Delaware: Wilmington Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Wilmington, the largest city in Delaware, has tswo downtown districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Market Street Multiple Resource Area and the Lower Market Street Historic District. Greater Wilmington contains numerous important historic sites, such as the Hagley gunpowder mills and the historic homes of Odessa.

Site Office

Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau

1300 Market Street

Wilmington, DE 19801

ph.: (302) 652-4088

fax: (302) 652-4726

e-mail: info@wilmcvb.org

Inscribed on Delaware highway signs and in its information brochures is the state’s apt motto, Small Wonder. One of the smallest states in the union, Delaware has a notable past, one predating even British colonial rule. Delaware’s oldest city, Wilmington, and the surrounding Brandywine Valley contain much for the visitor to see–from a wonderfully preserved historic village outside the city limits, to landmarks of the Industrial Revolution, to a world class art museum. The city itself, one of the oldest in the United States, is situated at the confluence of two scenic rivers and boasts historic homes and a beautifully restored opera house.

Arrivals from Sweden and the Netherlands

Swedish settlers began arriving in what is now northern Delaware as far back as 1638. Their interest in North America was purely commercial, since land was abundant in Sweden and the country underpopulated. The fur trade was a highly lucrative one, and there were not enough fur-bearing animals in Western Europe to keep up with the demand for fur. A commercial venture in Sweden chartered two ships bound for North America, the Kalmar Nyckel and the Vogel Grip, which sailed up the river the Swedes would dub Christina (for Sweden’s queen) to establish Fort Christina on its banks. This was the origin of future Wilmington, which would not adopt that name officially until 1740.

The Swedes, who immediately began trading with the neighboring Lenni-Lenape Indians for furs, were too few to withstand the aggressive, well-armed agents of the Dutch West India Company. They, too, were establishing commercial settlements along the Atlantic seaboard, as were the English. Fort Christina would fall to Dutch control, and then to the British, who asserted their ultimate authority over the colony in 1664. In that year, King Charles II of England granted all the territory between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers to his brother James, oblivious to the fact that the area was populated by at least two Indian tribes, as well as by Swedish and Dutch settlers who had no desire to be subject to English rule. Charles subsequently ceded the territory to William Penn in 1682, and what is now Delaware–the name is not Indian, but rather, the name of a seventeenth century governor of Virginia, Lord De La Warr–became part of Pennsylvania. The three counties of Delaware gained their own legislature in 1704, but did not become completely separate from Pennsylvania until 1776.

The Swedes left their mark on early Wilmington. Holy Trinity Church (now known as Old Swedes Church), a Swedish Lutheran church until it was sold by the dwindling Swedish congregation to an English Anglican community in 1792, still stands with its original walls and pulpit, dating from 1698. The river Christina has retained its Swedish name to this day. The Swedish settlers also introduced log cabins into Delaware. The Dutch, who succeeded the Swedes, endowed early Wilmington with an important industry–brickmaking–which would play a major role in the city’s economy until the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 1840’s.

English and Quaker Influence

White settlement increased rapidly in the Wilmington area after the English took possession in 1664. Slavery became important in the southern Delaware counties of Sussex and Kent, but not in New Castle County, where most blacks were free. These free blacks lived on the outskirts of Wilmington in the eighteenth century, on the least desirable land, and were restricted to casual day labor. Legal separation of the races in Wilmington was the norm until well into the twentieth century. African Americans did establish their own institutions, especially churches, some of which are still standing today.

Quakers from Pennsylvania played an important role in the history of Delaware and Wilmington. In the early eighteenth century one of them, Thomas Willing, inherited land bordering the original Swedish settlement on the Christina River. Aware of the rising value of land, he planned a town on a grid pattern much like that of Philadelphia and made the pragmatic decision to erect a market house that soon became a hub of commercial activity. In 1740, Willingtown, as the new hamlet was dubbed, was awarded borough status in a royal charter granted by King George II. He in turn insisted that the town adopt the name of a good friend of his, the first earl of Wilmington.

A steady stream of Quakers arrived in colonial Wilmington. They became leading businessmen, and were the owners of the many mills around the city. They built sturdy brick homes and a Friends Meeting House, one of the oldest structures in the city and still beautifully intact. They disdained slavery, drinking, gambling, dancing, and music, and were responsible for the first schools and charitable institutions in the city. The Quakers of Wilmington were recognized as conscientious objectors during the Revolutionary War and they inspired the establishment of the Delaware Abolition Society in the nineteenth century.

