New Sweden: A Brief History

by Elizabeth Covart 

The history of New Sweden began in 1637 with the founding of the New Sweden Company. The formation of the Company was the brainchild of Dutch, German, and Swedish investors who convinced Axel Oxenstierna, Chancellor of the Realm and Queen Christina’s regent,(1) that Sweden stood to profit in the tobacco and fur trades of North America.

Hoping to advance its world power status and become a dominant member of the European economic market, the Swedish government permitted the Company to form and Peter Minuit was brought in from the Netherlands to lead Sweden’s first New World expedition.(2)

Minuit, the former Governor of New Netherlands and famous purchaser of Manhattan, was the perfect choice for the New Sweden Company’s expedition leader. Minuit was still disgruntled over his 1631 recall to Holland and was willing to retaliate against the Dutch by working for the advantage of the Swedes.(3)

With map in hand, Minuit showed the Swedish government where he thought the boundary lines of the French, English, Spanish, and Dutch colonies were. In between England’s claim to Virginia and the Dutch claim to New Amsterdam, Minuit pointed to a vast amount of land from the Minquas Kill, the present-day Christina River, up to Sankikan Kill, present-day Trenton, New Jersey, which was currently unoccupied.(4) The land between those two points, and along both banks of the Delaware River,was chosen as the place for Sweden’s colony.

In December 1637, Minuit and his settlers began their trip across the Atlantic from Goethenburg, Sweden. The travelers landed on the banks of the Delaware in the spring of 1638, disembarked, and met with the local Native Americans to purchase the land. Minuit and his Lenape translator, Andres Lucassen, met with Mattahorn, Mitatsemint, Eru Packen, Mohomen, and Chiton, the five local Lenape Chiefs and purchased sixty-seven miles of Delaware River frontage, centering around Minquas Kill, and extending as far west as the “setting sun.”(5) With title in hand the Swedes began building their first outpost, Fort Christina, which today would sit in Wilmington, Delaware.

After constructing the fort, Minuit boarded his ship, in June 1639, and set sail for Gothenburg to let the Swedish government know that they now had a colony in the New World. At Fort Christina, Minuit left behind twenty-three soldiers, Antonius, a black slave, and the colony’s first Commissioner, Hendrick Huygen. Unlike the English settlers of New England and Virginia, the Swedes were fortunate to settle in an area where the Native Americans were sedentary and had huge farms. After establishing good trading relations with the Algonquin tribes, most notably the Lenape and Minquas, the Swedes were able to buy Indian corn, apples, plums, watermelons, grapes, beans, turkeys, geese, fish, venison, moose, and bear to make it through their first season.(6)

In the spring of 1640, the second Swedish expedition landed with supplies, more soldiers, a chaplain, colonists, goods to be traded with the Indians, and the new Governor, Peter Hollender Ridder. Ridder was pivotal in the colony’s expansion. Though the Swedes had more than enough land for its small population, Ridder insisted on expanding the colony’s boundaries. With the aid of some soldiers and a sloop, Ridder sailed north on the Delaware River and defiantly passed the Dutch Fort Nassau, located in present-day Gloucester City, New Jersey. Well beyond Fort Nassau, Ridder met with the local Indian chiefs and bought a title to the land from the Schuylkill tributary to Trenton, New Jersey.

Today, the combined purchases of Minuit and Ridder would comprise one hundred and twenty miles of land on both banks of the Delaware, from just north of Trenton, New Jersey to as far south as Wilmington, Delaware—including the land that the Dutch Fort Nassau sat on.(7)

The Dutch had begun to protest Swedish claims to the land on the Delaware as early as 1639, but since they, like the Swedes, had few soldiers, neither side was able make a decisive move against the other.(8) Around late 1641-early 1642, however, the two groups temporarily stopped bickering and combined their efforts to evict a group of sixty English men and women, who had come to establish England’s claim to the region.

The first English settlers on the Delaware River were representatives of the English Delaware Company based in New Haven, Connecticut. Finding the area around the Delaware to be sparsely populated, the Company was successful in purchasing tracts of land from the region’s Indians. Having purchased its land, the Company sent a group of sixty settlers to establish two new communities; one at the mouth of the Schuylkill River and the other at Varkens Kill or present-day Salem, New Jersey. Both the Swedes and the Dutch felt threatened by the English presence and their almost instantaneous monopolization of the region’s Indian fur trade. Tired of having to compete for furs and living in fear of their developing a more substantial settlement, the Swedes and Dutch joined forces and forcibly removed the English from the region.(9)

By 1642, the New Sweden Company became the sole property of the Swedish government. Though the colony had expanded and thrived since its start in 1638, the profits that were projected in 1637 were not forthcoming and as a result the Company’s private financiers relinquished their shares to the government. Now fully in control of their colony, the Swedish government appointed Johan Printz as the colony’s Governor. Before setting sail from Gothenburg in 1642, Oxenstierna sent Printz a list of instructions so that he might know the extent of his gubernatorial power and exactly what the Crown expected from him.

With dark, unforgiving eyes, a protruding jaw, and a girth of approximately four hundred pounds, which led the local Indians to call him “Mighty Belly,” Printz had a commanding presence. The day after his February 15, 1643 arrival, Printz set to work plotting strategic points along the Delaware where forts, blockhouses, and farms could be built. Almost immediately Printz and his Swedes set to work building their second fort, Fort Elfsborg, on the site of the former English colony of Varkens Kill. The purpose of the fort was to, in combination with Fort Christina, control the opening of the Delaware and the Dutch at Fort Nassau.

