When you think of early Colonial America, you think of great European powers battling it out for dominance, like the French, Spanish, English, and Dutch. But what about the Swedish? It may seem hard to believe today, but for two decades the Swedes were right there in the thick of things, the first real settlers of what is now Delaware.
At the time the area was essentially unclaimed. By the 1620s, the English had control of everything south and west of Chesapeake Bay, and the Dutch had control of everything north and east of Delaware Bay. Sandwiched between the two colonies you had the Delmarva Peninsula, which functioned as a sort of no-man’s-land… I mean, as long as you didn’t count all of the Native Americans living there.
The Dutch did make one attempt to expand into the area. In 1629 they granted a “patroonship” on the western side of Delaware Bay to the village of Zwaanendael. However, the colonists did not get along well with nearby Native American tribes, which you can tell by the way that the Native Americans killed every last one of them and then burned the village to the ground. After that, the Dutch understandably decided to forget about settlements and instead focused on trading with the local Nanticoke and Susquehannock.
The idea of starting a Swedish colony in Delaware actually came from the Dutch. Willem Usselincx, one of the founders of the Dutch West India Company, became convinced that the company’s operations were too small and unambitious in scale and that they were leaving money on the table. So he went to the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, and suggested that the Swedes could start a competing colony and out-do the Dutch. He confidently predicted that after a few years a Swedish colony would generate the staggering annual return of some 30,000,000 riksdaler.
Gustavus Adolphus was intrigued. That was a lot of money. Plus, an overseas colony not only establish Sweden as a force to be reckoned with, it would let him add “Emperor” to his list of titles. On June 14th, 1626 the king gave his seal of approval to the Swedish South Company, with Usselincx at its head.
Unfortunately, while Usselincx had a great idea his timing was awful. The ink was barely dry on the contract before hostilities resumed in Sweden’s ongoing war with Poland, and then dealing with that got the country sucked into the larger Thirty Years’ War. The king and his ministers were understandably distracted by the fact that Europe was in flames, and Usselincx was understandably distracted that most of his investments were also in flames. The death of Gustavus Adolphus in 1632 was the final nail in the coffin for the whole enterprise. The Swedish South Company was disbanded.
In 1636 the idea of a colony was raised again by another disgruntled officer of the Dutch West India Company: Samuel Blommaert. Blommaert was gung-ho for the idea for several reasons. First, he was an investor in the company that owned the patroonship near Zwaanendael, which he would be happy to sell to the Swedish for a tidy profit. And it would give him a way to bring goods into Sweden on ships flying a Swedish flag, allowing him to avoid tariffs.
Naked self-interest aside, Blommaert made some good points. He was able to convince Queen Christina — or rather, her regent and Lord High Chancellor, Count Axel Oxenstierna — to greenlight a second venture: Nya Sverige, New Sweden.
Peter Minuit (1638)
A formal corporation was chartered, the New Sweden Company, which brought aboard a third disgruntled West India Company guy, one with practical, boots-on-the-ground experience setting up a colony: Peter Minuit. You know, the guy who purchased Manhattan Island from the Canarsee for $24 of beads. Minuit would be the colony’s governor. The Swedes and their Dutch partners raised some 24,000 florins, which they used to purchase ammunition, provisions, and trade goods; recruit about two dozen soldiers to be the first colonists; and outfit two ships — the Kalmar Nyckel (“Key of Kalmar”) and Fogel Grip (“Griffin”).
In November 1637 the two ships set out from Gothenburg for the New World. Well, at least that was the idea. Only a few days out they were damaged in a storm and had to get repairs in the Netherlands. They finally managed to set sail some six weeks later at the end of the year.
The Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip arrived in the New World in late March 1638. The ships landed on a spot near the banks of the Mispillion River which they called “Paradise Point” but which is today called “Slaughter Beach.” (The either comes from a local postmaster, a Native American massacre, or the number of dead crabs that wash up at high tide.) Then, they went looking for the locals.
On March 29th, they finally found some. On the banks of the Christiana River, near modern-day Wilmington, they encountered a band of Lenape and Minuit managed to talk his away into a meeting with their chief, Mattahoon. After a hard day’s negotiation, Minuit walked away with a treaty that gave him the rights to all the land on the shores of the Delaware, from Cape Henlopen in the south all the way up to the Falls of the Delaware by Trenton. Then he gathered his men and started building an armed camp, Fort Christina.
