Delaware’s First Settlement Made by Swedes

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Henry Hudson and Lord Delaware were there earlier, but Delaware’s first permanent settlement in 1638 was Swedish. Their fort was named for Sweden’s Queen Christina.

The first Colony of New Sweden’s settlers lived where Wilmington is. It extended north to Philadelphia and across the Delaware River into New Jersey.

Fort Christina chapel was two miles upstream. In 1667, a log church was built where the Delaware and Christina rivers joined. Two years later a blockhouse at Wicaco (Philadelphia) became worship site for the “upper settlement”. These are the oldest Swedish Lutheran Churches in America. The congregation dates from 1638.

Three Ministers from Sweden

In 1697, three Swedish ministers arrived: Andreas Rudman served the Wicaco congregation, Jonas Aureen the Jersey congregation and Ericus Biorck the church at Crane Hook.

The early decades of New Sweden were marked by conflict. The Dutch believed the Swedes settled on Dutch territory. In 1655, New Netherland’s Gov. Peter Stuyvesant took possession of New Sweden. The Dutch held this territory nine years. In 1664, it passed, with New Amsterdam, into English hands.

Delaware was then ruled by English governors. In 1682, Delaware and Pennsylvania were granted to William Penn. They had the same governor until an independent state government was formed in 1776. On Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the U. S. Constitution.

Old Swedes Is Built

When Biorck proposed replacement of the log church, Holy Trinity—also called Old Swedes—was built adjacent to the Fort Christina burying ground and consecrated in 1699. After being recalled to Sweden in 1718, Biorck sent the growing Wilmington congregation silver gilt communion vessels.

After the 1777 Battle of the Brandywine, British soldiers were quartered in the church. Cannon balls have been found in the churchyard.

Historic Church Yard

The historic churchyard contains about 15,000 burials. The oldest identifiable stone is that of William Vandever (1656-1718). The oldest visible fieldstones are for Catharina and Britta Cock, who died of typhoid fever in 1726.

Veterans from every war between the Revolution and the Vietnam War are interred there. Others of note buried here include:

  • Revolutionary War hero Major Peter Jaquett
  • Dr. Joseph E. Capelle, who served with General Lafayette
  • The Right Reverend Alfred Lee, first Episcopal Bishop of Delaware
  • James A. Bayard, U.S. Senator for Delaware
  • Richard Bayard, first Mayor of Wilmington
  • Thomas F. Bayard, Secretary of State, then Ambassador to the Court of St. James
  • Captain Hugh Montgomery of the Brig Nancy, first ship to fly the American Flag in a foreign port
  • Brewer Seneke, an early vestryman, is buried in the church under his pew

Holy Trinity claims to be the oldest U. S. church that both stands as built and has been in continual use. It is a Registered National Historic Landmark. Next door a stone museum houses three centuries of fairly complete church records. Those interested in genealogical research should check the church’s guidelines.Address inquiries to: Curator, Old Swedes Church, 606 Church St., Wilmington, DE 19801.

The last Swedish minister was recalled to Sweden in 1791 and the church came under Episcopal Church jurisdiction. Old Swedes was refurbished in 1842 and underwent major restoration in 1898-1899.

Sweden’s King Gustaf V donated an altar cloth he helped embroider in 1950. The church was visited by Sweden’s Prince Bertil in 1963 and by King Carl Gustaf in 1976.

Source:

  1. “Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church in Wilmington, DE,” Rosemary E. Bachelor, The Second Boat, Vol. 3, No. 3, November, 1982.