The Forgotten History of the Swedish Colony in America March 1638

Most American’s are more familiar with English, Spanish and French colonialism in America. So, many are not familiar with the fact that for more than 20 years in the early 17th century, the Swedes participated in Colony building in North America. At the height of “New Sweden”, several hundred colonists inhabited territory across modern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. 

In the early 1600’s, the Kingdom of Sweden became a major European power that controlled parts of Germany,  Poland, Russia and (eventually) Finland. Following its military successes in the Livonian Wars and in the Thirty Years War, it became the third largest country in Europe by land area. As such, Sweden sought to compete with other European countries by establishing colonies overseas. As was true initially with other European countries, however, Sweden’s colonization efforts were undertaken through commercial enterprises and not through deliberate wars of conquest.

As described by the History Channel Website, Sweden started planning its overseas territories in the 1630s, when the New Sweden Company was formed to exploit the tobacco and fur trade in North America. Peter Minuit led the first expedition to establish the colony. Minuit, a Dutch explorer, had previously won fame for purchasing the island of Manhattan for the Dutch West India Company. Although the Dutch West India Company had earlier tried to implant a colony at Zwaanendael in the Delaware Bay, the Delaware Bay was chosen again as the site for the new Swedish colony.

By March 1838, Minuit’s ships, Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip, had made their way up the Delaware River, and dropped anchor near modern-day Wilmington, Delaware.  Minuit then arranged to purchase a swath of territory that now comprises parts of Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey from the local Lenape and Susquehannock Indian tribes.  

Minuit and the Swedish colonists were very strategic about where they located their first settlement in North America, since Minuit was familiar with the landscape. It was well placed for trading with the natives, and more importantly, it was in an area not yet occupied by other Europeans. The settlement they subsequently built was called Fort Christina after the young Queen of Sweden.

The Swedish colony’s period in North America was brief, lasting not more than 20 years. During that intervening period, Peter Minuit perished at Sea in a hurricane, and was replaced by Johan Printz in 1643, who worked with great energy to build a thriving enterprise.  During this period, the Swedes introduced log cabins and the Lutheran religion.

Although the small colony was  active in growing tobacco and trading with the Indians, it had difficulty in attracting sustained interest or recruits from Sweden.  So, they resorted to drafting criminals and deserters to bolster the ranks of the colony. As we will see in subsequent posts, after an additional, brief effort to reinvigorate the Swedish Colony, it was eventually subsumed by the Dutch. 

Also see for a full time line of the Swedish Colonial experience.

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