By 1739, more than six hundred people inhabited Wilmington. The influx of Quakers gave way in the mid-to-late eighteenth century to Scotch-Irish, who built the city’s first Presbyterian church in 1740. The town’s economy in that colonial era was diverse, based on agriculture but including important industries such as brickmaking and flour milling. Thousands of barrels of flour were shipped to the Philadelphia market each year. The city’s main structures were its churches and market building. Its location on the confluence of two rivers, the Christina and the Brandywine, made the city an important locus of commercial activity. Artisans’ shops proliferated, and the town was prosperous, socially stratified, and adverse to change.

Revolution, Political and Industrial

Anti-British sentiment predominated in the city before 1776, with the result that during the Revolutionary War, Wilmington was occupied for months by British Redcoats. Skirmishes took place outside of Wilmington, and war-weary citizens cheered the end of war and American victory with an outdoor party, complete with fireworks. In those days without the telegraph or electricity, an “express” horseman breathlessly announced the news of General Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, and the town crier loudly proclaimed the victory in the streets of Wilmington. Delaware quickly became one of the original thirteen states, and tiny though it was, there was to be a marked difference between the two southern counties of Delaware, with their large estates and close ties and sympathies with the south, and the northern county of New Castle, with Wilmington the most rapidly developing economic area, closely linked to Philadelphia and New York. The construction in 1798 of Wilmington’s beautiful Town Hall, still in use and wonderfully preserved, reflected not only civic pride but also the town’s growing economic power.

At the start of the new century, a young Frenchman named Eleuthère Irénée Du Pont arrived in Delaware to escape the political turmoil of France. He brought with him his father and brother, and the three of them invested in a gunpowder mill a few miles outside of Wilmington, on the banks of the Brandywine River. This enterprise was an almost immediate success, and led to the creation of the famous Du Pont commercial empire, which in the twentieth century expanded into chemicals and related industries. The original gunpowder mill as well as the Du Pont estate and gardens have all been carefully restored and are open to the public.

The history of nineteenth century Wilmington is the story of the Industrial Revolution, beginning with the coming of the railroad to Wilmington in 1837. With the area rich in raw material and plentifully supplied with skilled labor, heavy industry in the form of railroad and ship construction, carriage making, tanning, and foundry work, supplanted the original light industries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Delaware did not suffer the ravages of the Civil War as did neighboring states, but rather experienced an economic upswing because of huge government orders for goods of all kinds. The wealth of the city was reflected in the post-Civil War period with the construction in 1871 of the Grand Opera House, an elegant structure in popular baroque Second Empire style of the day. It was restored in the 1970’s.

Free and newly freed blacks in the city, hovering around 10 percent of the population, saw their economic conditions worsen after the Civil War. Discrimination intensified–at least one electric trolley line instructed its conductors to ignore black passengers waiting on street corners–and with the advent of trade unions, which refused to accept blacks, skilled black workers found it nearly impossible to find employment in the city’s many factories.

With the gradual decline of heavy manufacturing from the beginning of the twentieth century, Wilmington experienced a decline in wealth and population. The automobile enabled many to live outside the city, decreasing the city’s tax base. The wealthy no longer preferred to live in the city, but in exclusive suburban enclaves. The presence of the Du Pont Company’s headquarters in Wilmington was a stabilizing factor, however, and the downtown area experienced a renaissance in the 1980’s. Downtown Wilmington now boasts two districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places: the Market Street Multiple Resource District and the Lower Market Street Historic District. The rejuvenation of the downtown area has attracted new businesses and increased tourism.

Places to Visit

Wilmington is nestled in the historic Brandywine Valley. Adjacent to Wilmington are New Castle, Hagley, and many other sites of interest. The Winterthur Museum and Gardens, six miles northwest of Wilmington, was the home of Henry Francis Du Pont, great-grandson of E. I. Du Pont, an avid art connoisseur and lover of gardens. In 1926 he inherited the estate, originally built in 1839, and transformed it into a showplace of American horticulture and decorative arts. Winterthur also operates another historic site, the Historic Houses of Odessa, a group of well-preserved eighteenth century homes in the town of Odessa, about twenty miles south of Wilmington. Another famous Du Pont family estate, in Wilmington itself, is the Nemours Mansion, a chateau in the style of Louis XVI, completed in 1910, with many original artifacts and lush flower gardens.

