Swedes and Indians

New Sweden is one of the least known European colonies in North America. This Swedish colony was established in what is now Delaware in 1638 by Peter Minuit. Minuit, a German native of French extraction and recent Dutch ties, arrived in his ship, the Kalmar Nychel, flying the blue-and-yellow flag of Sweden from the mainmast. Looking like a medieval knight in his suit of battle armor, he came ashore to proclaim a colony on behalf of Sweden. The new colony, brought to the continent in two ships, included several dozen Dutch sailors and Swedish soldiers.  

The New Sweden Company had been chartered to create an agricultural (primarily tobacco) and fur-trading colony which could bypass the French, English, and Dutch. The Company included Swedish, Dutch, and German stockholders.

Immediately upon landing, Minuit called a council with the chiefs of the Lenni Lenape (Delaware) and Susquehannock, gathering them in the cabin of his flag ship. He persuaded them to sign a deed assigning ownership of the land over to the Swedes. Minuit’s concerns were not really about tribal ownership of the area. Rather, Minuit was concerned about possible Dutch claims to the land and wanted to forestall any legal argument with them. The Swedes purchased lands on the west side of the river-an area which would later become the states of Delaware and Maryland, and a portion of Pennsylvania which would become Philadelphia.

The expedition constructed Fort Christina (named for the twelve-year-old Swedish Queen) and garrisoned it with 25 men. Minuit then returned to Sweden where he hoped to put together another expedition, one with colonists as well as soldiers.

New Sweden Map 1

Eventually, 600 Swedes and Finns together with a few Dutch and Germans who were in Swedish service settled in New Sweden. The Finns were mostly Forest Finns from central Sweden. The colonists established farms and small settlements along both sides of the Delaware River. Peter Minuit became the first governor of the new colony.

Following Minuit’s death, Johan Bjornsson Printz was appointed governor (1643 to 1653). The New Sweden Company expanded its territory along the river from Fort Christina, establishing  Fort Nya Elfsborg on the east bank of the Delaware River and Fort Nya Gothenborg on Tinicum Island.  The Swedish colony initially prospered.

Map New Netherlands

In 1643, the Susquehannock, under threat of conquest by the colonists in Maryland, obtained advice and firearms, including artillery, from New Sweden. Maryland sent two expeditions against the Susquehannock. The first expedition encountered the Susquehannock, but the Indians simply melted away as the firing began. The second Maryland expedition was routed by Susquehannock warriors using firearms obtained from New Sweden. The Susquehannock captured two cannons and 15 prisoners.

In 1655, the Dutch took control of the Swedish colonies and New Sweden vanished into history. The Finns, who had been brought in by the Swedes as laborers, were offered incentives to continue their efforts at clearing the forests. As a result of the change in colonial power, the Susquehannock were forced to make peace with the Mohawk.