Now, Minuit was supposed to be keeping his expedition on the down low, but he destroyed any chance of secrecy almost immediately: first by sending men up the Delaware River and right past the Dutch outpost of Fort Nassau (near modern-day Gloucester, NJ); and then by sending the Fogel Grip to Jamestown to trade for some tobacco. This resulted in some sternly worded objections from William Berkeley, the Governor of Virginia, and Willem Kieft, the Director-General of New Netherland. Minuit paid no attention to their protests. Oxenstierna had already persuaded the English Crown to renounce its claim to Delaware, and while the Dutch talked a good game they were stretched so thin they had no way of backing their words up.
By July phase one of the plan was complete. Minuit placed the colony in the hands of his trusted lieutenant Måns Nilsson Kling and set off on the Kalmar Nyckel to return to Sweden and prepare for the following year’s voyage.
There was time to spare, so first he dropped by the Caribbean to take care of some personal business. While visiting Saint Kitts in August he encountered a ship owned by a friend, Het Fliegende Hert (“The Flying Deer”), and went aboard for a visit. Then a hurricane came out of nowhere. Het Fliegenda Hert was washed out to sea and was never seen again.
With Peter Minuit still on board.
Peter Hollander Ridder (1640-1642)
The Kalmar Nyckel somehow managed to weather the storm and slowly made its way back to Gothenburg, where it delivered the sad news that the Governor of New Sweden, the only officer of the New Sweden Company with any practical experience, had been lot at sea. At this point the Dutch began to have doubts about the colony’s chance for success. Fortunately for them, the Swedes began to think that for nationalistic and patriotic reasons the colony should be a purely Swedish affair. The Dutch were able to leverage this into generous buy-outs and several years worth of consulting fees.
The Swedes then proceeded to show the Dutch why they were right to worry. The Company took over a year to outfit the Kalmar Nyckel for a second expedition. Then the ship’s new captain, Cornelius Van Vliet, proved to be incompetent and tyrannical and the crew mutinied. That took a few months to sort out and as a result the return voyage wound up being delayed until February 1640.
This second group of colonists consisted mostly of soldiers, but not loyal soldiers like the first group; these were deserters offered a choice between becoming colonists or swinging at the end of a rope. It also included the colony’s first pastor, Reorus Torkillus, and Fort Christina’s new commander, Lieutenant Peter Hollender Ridder. The ships arrived in the New World on April 17th.
Just in the nick of time, too. Kling and two dozen soldiers left behind by Minuit had been busy, clearing the land around the fort and competing with the Dutch in the fur trade. (They hadn’t actually managed to make a dent in the Dutch operations, but they had frustrated them by driving up prices.) After two years with no word from home, though, their resolve had begun to waver and they were on the verge of deserting when the Kalmar Nyckel sailed over the horizon.
Over the coming months Commandant Ridder made some additional land purchases from the Lenape, exchanged a few shots with the Dutch at Fort Nassau, and expanded Fort Christina. And… that’s about it. At this point in his naval career Ridder was very much a junior officer, capable of tactically executing someone else’s plan but incapable of creating a long-term strategy. Though even if he had been a strategist he would have had trouble finding the resources and personnel necessary to execute those plans.
I am supposed to supervise the people doing the work, but you must send carpenters and people with a trade. It has been somewhat overlooked that we don’t even have one single man here that can build a hovel-like peasant house, or saw a board, nor is there anyone who knows how to work in the field or do farm work. In general one cannot do much with these people. In all of Sweden there are no dumber and coarser people than the ones that are here now.Letter of Peter Hollander Ridder to Axel Ostenstierna, 3 December 1640
Ridder’s prayers were answered when the Kalmar Nyckel arrived in November 1641 with a third group of colonists. This time, they were not deserters but farmers, most of them Finns.
