Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ex-Dutch Governor Leads Sweden’s Bid for an American Colony

The European colonizers on the Eastern seaboard of heavily forested North America—French, English, Dutch—and Native tribes all built  fortifications of palisaded logs like Peter Minuit’s Fort Christiana.  But only the Swedes built their dwellings, like the building seen within the walls, out of interlocking horizontal logs instead of laboriously hand sawn planks, stone, or mud and wattle.  Log cabins were sturdy, well insulated for harsh winters, and provided protection in the event of Indian raids.  After New Sweden was conquered by the Dutch and then became part of William Penn’s Grant, this style of construction was rapidly adopted by settlers as they pushed the margins of the frontier ever westward.  Log cabins were the most enduring cultural legacy of New Sweden’s short lived tenure as a colony.

Ok, quickly now, students, go to a map and show me the location of the colony of New Sweden. What?  You say you’ve never heard of such a thing?  Well on March 29, 1638 two ships carrying Swedish and FinnishFinland was at the time part of Sweden—emigrants sailed up Delaware River and landed near modern day Wilmington.  They claimed the river and its drainage for the New Sweden Company. 
In command was a veteran of North American colonization, Peter Minuit.  Minuit is familiar to school children as the Dutch Governor of New Netherlands who supposedly swindled Native Americans out of the island of Manhattan for $24 in beads and trinkets.  Like most such arch-typical tales, the story was only half right.  Minuit did purchase the island—and near-by Staten Island—for about 60 Guilders—a significant sum in those days—in trade goods including steel ax heads, needles, hoes, and drilling awls pots and trade wampum.  A historian described it as a significant “high-end technology transfer, handing over equipment of enormous usefulness.”  Both parties to the deal were happy and neither felt cheated. 
Minuit served as governor from 1626 to 1631 when he was suspended by the Dutch West Indies Company because the fur trade with Native Americans, which was supposed to finance the colony, was less remunerative than anticipated and because Minuit was suspected of skimming for his personal purse. 
Outraged Minuit turned to the Swedes, who were going about the business of entering the competition for New World riches.  They were glad to have him.  Sweden, at the time, was at its height of its influence as a world power.  It ruled over much on Scandinavia including Finland, and most of Norway, portions of Russia, all of modern Estonia, Latvia, and most of Lithuania, parts of Poland, Germany, and Denmark.  The Baltic Sea was a virtual Swedish lake.  The Swedes felt more than ready to join the mercantile powers in America.  
Minuit established Fort Christiana, in honor of Sweden’s twelve year old Queen.  But as Minuit well knew, the drainage of the Delaware River was claimed by the Dutch.  After establishing his colony, Minuit decided to return to Sweden for more colonists and make a dash down to the Caribbean to pick up a load of tobacco to make the trip profitable.  Unfortunately, he was killed in a hurricane off of St. Christopher. 
Over the next dozen years 12 groups of settlers totaling more than 600 reached New Sweden and established settlements on both sides of the river.  The settlers were mostly small farmers.  They introduced a form of shelter never seen before in the new world—the log cabin—which would become the standard pioneer abode for the next two hundred years. 
They had excellent relations with the local tribes and lived comfortably with the near-by Dutch until a new governor arrived in 1654 and seized the Dutch post of Fort Casamir, modern day New Castle.  The notoriously bellicose Dutch governor in New Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant, dispatch five armed ships and 317 professional soldiers to retake the post.  They then proceeded up the river and forced the surrender of Ft. Christiana.  That ended Swedish sovereignty over the area. 
But the Dutch made no attempt to expel the existing settlers.  In fact they granted them extraordinary rights to retain their lands, practice their Lutheran religion, and govern themselves as a quasi-independent “Swedish Nation.”
But the Dutch thems elves were not long to retain their American possessions.  After a series of wars, they were gone for good by 1674 and New Netherlands became New York. 
In 1681 William Penn was granted his charter for Pennsylvania, which included the “Three Lower Counties” which make up today’s Delaware.  The Swedes, with no reinforcements coming from the mother country for decades, were quickly subsumed by the British.

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