Also in 1643, Printz established the official capital of New Sweden on Tinicum Island, which lies in the Delaware River just southwest of present-day Philadelphia. In honor of Sweden’s major port, where the majority of New Sweden’s settlers departed from, Printz named the capital New Gothenburg and had both his house, Printzhof, and a new fort built there.(10) In addition, Printz also built Fort Korsholm, near present-day Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1647 to add to the Swedes’ defense.

What is interesting about Printz’s rule, is not only was he New Sweden’s longest reigning Governor, 1643-1653, but he also managed to keep the Swedes on good terms with the Indians. It seemed that every colony in North America had problems with neighboring tribes. The French quarreled with the Iroquois, the Dutch with the Algonquins, and the Southern English with the Susquehannocks or Minquas as they were called in New Sweden. Unlike the Swedes, the English carried out-right extermination against the Minquas. From 1643-1644 the animosity and violence between the Indians and the English escalated into massacres on both sides. Printz had strict orders to maintain favorable relations with the Indians and he followed through on them, which allowed the Swedes to continue trading with the Indians.(11)

Between 1651-1653 New Sweden began to decline. The Swedish government had lost interest in its colony, which was evident as they did not send a single supply ship or any ship, from 1648-1654.(12) Part of this neglect was due to the fact that all of the colony’s supply ships, which for the first five years of Printz’s governorship came with some regularity, were commandeered by the Swedish government to help in its war against the Netherlands.

Another reason for the colony’s decline was that in 1647 the Dutch sent a new governor, Peter Stuyvesant, who was as quick to take action and defend his colony’s right to the Delaware as Printz was. Without supply ships and reinforcements, Printz was a lame-duck.(13)

For the next six years, Stuyvesant and Printz fought each other over their respective country’s claims to the Delaware.

Unfortunately for Printz, Stuyvesant often had the upper hand. He received regular ships filled with supplies and reinforcements while Printz did not receive a single ship. Stuyvesant had soldiers who were full of confidence about the Dutch colony; Printz was constantly trying to keep his soldiers and settlers from deserting to Maryland or New Amsterdam.

Left with few men to fight, Printz abandoned both Fort Elfsborg and Fort Korsholm in order to concentrate his forces at Fort Christina and New Gothenburg, allowing the Christina River to become the de facto boundary between New Sweden and New Netherlands.(14) Seeing that his opponent was weak, Stuyvesant seized the opportunity to establish Fort Casimir, near present-day New Castle, Delaware, just five miles below Fort Christina, in 1651.

By abandoning Fort Nassau and strengthening Fort Casimir with its resources, Stuyvesant was better able to keep Printz in check and control ship traffic on the Delaware.(15)

Faced with the many problems that Stuyvesant caused for him and with the problems created by Sweden’s temporary abandonment of their colony, Printz often had to rule with an “iron fist” to keep his colonists and soldiers from deserting. In 1653, Printz was presented with a document signed by twenty-two colonists, one-fourth of New Sweden’s male population. In the document, the colonists reported that they no longer felt safe in New Sweden and complained about Printz’s restrictions concerning their trading with the Indians and other non-Swedish Christians. The document also accused Printz of abusing the powers of his office; Printz did not take this document well and declared it an act of mutiny. In response, to the colonists’ accusations, Printz had their leader arrested, tried, and executed by a firing squad.

Frustrated with the lack of support from home and the dissatisfaction of his colonists, Printz packed his bags and left for Old Sweden in late 1653.(16) He was officially replaced in 1654 with Johan Rising. With Rising came a supply ship which not only contained material supplies for the colony, but a group of two hundred and fifty new colonists to replenish its near-extinct population of seventy. Unfortunately for Rising, a man with great vision and plans for New Sweden, he was only able to govern for year.

Yet, during that year he was very active; he evicted the Dutch from Fort Casimir and re-named it Fort Trinity, which allowed New Sweden to reassume control of the Delaware River, and he encouraged more settlers to come over from Old Sweden, which allowed the colony to boast a population of three hundred and sixty-eight, but he was not able to stave off the famine and disease that decimated the colony.(17)

By 1655, Dutch General Stuyvesant was done dealing with the Swedes and their desire to control the Delaware. With three hundred and seventeen soldiers and seven armed ships, Stuyvesant invaded New Sweden and took its forts one by one, ending with Fort Christina in September 1655. Stuyvesant’s capturing of Fort Christina marked the end of New Sweden and Swedish claims to the New World.(18)


List of Sources

Alf Åberg. The People of New Sweden: Our Colony on the Delaware River. (Stockholm, Bokförlaget Natur Och Kultur. 1988)

Susan E. Kelpp. “Encounter and Experiment.” Pennsylvania: A History of the

Commonwealth. Edited by Randall M. Miller and William Pencak. (University Park, Pennsylvania, Penn State Press. 2002)

Algott Mattsson. New Sweden the Dream of an Empire. Translated by Jan Teeland and Jeremy Franks. (Gothenburg, Sweden. Tre Böcker Förlag. 1987)

Stellan Dahlgren and Hans Norman. The Rise and Fall of New Sweden. Translated by Marie Clark Nelson. (Sweden, Bohusläningens Boktryckeri. 1988)

“New Sweden: The 350th Anniversary of the Settlement of the Swedes and Finns in Delaware.” (The University of Delaware Library. 1988)

The Swedish Colonial Society

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

The New Netherlands Project