In the late 16th and early 17th century, the Finns had been instrumental in ramping up Swedish agriculture, enabling the kingdom to transform itself into a major economic power. But as the country’s economy shifted from agriculture to mining and shipbuilding, the slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by the Finns (and the resulting out-of-control forest fires) had become a major nuisance. As a result, they were… encouraged to migrate to New Sweden, where they wouldn’t bother anyone. Once in the New World, the Finns attacked the forests around Fort Christina with gusto, clearing vast swaths of land and planting wheat, rye, maize, and tobacco. Within a few months the place was finally starting to look like a real colony.
Not that Ridder would get to enjoy it for long.
Johan Björnsson Printz (1643-1653)
On February 16th, 1643 two ships arrived from Sweden, the Fama (“Fawn”) and the Svanen (“Swan”), bringing with them everything a growing colony needs: supplies, trade goods, thirty fresh soldiers, a trumpeter and drummer, a clerk, barber, and hangman. And more Swedish farmers and “forest-destroying Finns” too, but obviously those are less important to the functioning of a colony than, say, a military band and a hangman.
The two ships also brought with them the newly appointed governor of New Sweden, Lieutenant Colonel Johan Björnsson Printz. Printz had been a loyal and capable soldier in the army of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War, but had been court-martialed in 1640 for surrendering the besieged Saxon city of Chemnitz. By 1642 he was either back in royal favor and rewarded with the post of Governor; still in the doghouse and given the post of Governor as a punishment; or possibly just the only person in Sweden who wanted the job.
In some ways, Printz was a larger-than-life character. Literally: he was over six feet tall and four hundred pounds, all of it muscle. (Imagine King Kong Bundy dressed like a Shakespearean actor and you’re halfway there.) He ate more than any other man in the colony and drank like a fish. He was the largest person the Lenape had ever seen, and they semi-affectionately called him “Big Belly” or “Big Tub.” He was coarse, and direct, and used to getting things done his way.
Printz’s first order of business was to protect the colony from other Europeans.
Step one was following up a suggestion from Ridder that the colony would be better served by a fort further upstream where the river was narrower. The new governor quickly found the ideal spot: Tinicum, a small island where Darby Creek emptied into the Delaware, right past the runways of the Philadelphia International Airport. His “Fort Gothenburg” was far more impressive than Fort Christina had ever been. It had solid stone walls, numerous storehouses, even a two story mansion called the Printzhöf for the governor to live in.
The next step was putting the Dutch in their place. Printz built a third “Fort Elfsborg” across the river near modern-day Salem, NJ. Thanks to the eight cannon at Fort Elfsborg and the four at Fort Gothenburg, the Swedes now had complete control over the Delaware below the Falls. His men used their firepower to interdict Dutch trading vessels, confiscating any tobacco and beaver pelts they found, since the Swedes claimed a royal monopoly on both products. The forts also prevented the Dutch from easily reinforcing Fort Nassau by sea.
The final step was getting rid of the English. In 1641 some colonists from New Haven had purchased land on both sides of the river from the Lenape. They tried to settle in New Jersey but had been driven out by the Dutch, and then resettled on the other side of the river near the Schuylkill. They Yankees were enterprising and industrious, but initiative and industry are no match for cannon. Printz arrested their leaders, tried them on charges of beaver smuggling and stirring up unrest amongst the natives, and sent them back to Connecticut in irons.
With the safety of New Sweden now secured, Printz could finally turn to making the colony profitable. Minuit and Ridder had only managed to raise the price the Dutch had paid for beaver pelts. Printz, on the other hand, actually had the resources to meet those prices, and did. His aggressive purchasing strategy almost drove the Dutch completely out of the market.
Printz also ordered the colony’s farmers to stop planting subsistence crops and start planting cash crops, i.e., tobacco. This quickly proved to be a mistake. The winter of 1643/44 was harsh and bitterly cold, and 25 colonists died of starvation and malnutrition. The rest survived by trading what little they had left to the Lenape for corn.
When the Fama returned with more supplies and settlers in the spring of 1644 it found the colonists working hard and in good spirits. It sailed off June with cargo of some 2,000 beaver pelts and 20,000 tons of tobacco. That sounds really impressive for a few months’ work, until you realize that the beaver pelts had been purchased from the Lenape at inflated prices, and the tobacco from Virginia at even more inflated prices. (It gets worse: most of that cargo didn’t make it back to Sweden. On the journey back to Gothenburg the Fama had to make an emergency stop in a Dutch-controlled port, and the vengeful Dutch taxed the hell of out its cargo.)
