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What colony is it: NY, MD, PA, or something else? The complicated backstory of the birth of Delaware, and our loyalists!

By: Joshua Loper, Director DMHEF/DMM



Last year, the museum's friends, the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, Govenor Simcoe Branch, made a donation helping fund our office supplies in 2023. We thank our friends for this. However, I am sure the reader is asking, "What does Canada have to do with Delaware?" That is a very good question.


Originally, the watershed was claimed by the English Crown. In 1497, John Cabot explored the watershed of the Delaware. Before this, or any colonies were established, in what would become the state of Delaware, the Delaware tribe lived in our state. This includes my family. Then, in 1609, the Dutch West India Company sent Henry Hudson to explore our neck of the woods, thus creating the Dutch colony of the New Netherlands and sending Dutch, German, and English settlers into our state. In 1638, the colony of New Sweden was created by the Swedish in almost the same area, now funneling in Swedish, Finnish, and German settlers here too. Both colonies were claimed by both countries, which was a problem. What happened in this situation is what always happens in this situation. From 1651-1655, both sides fought each other until the Dutch finally won. Interestingly, the Delaware National Guard traces its first muster to August 31, 1655, when Swedish settlers were asked to defend Fort Christina from the Dutch expeditionary force. This Dutch victory ended New Sweden, which was added (or re-incorporated again from another point of view) into New Amsterdam.


"The first mention of the land where the Hale-Byrnes House (circa 1750) stands is mentioned on a land grant. Sergeant Thomas Wollaston, John Ogle, John Hendrick, and Hermann Johnston received a land grant at Fort James, in New York, on the Island of Manhattan in August 1668." George Washington Witness Tree of Delaware Online Museum


Waiting almost in the wings and watching the proceedings was England. In 1664, James, Duke of York (brother of King Charles II) sent an expedition to the Delaware and Hudson Rivers to reassert the 1497 claim of England to the land. The expedition was successful, and we became part of the colony of New York. The reader is reading correctly... Our state (Delaware) was part of the colony of New York. Cecil Calvert (2nd Baron of Baltimore, and Proprietor of Maryland) claimed land grants holding lands on the western shore of the Delaware Bay. However, James, the Duke of York, claimed right of conquest, asserting he had the true ownership of the land being won in battle. Thus, his claim was upheld, and we did not become part of the colony of Maryland. This also funneled more English, Irish, Scottish, and some more German settlers into our state. James eventually dies, as we all will, and, in 1682, William Penn steps off a ship in New Castle. This will start almost one hundred years of litigation and court cases for ownership. Penn had two documents: the first was a charter for the Province of Pennsylvania, and the seconds was a lease for what would become known as "the Lower Counties on the Delaware." The court cases and political machinations over who held legal claim on the "lower three counties" were finally drawing to a close on the eve of the American Revolution!


The 1st Delaware Regiment at the Separation Day Parade in Old Newcastle. HOME | 1stDelawareRegiment


In 1776, there were three camps of people: those who supported remaining part of England, those who supported leaving England, and those who did not care either way. These groups are now known as Loyalists, Patriots, and Fence Sitters, respectively. However, most people in the Lower Three Counties had enough with being ruled by other colonies. Some people who lived in our area did not feel they had anything in common with the people of New York, or Maryland, when they claimed us. Some people who lived in our area did not feel they had anything in common with the people of Pennsylvania, even citing the fact that the "Lower Three Counties had been leased, not granted to Pennsylvania." June 15th, 1776, is a very important day for citizens of Delaware. That is the day when these 3 counties broke away (seceded) from England. This day is also the day those counties broke away from Pennsylvania, too. This created the state of Delaware.


The last gasps of the Pennsylvania argument were settled in the American Revolution. To quote one of my former students, "It must have felt like everyone claimed to own Delaware." I am sure to some it felt like that at times. As with all political questions, not everyone agrees. Delaware fielded what is arguably one of the best regiments in the Continental Army, Delaware's only regiment they sent due to the population size of our state. Remember, Delaware only had 59,094 residents counted in 1790 for America's first census. Delaware citizens also actively supported remaining a colony of the British Crown. This was true especially in Kent and Sussex Counties. The loyalists who actively participated in the Revolutionary War joined the Pennsylvania and Maryland loyalist units. Remember, the British Crown did not recognize the State of Delaware. Loyalists maintained Delaware was still part of Pennsylvania. Widespread popular loyalism kept the general population of Delaware very moderate as the war began. As the war dragged on, public sentiment in the state of Delaware began to shift towards supporting the American cause.


Crest of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada. Governor Simcoe Branch, UELAC - HOME


 But... What does this have to do with Canada? When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783 ending the American Revolution, the former loyalists (sometimes called Tories) had a choice to make. This choice was to stay in the new state of Delaware or relocate to other parts of the British Empire. Many loyalists resettled in Canada. However, some loyalist families stayed after the revolution, like my wife's family, fighting for the British Crown in the American Revolution, and then against it in the War of 1812. History, like politics, can be complicated. After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, there were no more claims on what state Delaware really was.


Some really great books to find out more information on this topic are listed below:

1) Harold Bell Hancock: The Loyalists of Revolutionary Delaware

2) Amandus Johnson: The Swedes in America 1638–1900: Vol. I, The Swedes on the Delaware 1638–1664.

3) Amandus Johnson: The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware 1638–1664, Volume II

4) Christopher Ward: Dutch and Swedes on the Delaware, 1609- 1664

5) Roberta Wiener, and James R. Arnold. Delaware: The History of the Delaware Colony, 1638–1776.

6) C. A. Weslarger: New Sweden on the Delaware, 1638–1655.


Some really great websites to look at:


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