed]
  7. ^ Hamilton, A. J. (1981). Wilson, W. Emerson (ed.). A Fort Delaware journal : the diary of a Yankee private, A.J. Hamilton, 1862-65. Wilmington, DE, US: Fort Delaware Society. OCLC 8805488.
  8. ^ Bryant, Tracy. "Escape from Fort Delaware: Student sheds light on Civil War Mystery." Newark Delaware: University of Delaware, Office of Communications & Marketing, accessed May 10, 2018.
  9. ^ Berkeley, Henry R. Four years in the Confederate Artillery: The Diary of Private Henry Robinson Berkeley. Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Historical Society, 1991., p. 128.
  10. ^ "Local Intelligence, Matters at Fort Delaware." Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Philadelphia Inquirer, July 21, 1862, p. 8.
  11. ^ Jamison, Jocelyn P., They Died at Fort Delaware 1861-1865: Confederate, Union and Civilian. Delaware City, Delaware: Fort Delaware Society, 1997.
  12. ^ Mowday, Bruce and Dale Fetzer. Unlikely Allies: Fort Delaware's Prison Community in the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2000.
  13. ^ Jamison, Jocelyn P., 1997., pp. 85–90.
  14. ^ "Prisoner with UD Ties." Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware, Office of Communications & Marketing, accessed May 10, 2018.


Further reading