Printz’s first year set the tone for the rest of his governorship, and things quickly settled into a predictable pattern. The Dutch would build new trading posts, and Printz would build newer trading posts that broke their supply lines. The Dutch would buy land from the Lenape, and Printz would question the legitimacy of the purchase and have their boundary markers torn down. The Finns cleared the forest away at an amazingly quick pace, and the Swedes followed behind building houses, barns, mills, even churches. Then the land was planted with tobacco at the expense of everything else, and come winter the colonists would have to survive by eating their seed corn. Contact with Sweden was nonexistent, leading Printz and the colonists to wonder whether they’d been abandoned by their Queen.
That silence was finally broken on October 1st, 1646 when the Gyllen Hajen (“Golden Shark”) limped into port. It was several months behind schedule, having lost its sails, topmasts, a good chunk of its cargo, and several crewmen to bad weather and illness. The ship was trapped in the colony over the winter, but set sail for Sweden on February 20th of the following year. Their cargo included:
- some 24,000 pounds of tobacco, as usual most of it purchased from Virginia;
- Swen Wass, a soldier who had fallen asleep on watch and accidentally burned down large chunks of Fort Gothenburg, who was being sent home to be court-martialed;
- and a status report from Governor Johan Printz to Count Axel Oxenstierna.
Printz led off with the good news. The New Sweden colony had great potential; it was full of exploitable natural resources, though maybe not gold and silver as they had hoped. Relations with the Native Americans were good. The colonists had recovered from the harsh winters and now numbered 183 people, and everyone was as happy as possible given the circumstances.
And then he started with the complaints. Boy, did he have a lot of complaints.
Concerning trade, in the year 1644, when the ship Fama went from here, there was very little of the cargo left in store ; and, as no cargo has been received since, not only has the Right Honourable Company suffered the great damage of losing 8000 or 9000 beavers, which have passed out of our hands, but also the Hollanders have moved the principal traders (the white and black Minquas) to forsake us; and we shall not, without great difficulty, regain them…
Again, we want a good engineer, house-carpenter, mason, brickmaker, potter, cooper, skillful gunsmiths, and blacksmiths, a chamois-dresser, tanner, tailor, shoemaker, ropemaker, wheelwright, and executioner; all these are of great necessity here, and, above all, a good number of unmarried women for our unmarried freemen and others, besides a good many families for cultivating the land, able officers and soldiers, as well as cannon and ammunition, for the defense of the forts and the country…
As before stated the officers, as well as the common soldiers, not yet settled in the country, want to be released; particularly Commissary Hindrik Hugen, whom I myself now, for the third time, have with great difficulty persuaded to stay until the arrival of the next ship ; he ought to be replaced by a very able Commissary. Again, the minister Magister Johan Campanius wishes to be dismissed, and we want at least two clergymen in the places already settled…
The freemen already settled want to be paid the rest of their wages; and, whereas their intention is to continue to cultivate the land with that money, I think it advisable to pay them for the good of the country, and as an example for others…
Again, I humbly repeat the 18th point of my last Report, purporting how I for a great while (about twenty eight years) have been in the service of my dear native country, constantly accompanying her armies to the field, and now have served in New Sweden one year and seven months beyond the time agreed upon, ordering everything so that Her Royal Majesty has obtained a strong footing in this land, and that the work does not require anything but sufficient means, to be continued with greater success.Letter of Johan Björnsson Printz to Axel Oxenstierna, 20 February 1647
Note how little has changed from Ridder’s complaints for years previous. There’s still a total lack of direction and material from the Swedish government, complaints about the lack of skilled tradesmen, and grumbling from the men who want to be sent home.
