A Tour of New Netherland

Delaware

Nautical chart of Swaanendael

Swaanendael


The Dutch first laid claim to the Delaware Bay area following Henry Hudson's voyage in 1609, but claiming ownership of land meant nothing unless one could occupy it. This was a problem because the 1600s were the Golden Age in Dutch history, a time of unrivalled prosperity. Few Dutchmen, living well at home, were interested in risking life and limb in an unknown wilderness. As a way to encourage settlement, the West India Company instituted a plan in 1629 that would give wealthy men in the Netherlands leave to purchase large tracts of land in the province from their Indian owners. In exchange, these estate holders-called patroons in Dutch-would agree to establish colonies-patroonships-and ship settlers to them.

Ten Dutch businessmen and adventurers-including several directors of the West India Company-banded together to establish a patroonship on the west bank of Delaware Bay, and in 1631 sent 28 men to occupy it. Whales had been spotted in the ocean and bay, and the idea was to get rich from the sperm oil trade. They decided to call their little paradise-to-be Swaanendael, or Swan's Valley.

Alas, it was not to be. The great adventurer David De Vries, one of the shareholders in the patroonship, returned to it from a trip to the Netherlands in 1632 to find the little village burned to the ground and all the settlers massacred by the Indians. That was enough to frighten off other would-be investors; the ill-fated Swaanendael would be the first and last Dutch settlement on the Delaware.

Swaanendael-located where the city of Lewes, Delaware, is today-would have an interesting legacy, however. The fact that it was founded before the English charter to Lord Baltimore, by which he claimed rights to the vast territory of Maryland, gave the Dutch a firm legal position in the later dispute between the two nations over claims to the region. This, in turn, would lead to a compromise settlement of a boundary dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, which involved the creation of a third colony, Delaware. The state of Delaware, therefore, owes its existence to the nearly forgotten settlement of Swaanendael.

  • Today, the town of Lewes is quiet, progressive, and charming. You can take a virtual tour of the town.

  • The Cape May-Lewes ferry runs across Delaware Bay six times a day. The trip takes 70 minutes, and is a great way to get a flavor of what Hudson, Minuit and other early explorers would have experienced entering this waterway.

    The Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes is a copy of the gabled town hall in the Dutch town of Hoorn. It was built in 1931, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Swaanendael settlement.


About the New Netherland Institute

For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

The New Netherland Research Center

Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More

 

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