Monday, March 29, 2021

A Familiar Dutchman and Sweden’s Claim to an American Colony

Peter Minuit, Former Governor of New Amsterdam, famous for purchasing Manhattan Island from the natives, led the Swedish colonization project after being ousted by his Dutch bosses.  

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 Swedenimmigrants 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 Netherland 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, 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. 

Queen Christiana was the early teenage daughter of Gustavus Adolphus when Stuyvesant sailed up the Delaware River.  She was called the most learned woman in Europe but created a scandal by refusing to marry or produce an heir and by famously cross dressing.  When she abandoned Sweden's Lutheran state church and converted to Catholicism she abdicated her throne at age 28 in 1654.  She was memorably portrayed by Greta Garbo in a famous 1933 MGM biopic that wrote in a love story with a Spanish Catholic diplomat as a cover for the real Queen's lesbianism.

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 of 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 Christina, 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. 

A museum model of Fort Christina 

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. 

A tapestry hanging in the American Swedish Museum in Philadelphia depicts the Swede's most enduring cultural legacy in the New World--the log cabin.

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, dispatched five armed ships and 317 professional soldiers to retake the post.  They then proceeded up the river and forced the surrender of Ft. Christina.  That ended Swedish sovereignty over the area. 

The wrath of peg-legged Dutch governor Peter Stuyvesant upon learning that the Swedes had captured Fort Casamir was depicted in this painting.

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 themselves were not long to retain their American possessions.  After a series of wars, they were gone for good by 1674 and New Netherland 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.

Hundreds of years later an Irish American from Pennsylvania would settle in Delaware and put the small often ignored state back on the map of American consciousness.  But damned few of Joe Biden’s Senate constituents were decedents of those old Swede settlers.   

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