Printz only had to wait a year to see if his message had been received. The Svanen arrived in early 1648, bringing with it more trade goods, colonists, and Oxenstierna’s reply, which was… disappointing, to say the least. Instead of giving direct orders or strategic advice, Oxenstierna basically told Printz to figure it out on his own. Everyone who wanted to leave was to be given a raise to encourage them to stay. (Because giving someone who hasn’t been paid a raise is such an effective strategy.) To be fair to Oxenstierna, he had a lot of things on his plate at the time. He was negotiating the Peace of Westphalia through his son Eric and was also butting heads with Queen Christina, who was trying to get him to retire. The troubles of New Sweden were way down on his priority list.
Still, his reply had to be somewhat dispiriting to Printz, who was still trapped in a strange land with no real direction from above. So the colony remained locked in the same old pattern for the next several years.
This did not go over well with the soldiers and other colonists. They had no idea what was going on back in Sweden. They only knew that they weren’t getting the material support, personnel, or wages they were promised. Consequently, they took their frustrations out on the only available authority figure: Printz. They called him a taskmaster, a disciplinarian, a petty tyrant. He all of those things, of course — you don’t get to be governor without ’em — but the irony was that Printz sympathized with, even agreed with, all of their complaints but was obliged to punish anyone who complained.
Things only got worse in when the next supply ship, the Kattan (“Cat”), sunk off the coast Puerto Rico in August 1649, losing most of its crew and passengers, and all of its cargo of weapons and trade goods. The colonists of New Sweden wouldn’t even learn about the wreck for another year, and even then they only heard about it from Dutch and English sources.
The colonists began to worry that they had been abandoned by the mother country. In some sense, they were right. After the loss of the Kattan, the Swedish Crown would not send another ship to their all-but-forgotten colony for almost four years.
While Swedes were neglecting their colony, the Dutch were showing a renewed interest in theirs. Peter Stuyvesant took over as the Director-General of New Netherland in 1647 and started to whip the colony into shape.
By 1649 he felt emboldened enough to make moves against New Sweden. Previous Director-Generals had not made aggressive moves against the Swedes because their resources in Delaware were spread thin and the small colony made for a useful buffer against the English in Virginia. Stuyvesant, though, felt that it usefulness had come to an end, and its virtual abandonment by the motherland meant it would be easy pickings.
When the Swedes threatened Dutch trading posts, Stuyvesant sent West India Company representatives armed with copies of treaties and deeds to argue that the Dutch had purchased the land first. When Printz rejected those arguments, the Dutch sold arms to the Native Americans and encouraged them to use them against the Swedes.
In 1651, Stuyvesant made a baller move. In May a Dutch man-o-war tried to sail past Fort Elfsborg but was driven back out to sea by a cannonade. On June 25th, the man-o-war returned, this time personally commanded by Stuyvesant. He also brought ten smaller ships and 150 soldiers as backup. This time they sailed past Fort Elfsborg unmolested.
Stuyvesant sailed past Tinicum, hoisted a middle finger to Governor Printz, and resupplied the long-suffering Fort Nassau. Then he purchased more land from the Lenape. There was plenty to be had. For all their industriousness the Swedes had only managed to clear and cultivate some 36 hectares. Then Stuyvesant sailed back down the river and broke ground for a new fort on the western banks of the Delaware, near modern-day New Castle.
To get to this Fort Casimir one still had to sail past Fort Elfsborg, but it was still positioned before Fort Christina and Fort Gothenburg as you went up the river. Stuyvesant had effectively split New Sweden in half. Dutch colonists began streaming into the area, undermining Swedish claims to sovereignty.
In August 1652, Printz wrote about his troubles:
The Puritans threaten us with violence, and the Dutch are pressing us on all sides; they have ruined the fur trade; the savages are troubling us, having brought cargoes of strangers; the people are beginning to desert the colony in despair; forty Dutch families have settled east of the river, who have absolutely no provision, and do not sow or plough, desiring to live by the traffic with the natives, which they themselves have destroyed.Letter of Johan Björnsson Printz to Axel Oxenstierna, 20 August 1652
Stuyvesant’s actions had finally pushed the Swedish colony to a breaking point. About half of the colonists put their name on a petition decrying the governor as an ineffectual tyrant and calling for his removal, then presented it to Printz and demanded he forward it to the Crown. Printz’s response was direct: he executed Anders Jonsson, who he incorrectly believed to be the instigator of the whole movement.