Just six miles south of Wilmington lies New Castle, a town of historical significance and beauty. New Castle was originally a Dutch village called New Amstel, established in 1651. When British forces wrested control of the Dutch settlements under their commander, Sir James, duke of York, in 1664, they changed the name of the settlement to New Castle. The village square had been laid out by Peter Stuyvesant in the 1650’s. Around it arose a beautiful group of eighteenth century and, eventually, nineteenth century buildings.

Situated on the Delaware River, New Castle was the seat of Delaware’s government until 1777. Because of its strategic importance and its antiroyalist inhabitants, it was bombarded during the Revolutionary War; its exposure to attack led to the capital’s relocation to Dover. One can still visit the Old Court House, which was the home of the Delaware Assembly throughout most of the eighteenth century.

One of the most famous of the village’s private homes is the beautifully preserved George Read II house and garden. Read, a lawyer and son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had the home built between 1797 and 1804. The house contains many original artifacts as well as the intricately carved woodwork that was at the height of fashion in the early years of the republic.

New Castle was at its zenith until the coming of the railroad in the 1830’s, which lessened the strategic value of the town’s location on the Delaware River. Consequently, there was little urban development and many of the historic houses and buildings were preserved, to be restored and renovated in the twentieth century.

In the small village of Hagley, three miles north of Wilmington, lies a charming and historically significant site, the first Du Pont gunpowder works, established in 1802. The Du Pont mills were almost immediately successful, and began to expand just before the War of 1812. The 230-acre, nineteenth century industrial site, now called the Hagley Museum, contains the original gunpowder mill, situated on the Brandywine River, which manufactured gunpowder until the end of World War I. Adjacent to the mill is Eleutherian Mills, the estate of E. I. Du Pont, a Georgian-style mansion with original furnishings intact and beautiful formal gardens open year-round to the public.

Wilmington and the surrounding area form a treasure trove of historic sites that reflect in microcosm four centuries of American history ranging from the original church of the early Swedish settlers, churches and buildings of the British colonial period, a beautifully preserved specimen of the Industrial Revolution in the Hagley gunpowder mills, and the growing affluence of the American business elite, reflected in the Grand Opera House in Wilmington as well as in the Du Pont estates.

For Further Information
  • Biggs, Michael. Wilmington: The City and Beyond. Wilmington, Del.: Jared, 1991. In a more popular mode is this beautifully illustrated work, with an excellent introduction to the history of Wilmington by Barbara Benson. This is a good book to take along on a historic walking tour of the city and its environs.
  • Hoffecker, Carol E. Wilmington, Delaware: Portrait of an Industrial City, 1830-1910. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983. A more detailed, scholarly, but highly readable work focusing exclusively on Wilmington from earliest days to the early twentieth century. Urban, demographic, and economic trends are just some of the themes of this slender volume, replete with vintage photographs of old Wilmington.
  • Lincoln, Anna T. Wilmington, Delaware: Three Centuries Under Four Flags, 1609-1937. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972. Also offers a detailed picture of Wilmington’s early history.
  • McNinch, Marjorie G. Festivals. Wilmington, Del.: Cedar Tree Press, 1996. Covers the festivals and history of Wilmington, including ethnic festivals and social life.
  • Pearce, B. Ben. Historical Vignettes of African American Churches in Wilmington, Delaware. Wilmington, Del.: Chaconia Press, 1998.
  • Wamsley, James S. Brandywine Valley: An Introduction to Its Treasures. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1992. The best one-volume, descriptive account of the major historic sites, museums, and gardens in this picturesque region surrounding Wilmington. Sites covered (and richly illustrated) include Winterthur and the Hagley gunpowder works.
  • Zilg, Gerard Colby. Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1974. A compelling account of the Du Pont dynasty of Wilmington, and the evolution of the Du Pont Company from a humble gunpowder works on the banks of the Brandywine River to the largest chemical company in the world. It includes detailed descriptions of the Du Pont estates in and around Wilmington.
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