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Delaware State History

History | Symbols | Interesting Facts | Famous People


1609—Henry Hudson discovers the Delaware Bay

1638—Sweden builds Fort Christina and establishes New Sweden

1664—England controls all settlements in Delaware

1698—Old Swedes church is built at Wilmington

1704—The Three Lower Counties are granted a separate legislature

1776—Delegates from three Delaware counties organize a state government

1777—The English win the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge near Newark

1787—Delaware becomes the 1st state of the Union

1802—A gunpowder mill is established that becomes Wilmington’s famous Du Pont Company

1829—The Chesapeake and Delaware Canal opens

1833—The University of Delaware is founded as Newark College

1861-1865—Delaware remains with the Union during the Civil War

1899—The Delaware Corporation Law is passed

1923—Cecile Steele begins Delaware’s broiler chicken industry

1924—The Du Pont Parkway is opened

1951—The Delaware Memorial Bridge connects Delaware to New Jersey

1971—Delaware passes the Coastal Zone Act

1981—The Financial Center Development Act is passed

Two groups of Native Americans lived in the Delaware region when European explorers first visited the area.  The Lenape lived along the Delaware River; English settlers later called them the “Delaware.”  The Nanticoke lived along the Nanticoke River in the southwestern part of the state.

In 1610, an English ship sailed into the Delaware Bay from the colony of Virginia.  Captain Samuel Argail named the bay after Virginia’s governor, Lord De La Warr.  The bay, river, and land surrounding the region became known as Delaware.  One year earlier, Henry Hudson had entered the Delaware Bay in search of a trade route to the Far East for a Dutch company.  The Dutch tried to establish a settlement in 1631, but Indians killed the settlers and destroyed the fort.

Sweden also made claims to Delaware.  In 1638, colonists arrived and established Fort Christina (near present-day Wilmington), the first permanent settlement in the region.  Sweden also claimed land from New Jersey and Pennsylvania and named the entire colony New Sweden.  During this time, the Dutch had made claims to New York and New Jersey, calling their land the New Netherland.  In 1651, wanting to add Delaware to the New Netherland, they built Fort Casimir at present-day New Castle.  The Dutch captured New Sweden in 1655, and Delaware became part of New Netherland.

In 1644, England seized New Netherland and Delaware became part of the colony of New York.  In 1681, William Penn was granted land from England, that included Delaware, and established the colony of Pennsylvania.  Delaware then became known as the Three Lower Counties, because of its position down the Delaware River from Pennsylvania.  As the population in Pennsylvania’s counties grew, representation became unequal for the Three Lower Counties.  As a result, in 1704 Delaware was given its own legislature, but continued with Pennsylvania governors until the Revolutionary War.

Delaware flourished under English rule.  Newark, Dover and Wilmington were all founded during the early 1700s.  The lumber industry brought thousands to work in sawmills built along the Delaware River.  By 1760, nearly 35,000 people lived in the Delaware region.

During the 1760s, England forced severe taxes on the American colonies.  Delawareans and other colonists refused to pay these taxes.  In 1775, the Revolutionary War began.  Only one small battle took place in Delaware during the war.  British troops landed in Maryland and marched across Delaware toward Philadelphia.  American troops met the British at Cooch’s Bridge on Sept. 3, 1777, but were forced to retreat into Pennsylvania.

The Three Lower Counties had broken away from Pennsylvania in June 1776.  They adopted a constitution and became the Delaware State, the first of all the colonies to call themselves a state.  After the Revolutionary War, John Dickinson and George Read of Delaware assisted in writing a constitution for the new nation.  On Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware ratified the United States Constitution and became the 1st state in the Union.  In 1792, Delaware adopted a new state constitution and changed its name to the State of Delaware.

Several industries grew in importance for Delaware following the war.  In 1795, the textile industry increased as a cotton mill was built on Brandywine Creek.  In 1802, Frenchman Éleuthére Irénée du Pont founded a gunpowder mill near Wilmington.  The Du Pont Company soon established Wilmington as the “Chemical Capital of the World.”  Thomas Gilpin built the country’s first papermaking machine in 1817.  This industry grew tremendously in Delaware, as did shipbuilding.  Thousands migrated to Delaware for work.  By 1850, its population reached 91,532.

Although Delaware was considered a slave state, Quakers living in the state hated slavery.  Delaware, located between the North and Deep South, freed thousands of slaves as they passed through the state on the Underground Railroad.  Delaware remained in the Union during the Civil War (1861-1865).  More than 12,000 Delawareans fought for the North and a few hundred fought for the South.  At the end of the war, all slaves were freed.

In 1899, the Delaware Corporation Law lowered corporate tax and made it easier to create businesses in Delaware.  Several companies were established in Delaware during the early 1900s.  Increased tax revenue from these companies allowed the government to make improvements in education, public welfare, and roadways.  The Du Pont Highway, the country’s first divided highway, was begun in 1911.  A state board of welfare, a state highway department, and a state income tax were all introduced to Delaware during this time.

During the Great Depression (1929-1939), thousands of Delawareans lost their jobs.  The federal government provided jobs building roads and parks.  World War II (1939-1945) also helped end the Depression.  Delaware provided soldiers, ships and gunpowder.  Du Pont chemist Wallace Carothers discovered nylon in 1938, which was then used to produce parachutes.

Delaware’s economy grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1951, the Delaware Memorial Bridge opened making travel to and from the state much easier.  Many factories expanded and large new corporations, such as Chrysler, General Foods, and General Motors, moved into Delaware.  The state’s population also increased dramatically, reaching almost 450,000 in 1960.

Although a southern state, Delaware began desegregation of schools before the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional in 1954.  In 1950, black students were allowed to attend the University of Delaware.  By 1952, black and white students began attending the same high schools.  All segregation of restaurants and public facilities ended in 1963.  Many black people moved to Delaware during this time; several settled in Wilmington. 

Environmental improvements were made during the 1970s.  In 1971, the Coastal Zone Act was passed that banned construction of industrial plants along the Delaware coastline.  This protected beaches and helped to improve water and air pollution.  In 1973, about 1,500 abandoned homes in Wilmington were sold for a dollar, with the requirement to fix up the building.  Several new homeowners moved back to the city.  Legislature districts were redrawn in 1971 and 1981.

A mild economic depression during the 1970s found many Delawareans without work.  The Financial Center Development Act of 1981 allowed many out-of-state banks to have headquarters in Delaware.  More than 20,000 new jobs were created.  In 1980, the state adopted a constitutional limit that restricted government spending to 95 per cent of the government’s expected revenue.  This improved the state’s economy.  The tourist industry also increased.  By 1993, more Delawareans had jobs than ever before.