At that point the colony was in open revolt. There was no shooting, not yet at least, but no one had any respect for Printz’s authority. Realizing that he was now alone and outnumbered, Printz got out of Dodge fast. In October 1653, he hopped on a Dutch merchantman and sailed back to Sweden with his wife and daughters, leaving his son-in-law Johan Papegoja in charge.
When he finally reached Sweden, he discovered just why there had been no contact with the motherland for six years. Axel Oxenstierna was on his deathbed. Queen Christina was on the verge of abdicating. In the chaos, everyone had just forgotten that they had a colony. Now, its Governor was standing before them and they remembered. And they were not happy at all that he had deserted his post.
Johan Classon Risingh (1654-1655)
Printz was replaced with a younger, more aggressive Governor: Johan Classon Risingh. Risingh, several dozen soldiers, and a large group of colonists set sail from Gothenburg in February 1654 aboard a full-fledged warship, the Örnen (“Eagle”).
The Örnen had one hell of a trip. First, it was diverted for a week when it was intercepted by a British cruiser that mistook it for a Dutch vessel. Then it had a close call with three Turkish slavers near the Azores. Just before it reached America, it ran into a hurricane that knocked down the masts, washed several of the crew overboard, and left it dead in the water.
On May 20th the ship limped up Delaware Bay and arrived at Fort Elfsborg only to find it had been completely abandoned. Hardly surprising — Fort Casimir had completely cut it off from its supply lines.
Risingh had standing orders to go easy on the Dutch, but if the Dutch were starving out Swedish forts all bets were off. He sailed upriver to Fort Casimir and fired off what was euphemistically referred to as a “Swedish salute.” The Dutch responded with musket fire. Sensing he had the advantage, Risingh sent a small group of soldiers to negotiate the fort’s surrender. While that was going on, a second group of soldiers snuck up to the fort, found a flaw in its construction, streamed inside, and overwhelmed the defenders. Risingh sent the Dutch soldiers packing, resupplied the fort with cannon from the Örnen, and rechristened it “Fort Trinity” (since it had been taken on Trinity Sunday).
With the Dutch taken care of, Risingh sailed upstream to Fort Christina only to find New Sweden in total disarray. The colonists were still sick and starving. Some of them had fled to Maryland or Virginia just to get away from Papegoja, who turned out to be more tyrannical than Printz had ever been. Others had gone over to the Dutch, and had even formally petitioned Stuyvesant to annex the colony to New Netherland.
Well, Risingh was here to help. He disgorged a boatload of two hundred new settlers, more than doubling the colony’s population to 368. To encourage the colony to expand further inland, he declared that for several years any newly cultivated land would be free of taxation. He locked up the ringleaders of the pro-Dutch colonists, and tried the lure back the colonists who’d fled with promises of amnesty. He appealed to the convicts and deserters by capping the length of their indentured servitude to only twenty years. (This is sometimes referred to as the first anti-slavery legislation in America, which is highly misleading.) He even managed to smooth things over with the Lenape.
In the short run, it kind of worked. The Örnen was able to leave two months later with a positive report from the governor and a hold full with tobacco. (Purchased from Virginia, of course.)
Unlike his predecessors, Risingh had not been abandoned by the motherland. Only a few months later in September, the Gyllen Hajen arrived in the colony with a fresh load of trade goods. Well, except it didn’t. Its captain had somehow mistaken the Hudson River for the Delaware River and sailed straight into the heart of New Amsterdam. The Dutch captured it, stripped its cargo, and sent it packing.
Swedish New Netherland (1655-1664)
The loss of the Gyllen Hajen and its cargo was a devastating loss in more ways than one. The Dutch had already been planning on retaking Fort Trinity. They figured they could take their time and strike in a year or two when the Swedes were once again weak and dispirited, but the arrival of a supply ship so quickly after the previous one signaled that the Swedes were no longer going to be absentee landlords.
Stuyvesant made a fateful decision: New Sweden had to go.
Over the next few months he assembled a small navy consisting of 600 men and four warships. The flagship was De Waag (“The Scales”) which boasted a frightening 36 cannon and a crew of 200. On April 30th, 1655 he sailed the flotilla up the Delaware past Fort Elfsborg. The Swedish guns remained silent. (Later the gunners would claim it was because Stuyvesant’s ships had struck their sails, a sign of submission, but it seems just as likely the gunners knew they were hopelessly outnumbered and didn’t want to anger their foes.) Stuyvesant then landed marines upriver and took the fort without firing a shot.
