The Dutch founded Fort Casimir in 1651 and the town of New Amstel in 1655 as a hub of the Dutch colony of New Netherland. The town became the capital of the English colony of Delaware and the seat of New Castle County. Architectural remnants survive from both the colonial and the Federal periods.
New Castle Court House Museum
211 Delaware Street
New Castle, DE 19720
ph.: (302) 323-4453
Web site: www.co.new-castle.de.us
The New Castle Historic District is a vestige of Delaware’s colonial Dutch and English heritage, which began in the mid-seventeenth century as one of the earliest European settlements in North America. The city’s surviving colonial and Federal-era architecture attests to its prominence as a vital part of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, the English colonial capital of Delaware, capital of the independent state of Delaware, and county seat.
The New Castle area was sighted by Dutch explorer Cornelis Hendricksen in 1614. Within a few years, the Dutch came to refer to the area as the Santhoek (Sand-hook). The “hook” was washed away by tides before the twentieth century. New Netherland director Peter Stuyvesant purchased the land from Minquas Indians in 1651 so the Dutch could dominate the confluence of the bay and the river, thereby blocking the colonial ambitions of their Swedish and English rivals. Stuyvesant established Fort Casimir on the site in 1651 (naming it after Count Ernst-Casimir, earl of Nassau-Dietz). The Minquas, however, had previously sold the Santhoek area to the Swedes in 1638, and the Swedes managed to capture Fort Casimir in 1654 (renaming it Fort Trinity). Stuyvesant struck back in 1655 and conquered the New Sweden colony.
He then laid out a Dutch colonial town called New Amstel in the vicinity of the fort. New Amstel consisted of a small urban core (originally about twenty houses) and surrounding lands called the “Colony of the City.” The inhabitants bartered with the Indians for furs and sailed to New Amsterdam for firearms and alcohol. They also sold beer and slaves to the English colonists in Maryland in return for tobacco, which they shipped to the Netherlands. Only half of the town’s inhabitants were Dutch; the rest were Swedish, Finnish, French, English, and Scottish (along with several dozen African slaves). The European population fluctuated between 130 and 200 residents and fell off in 1657 due to a disease that killed over one hundred residents.
The Anglo-Dutch rivalry erupted into war in 1664 when the duke of York fielded a campaign against Dutch positions on the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. Sir Robert Carr arrived on the Delaware with a force of over one hundred men aboard the HMS Guinea and stormed New Amstel on October 3, 1664, easily overwhelming its garrison of thirty Dutchmen. The Dutch who swore allegiance to the English crown kept their property. The English had been aware of the Delaware Bay area since Samuel Argall explored it in 1610 and named it after Lord de La Warre (hence, “Delaware”). The town was first referred to as “New Castle” in 1665, so named after the earl of New Castle, a friend of the duke.
In 1682, the duke of York transferred his Delaware holdings to William Penn, proprietor of Pennsylvania. Penn first came ashore in North America in New Castle on October 27, 1682. He organized New Castle as one of Pennsylvania’s three “Lower Provinces,” but many former Dutch colonists resented living under Penn’s strict Quaker law, and Lord Baltimore questioned Penn’s control over the area. Delaware formally separated from Pennsylvania in 1704, and New Castle was proclaimed the provincial capital. During the American Revolution, Pennsylvania and Maryland acknowledged Delaware’s independence, but as New Castle was considered to be too exposed to the British, Dover was made the state capital.
New Castle became a commercial center again in the 1780’s, aided by construction of a turnpike to the Chesapeake River. A devastating fire destroyed most of the old colonial wooden houses along the strand (near the waterfront) in 1824. The city saw trade diverted from it with the opening of the Delaware-Chesapeake Canal in 1828 and again in the 1840’s, when Wilmington became the Delaware hub for rail lines connecting Philadelphia and Baltimore. In 1881, the seat of New Castle County was moved to Wilmington.
There are only two Dutch colonial remnants in the town–the town green (perhaps laid out by Stuyvesant himself) and the so-called Dutch House located on Third Street. More buildings survive from the English colonial period, including two churches: Immanuel Episcopal Church located on Market Street (1703; tower dates from 1822), which was the first Anglican parish church in Delaware; and the Presbyterian Church on Second Street (formerly the Dutch Reformed Church of 1657, rebuilt in 1707). The Court House (1732) was Delaware’s colonial capitol building from 1732 to 1777. It is located on Delaware Street. The palatial Amstel House (1738) is located at Fourth and Delaware Streets. There are several surviving old homes located on the strand which are now private residences, and the Rising Sun Tavern (1796), a famed early public meeting place on Harmony Street, is also now a private residence. Among the public Federal period sites is the restored George Read II House on the strand (original construction, 1801). The Old Town Hall (1823), located at Delaware and Market Streets, once served as the federal courthouse.
Eckman, Jeanette. New Castle on the Delaware. Wilmington, Del.: New Castle Historical Society, 1950. Reliable overview of the history of the town. Myers, Albert Cook. Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey, and Delaware. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912. Compendium of early English, Dutch, and Swedish sources on the seventeenth and eighteenth century colonial history of the Delaware Valley. Ward, Christopher. The Dutch and Swedes on the Delaware, 1609-1664. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1930. Thorough assessment of Dutch and Swedish colonial activity in the Delaware Valley. Weslager, C. A. Dutch Explorers, Traders, and Settlers in the Delaware Valley. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961. Authoritative study of Dutch colonial activity and concise explanations of Dutch motivations. _______. The English on the Delaware. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967. Examines the causes, course, and consequences of the English successes along the river. _______. The Swedes and Dutch at New Castle. Wilmington, Del.: Middle Atlantic Press, 1987. Thorough examination of the early European presence at New Castle and useful assessment of the relevant Dutch and Swedish sources.