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New Sweden, The Time Before Penn

Updated: May 10, 2021

The Kalmar Nyckel

Most people are familiar with the British, Dutch, Spanish and French colonies that were established in America, but probably not as much as with the Swedish colony, New Sweden. For twenty years in the 1600's, it spanned parts of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was the smallest, least populated and shortest-lived European colony in the New World. It also benefited the later colonists, specifically my ancestors in those areas.

During the 17th century, Sweden was a major military and political power in Europe during the Thirty Years' War. Its kingdom encircled the Baltic Sea. Desiring to keep up with the other European powers, Sweden sought to carve out its own sphere of influence in the New World. As a result, Swedish, Dutch and German stockholders formed the New Sweden Company in 1637, hoping to engage in the fur and tobacco markets. Later that year, the company's first expedition set sail under the command of Peter Minuit. Minuit, a German from the city of Wesel, was responsible for purchasing the island of Manhattan from the Native Americans for goods valued at 60 guilders (or $24) on behalf of the Dutch West India Company. He also served as the Third Director of New Netherland from 1626 to 1631. Therefore, he seemed like the perfect man for the endeavor.

Two ships, the Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip, set sail with some 25 would-be colonists and by March 1638, had travelled up the Delaware River, dropping anchor near modern-day Wilmington, Delaware. Once again using his diplomatic skills, Minuit promptly gathered leaders of the local Lenape and Susquehannock tribes and arranged to purchase a chunk of territory that now consists of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He had carefully selected the land because it was beneficial for trading with the indigenous people and it had not yet been occupied by other Europeans.

Minuit and his men constructed a fort and named it Fort Christina, in honor of Sweden's 12 year old Queen and thus established the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley. Since the Dutch in New Netherlands asserted that their territory extended from the Delaware Bay to New England, it was not long before the Dutch sent a messenger with a letter to Minuit. The letter warned of the "mishaps, bloodsheds and disturbances" that the Swedes were risking by trespassing on their land. Minuit ignored the letter, knowing that the Dutch did not have sufficient troops to back up any threat. However, the Swedish settlers had been put on notice.

The colony suffered a setback in August 1638 when Peter Minuit died during a hurricane in the Caribbean during his return voyage to Sweden. The settlers established a peaceful trade with the local tribes. This allowed them to survive the next couple of years in addition to growing corn and purchasing other goods from nearby English and Dutch settlers.

Johan Björnsson Printz (1592-1663)

In 1643, a Swedish military officer named Johan Björnsson Printz took over as governor, determined to expand the nascent colony. His impressive 400-pound frame earned him the nickname "Big Belly" from the Indians. Upon his arrival, he had Fort Christina reinforced and built Fort Elfsborg (near modern-day Salem, NJ) and Fort New Gothenburg on Tinicum Island (to the immediate SW of today's Philadelphia). He also increased their trading with the Indians and established plantations for growing food and tobacco.

On Tinicum Island, he also built his own manor house which he called The Printzhof. It was two stories high, made of hewn logs and fireplaces of brick imported from Sweden. The manor contained a finished lumber interior made from lumber sent from Sweden, glass windows and lavish draperies. The location was chosen with an eye to controlling the trade of the river.

Despite Printz’s early improvements, the New Sweden colony never became as prosperous as its Dutch and English competitors to the north and south. Part of the problem was a near-constant lack of manpower and government support. The colony’s population was often less than 200, and interest in immigrating was almost nonexistent back in Sweden. Settlers were so hard to come by that the Swedish crown eventually resorted to forcing petty criminals and military deserters to serve, but the colony was still largely neglected.

In 1647, hot-tempered Peter Stuyvesant became the director-general of the Dutch capitol of New Amsterdam. Under his rule, the Dutch took a more hard-nosed approach to the Swedish interlopers by restricting New Sweden’s access to the Delaware River and squeezing it out of the fur trade. In 1651, the Dutch built a stronghold called Fort Casimir only a few miles away from Fort Christina.

As the Dutch applied pressure from the outside, New Sweden also suffered from internal turmoil. Governor Printz's autocratic rule left many settlers dissatisfied. Colonists were deserting the settlement in droves and others, who had grown dissatisfied, submitted a petition for reform. While it was considered a "mutiny", the petition did lead to Printz's return to Sweden. In 1654, the colony's last governor, Johan Rising, succeeded Printz. Soon after arriving in New Sweden with several hundred new colonists, Rising attempted to remove the Dutch from the colony by seizing Fort Casimir (present-day New Castle, DE), below Fort Christina on the western shore of the river. With no gunpowder, Fort Casimir surrendered without a shot and was re-named Fort Trinity.

Following the seizure of Fort Casimir, the furious Governor Stuyvesant had his revenge the following summer, when seven armed Dutch ships and 317 soldiers appeared on the Delaware River. Realizing that resistance would be useless, the vastly outnumbered Swedes surrendered Fort Trinity and Governor Rising surrendered Fort Christina two weeks later.

Swedish sovereignty over New Sweden was at an end, but the Swedish and Finnish presence was very much in evidence. In fact, Governor Stuyvesant permitted the colonists to continue as a "Swedish Nation" and be governed by a court of their choosing, be free to practice their religion, organize their own militia, retain their land holdings and continue trading with the native people. This independent "Swedish Nation" continued until 1681 when William Penn received his charter for Pennsylvania and the three lower counties (present-day Delaware). However, even as late as the 1750s, visitors reported that the Swedish language was still being spoken in the region.

The vast majority of New Sweden’s settlers were natives of Sweden and Finland, and they introduced Lutheran Christianity and several Scandinavian customs to the New World. Perhaps the greatest contribution of New Sweden to the development of the New World was the traditional Finnish forest house building technique. The colonists of New Sweden brought with them the log cabin, which became such an icon of the American frontier that it is commonly thought of as an American structure. One example is located in Gibbstown, NJ, and dates to as early as 1638. It is considered the oldest surviving log cabin in the United States.

Nothnagle Log Cabin, Gibbstown, NJ

Other traces of New Sweden persist in the lower Delaware Valley, including Holy Trinity Church in Wilmington, DE, Gloria Dei Church and St. James Kingsessing Church in Philadelphia, Trinity Episcopal Church in Swedesboro, NJ and Christ Church in Swedesburg, PA. All of those churches are commonly known as "Old Swedes' Church". Christiana, DE is one of the few settlements in the area that retain its Swedish name, and Upland survives as Upland, PA. Swedesford Road is still found in Chester and Montgomery Counties, PA, although Swedesford has long since become Norristown.

So, with the Swedish presence in the New World, maybe I am descended from some of those original colonists? Either that or the DNA is carried over from Viking raids and the Danelaw settlement in England. Regardless, with listing my ethnicity as 9%, Swedish (a fairly significant amount, in my opinion), it had to come from somewhere. As of now, it still remains a mystery. I will continue to explore it in future postings.


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