His next stop was at Fort Trinity on September 1st. Sven Skute, the commander, thought diplomacy might be possible and once again refused to fire on the Dutch. When Stuyvesant landed and started setting up siege works, Skute realized he was outnumbered 12:1. He made one vain attempt to persuade Stuyvesant to go upriver and talk to Governor Risingh. Stuyvesant replied, “Risingh did not send me word when he captured Fort Casimir, and I shall take the work if it were hung on chains.” I have no idea what this means, but it sounds badass. Apparently Skute thought so too, and he surrendered the fort without firing a shot.
Then it was upstream to Fort Christina, which was woefully unprepared despite a warning from the Lenape and the hostilities of the previous several days. Risingh did manage to get all of his people inside the fort, but none of the livestock. For several days they starved in the fort while the Dutch slaughtered their cows and goats, feasted, set up siege works, and sailed north to torch Fort Gothenburg just for kicks. Risingh made a few attempts to reason with Stuyvesant, but it was futile, and he surrendered Fort Christina on September 15th. This time, at least, shots were fired. Most of them by Swedes, at other Swedes trying to desert to the Dutch side.
Stuyvesant offered the Swedish colonists a choice: they could accept Dutch sovereignty and be left alone to govern themselves, or they could get a free boat ride back to Europe. Risingh and about a third of the colonists took him up on his offer. The rest chose to remain.
While the exiles were on their way back to Sweden, another supply ship, the Mercurius, arrived in March 1656. It was supposed to reinforce Fort Trinity and was quite shocked to learn that it had reverted to being Fort Casimir. Dutch officers turned the ship away, but the ship landed just out of sight of the fort and offloaded several dozen colonists. The Mercurius still had to return to Sweden with an empty hold and a sad story.
And… that was pretty much it. New Sweden was seamlessly folded into New Netherland. There was no real conflict, save for some internal factional squabbles between the Swedes who still had some loyalty to their country and those who were more attached to their personal property than the Swedish Crown.
King Charles X was furious about the loss of the colony, and rightfully so. It made Sweden look weak and pathetic. However, conflicts in Poland, Lithuania, and Denmark took precedence, and before Charles could turn his attention back to New Sweden he died of pneumonia.
In 1663, the regents of King Charles XI decided it was time to take the colony back, and had a 32-gun warship and a smaller gunboat built for the task. West India Company officers learned of these plans and sent word to Stuyvesant, but they needn’t have bothered. The gunboat sunk in a sudden storm, and the warship was reassigned to patrol the African coast. New Netherland was safe.
The Long Finn (1669)
Well, safe from the Swedish, at least. In 1664 the English conquered New Netherland, and the territory was split into “New York,” “New Jersey,” and “Delaware,” The latter of which became the personal property of James, Duke of York.
The English actively began settling the land, and administered it as part of the colony of New York. This drew the ire of the Finns. They had continued to migrate to the area even after the Dutch conquest, and now made up the majority of the “Swedish” settlers. Most of them were argumentative, independent, and anti-government. They had been comfortable with the hands-off style of the Dutch but were less than happy with the more intrusive governing style of the English.
In 1668, a man named “Königsmark” arrived in Delaware under mysterious circumstances. No one knew who he was, or where he came from — there were Königsmarks back in Sweden but no one by that name had ever emigrated to America. He quickly earned the nickname “the Long Finn” because of his prodigious height.
Königsmark traveled around the former New Sweden with a simple message: that Charles XI was finally ready to reclaim his former colony. He would gather the locals for what the English called “rioutous, routous, & vnlawfull assemblyes” — drinking parties, basically — and when everyone was nice and wasted he would get them to recite a loyalty oath to the Swedish Crown and encourage them to take up arms against the English. It was a sentimental message that proved popular. Soon the Long Finn had a group of followers that included several influential property owners; Armegott Printz, the late governor’s daughter; and minister Lars Carlsson Lock.
