The History of Delaware
One of the original 13 colonies, Delaware was the first to the table in a key way. On December 7th, 1787, the Delaware legislature became the first to ratify the constitution with a 30 – 0 vote, declaring independence from Great Britain. Active in both the Revolutionary War and the subsequent formation of the United States, Thomas Jefferson spoke well when he called Delaware a ‘jewel’ (reportedly for its ideal location). The Diamond State has a rich heritage to explore.
What’s in a Name?
- Sir Samuel Argall, English naval officer and adventurer, named the Delaware Bay and Delaware River after the governor of Virginia, Thomas West, the 12th Baron De La Warr in 1610. So the naming of both bodies of water predate the naming of the state.
- The bay was first named ‘Rehoboth’ by an unknown Captain as English explorers from the Virginia colony searched for a passage westward. From the Bible, the Hebrew name means ‘broad places’ (Genesis 26:22).
- Originally Henlopen City, the beachside area was established by the General Assembly of Delaware in 1891. It was renamed Rehoboth Beach the following year. Once a paved highway linked the area to Georgetown, its attraction as a premier vacation spot was secure.
Through the Years
In the early days, picture the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape way of life across the expansive horizons and lush forests. Follow the arrival of the 16th century Spanish and Portuguese explorers as they navigate the eastern waterways. Follow the journey of Henry Hudson (1609), Sir Argall (1610) and Cornelius Hendricksen (1614). From the Swedes, Dutch, and then the English, the early years were a bustling time for the peninsula colony.
Step into the Revolutionary War where Delaware was notable for its role both in declaring independence and in the early formation of the United States. Then delve into the internal turmoil the Civil War brought to a state the governor declared would never leave the Union, but struggled with residual division over slavery and then rights of free blacks.
With a history as old and full history, there’s something for history buffs of all stages. Find plenty of opportunities to visit sites firsthand across our state.
Forming the First State
As the first white settlers to colonize Delaware, the Swedes established Fort Christina in Wilmington in 1638, per the plans of King Gustavus Adolphus to establish a Swedish colony in North America. The fort-town was named for the Queen of Sweden and strategically positioned at the head of the Delaware Bay in Wilmington. Settlers built their ‘New Sweden’ combining old and new by using local blue granite and imported Swedish bricks. The Finns travelling along taught the skill of log-building, leading to the log-cabin style known as classically ‘American.’
The battle for the Delaware Valley would see territory changing hands across Delaware, Maryland, southern New Jersey and Pennsylvania. With battles between the Swedish and Dutch then the Dutch and English, the English finally secured the conquest.
The Duke of York (later to be James II) held the three counties of New Castle, Kent and Sussex among his holdings from 1664 until 1682 (minus a short-lived Dutch overthrow in 1673). In 1682, he gave them to William Penn granting his territory direct access to the ocean. Fear of Penn’s radical ways was calmed when he granted each county equal representation in the Pennsylvania assembly. In 1701, Penn granted that New Castle, Kent, and Sussex a separate assembly (first meeting in 1704). However, the counties remained under Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial control until 1776.
Now that you’re here, it’s time to add one more name to the Notable Names of Delaware category! You’re in great company, and here are a few more names of note down through the years.
Among the Swedish settlers of Fort Christina was a black man named Anthony. Captured by the Captain of the Swedish ship the Vogel Grip, he came to the colony from the West Indies. He became a free man, Antoni Swart, and an employee of Governor Johan Printz, cutting hay and sailing Printz’s sloop (est. 1640-1650s).
The 1999 Delaware state quarter commemorates Brigadier-General Caesar Rodney of Dover for his 80 miles on horseback overnight to Philadelphia on July 1, 1776 to cast the deciding vote in favor of the nation’s independence despite his health battles with asthma and skin cancer. Willed slaves upon his father’s death, he lived as a slave owner. He was born into the culture of slavery, but there is no doubt he could have both done more, but also did finally change the pattern he was handed. In his will, he ensured the freedom of his slaves with precautions to secure this mandated freedom.
Richard Allen (1760 – 1831) was born a slave to Stokley Sturgis. Maryland pastor, Rev. Freeborn Garrettson, had freed all his own slaves in 1775 and charged other slaveholders to do the same. Under this influence, Sturgis began to see slavery as evil and allowed his slaves to purchase their own freedom. Through extra work, Allen was able to earn enough to purchase his freedom in 1780. This minister, educator and writer became an influential leader founding the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794.
Robert Montgomery Bird (1805-1854) was born to follow in his father’s footsteps as a naval pioneer, however upon his father’s death he was taken in by a rich uncle and afforded the opportunity to study. Upon finishing medical school, he struggled to resonate with his new medical practice and chose rather to pursue a literary career with strategy and ambition. This physician turned writer became known as a playwright, novelist and journalist, with even a short stint into politics as a delegate to the Whig Convention in Baltimore, 1844.
Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911), he ‘Father of American Illustration’ was known for his Art Noveau styled children’s stories, both retelling classics like The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as well as making his own like The Wonder Clock. His work as a teacher, founding the first School of Illustration at Drexel, as well as the Howard Pyle School of Art in Wilmington, have made him an influence to many including greats such as Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell.
Annie Jump Cannon (1863-1941) was born to shipbuilder and state senator Wilson Lee cannon, and star-gazer, Mary Elizabeth Jump. Despite hearing loss at a young age, she followed her mother’s inspiration and pursued both science and math. Annie became the first women graduate to earn Doctor of Astronomy from Groningen University, and the first woman to ever be awarded an honorary degree from Oxford. Her creation of the Harvard Classification Scheme was the ‘first serious attempt to classify stars by their temperature’, and in addition to this revolution, she classified around 350,000 stars manually.
Henry Heimlich (1920-2016) developed the Heimlich maneuver, as a simple but very effective was to dislodge solid items from the throat of a person who is choking. In his work as a thoracic surgeon he further popularized using Dr. Dan Gavriliu’s method of using a portion of a patient’s stomach to repair the esophagus. Later he invented the Heimlich Chest Drain Valve to drain fluid from open chest wounds. He was awarded the Albert Lasker Public Service Award in 1984 for his work.
And now, President Joe Biden. Starting out as an attorney, he turned his career into politics early on earning two titles in Delaware, as both the longest-serving senator and the fifth-youngest U.S. senator in history. After failing to gain traction in his presidential race in 2008, he was selected by Barack Obama as running mate. Biden served two terms as the 44th U.S. vice president of the United States. In 2020, he was elected the 46th president of the United States.