Some of the Swedish were less than impressed with him, though. Maybe they valued property more than patriotism, or maybe they just remembered that the various monarchs of Sweden had done bugger all for the colony for most of three decades. They vehemently opposed the Long Finn with every method at their disposal. In August 1669 they surprised Königsmark at one of his parties, heckled him, tried to trap him inside a cabin, and stabbed with a knife as he fled.
The wounded Königsmark was finally caught by English authorities on September 14th. He was identified as Marcus Jacobssen, a runaway indentured servant from Maryland who “so stupid that he could neither read nor write.” Jacobssen was tried, convicted, whipped, and branded with an “r” for “rebellion” on his face and chest. Then for good measure the English sold him into slavery in Barbados.
When he was captured, Jacobssen had several letters on him that made the English authorities see red. They revealed that Jacobssen was just a figurehead and that the real masterminds behind the rebellion were Printz and Lock. The duo were too well protected by their social prominence — if the English had arrested a Swedish noblewoman and a minister the colony actually would have revolted. Rather than risk open rebellion, they hushed everything up.
That was the last time anyone thought about an independent New Sweden.
In 1673 the Dutch briefly reconquered their lost colony, but the English got everything back a year later in the Treaty of Westminster. New Sweden continued to remain the personal property of the future James II, who leased it all to some guy named “William Penn” in 1682. (Never heard of him.)
And that’s the story of New Sweden.
In most history books, the colony is just a footnote. Historians will tell you it had little impact at the time and no impact on America other than a few Swedish place names and historic sites scattered across Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
It’s hard to argue with this viewpoint. At New Sweden’s largest extent it only had about five hundred colonists. They were constantly outnumbered by the English and Dutch, and so they never managed to influence mainstream institutions and thought. It didn’t help that the Swedish government’s business plan was Step 1: Start a colony, Step 3: Profit. No one involved with the project had any idea what they were doing, and it showed.
Apologists will try to bolster New Sweden’s reputation by rattling off a series of famous firsts — the first “anti-slavery” legislation in America, the first Lutheran church, the first written work in a Native American language. These are often overstated and feel a bit desperate.
But maybe there’s something to be said for New Sweden. A number of historians, most notably Terry Jordan, have argued that though the Swedes may have little effect in our national history, they had a profound effect on our national character.
Or rather, that the Finns did.
Those “forest-destroying Finns?” They didn’t stop at the borders of New Sweden. They kept pushing west, into Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, even Ohio. They took their culture with them, and it was a culture very well adapted for survival on the frontier. When the English finally moved west to meet them, well, they adopted huge chunks of that culture for their own rather than reinvent the wheel.
Most notably, that includes the good old-fashioned American log cabin. Now, lots of cultures make log cabins, but the most popular American design uses a v-shaped notch and a board roof, which are distinctly Finnish in origin. Over and above that, though, the Finns loved individualism and freedom of movement, hated the government and taxes, and were comfortable sharing space with people from other cultures. That’s the core the American frontier spirit right there!
So, it turns out that can-do American spirit? In many ways it’s a can-do Finnish spirit.
And that’s pretty mahtava.
The striking tall ship in our episode artwork is a replica of the Kalmar Nyckel that docks down in Wilmington. The Kalmar Nyckel Foundation has graciously allowed us to use this photo free of charge. If you like tall ships — and if you’re listening to this podcast, there’s a pretty good chance that you do — you should definitely take a cruise on the Kalmar Nyckel the next time you’re in Wilmington! https://KalmarNyckel.org
This also isn’t the first time we’ve talked about Connecticut Yankees trying to annex Pennsylvania (“The War Between the States”).
- Fisher, Sydney George. The Making of Pennsylvania. Port Washington, NY: Ira J. Friedman, 1896.
- Haefeli, Evan. “The Revolt of the Long Swede: Transatlantic Hopes and Fears on the Delaware, 1669.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 130, Number 2 (April 2006).
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- Sprinchorn, Carl K.S., and Keen, Greory B. “The History of the Colony of New Sweden.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 7, Number 4 (1883).
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- Williams, Kim-Eric. “The Forgotten Governor.” Swedish Colonial News, Volume 5, Number 2 (Winter 2013).