Delaware Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Of the fifty states, only Rhode Island is smaller in land mass than Delaware, which stretches one hundred miles from north to south and varies in width from ten to thirty-five miles.

History of Delaware

Of the fifty states, only Rhode Island is smaller in land mass than Delaware, which stretches one hundred miles from north to south and varies in width from ten to thirty-five miles. Bounded on the north by Pennsylvania, on the south and west by Maryland, and on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River, whose east bank is in New Jersey, this small state, with a land mass of 1,982 square miles, has just three counties, New Castle in the north, Kent in the middle, and Sussex in the south. The state’s mean elevation is about sixty feet.

Early History

As early as 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson sailed on what became known as the Delaware River and the Delaware Bay. By 1631, the Dutch had established the first European settlement in the area around present-day Lewes, in the southeastern part of the state. Long before European settlement began in the region, prehistoric Indians occupied the area. Archaeological excavations at Island Field, twenty miles south of Dover, Delaware’s capital, unearthed Indian graves that were close to one thousand years old. The Native Americans in this area are thought to have been the Owascos, a tribe related to the Iroquois, who inhabited the Finger Lakes region in New York.

Later Indian inhabitants in northern Delaware included the Lenni-Lenape Indians, also called the Delaware. Near the ocean and on the Delaware Bay lived the Nanticoke and Assateague Indians. These Indians massacred the first Dutch settlers in the area near Lewes. When more permanent settlement occurred with the arrival of the Swedes, these Indians disappeared from the area.

Permanent Settlements in Delaware

By 1638 a permanent Swedish settlement was established at Fort Christina, which is close to Wilmington on the Delaware River in the state’s north. Peter Minuit, who had been colonial governor of New Amsterdam (present-day New York), helped create this settlement for the New Sweden Company, partly sponsored by the Dutch. They soon withdrew their support, leaving a hearty band of Swedes to manage as well as they could on their own. Their governor, Johan Printz, was an able leader who almost single-handedly sustained the beleaguered community.

This settlement, which eventually extended from below Wilmington to Philadelphia, had about one thousand inhabitants. It was eventually overcome in 1655 by Dutch forces sent from New Amsterdam. In 1664, however, the British, rankling at the inroads the Dutch were making on English trade, assaulted New Amsterdam and captured it, then, after a considerable battle, took the Dutch fort at New Castle. The whole of New York and Delaware became part of the province of New York. Delaware remained so until 1682, when the duke of York gave Delaware to William Penn, who owned Pennsylvania.

At first, Penn, whose colony needed more direct access to the ocean, tried to merge his two holdings, but the people in southern Delaware feared that their colony might in time be overwhelmed by Pennsylvania, many times its size. In 1704, Penn finally permitted the people of Delaware to form their own assembly and, although the area had the same governor as Pennsylvania, to make their own laws.

The Revolt Against England

Although sentiment about gaining independence from England was spreading, Delaware had many loyalists among its inhabitants. George Read, one of Delaware’s three delegates to the Continental Congress in 1774, voted against the colonies’ declaring independence from England. Had another delegate, Caesar Rodney, not ridden on horseback all night from Dover, Delaware, to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote, Delaware might not have joined the twelve other colonies in supporting the Declaration of Independence.

In 1777, British forces making their way from the Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia invaded Delaware. George Washington’s army had dug in close to Wilmington, but the British troops cut into Pennsylvania south of Wilmington and finally met Washington’s men at Brandywine. After the Battle of Brandywine, the British took Wilmington and controlled it until they gained complete control of the Delaware River in June, 1778.

After the Revolutionary War, Delaware, in 1787, became the first of the newly formed states to ratify the United States Constitution, thereby earning one of its nicknames, the First State. Because of its size, Delaware feared it would be viewed as politically inferior to larger states. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Delaware called for equal representation for all states. Finally, the Delaware delegation accepted a compromise whereby every state would have two senators but would have representation in the House of Representatives based on each state’s population.

The War of 1812

Delaware, which was a Federalist state, opposed the War of 1812. Once the United States entered that war, however, Delaware gave its reluctant support. Residents of the state feared an invasion when the British took Washington, D.C., and, after burning the executive mansion, attacked Baltimore. Delaware was spared by the British, whose only assault on it was an abortive bombardment of Lewes in 1813.

The Du Pont Company

In 1802, Eleuthère Irénée Du Pont built a munitions factory on the Brandywine River. This marked the beginning of the highly influential enterprise E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company, which grew into one of the most important chemical companies in the world. The presence of this company in Delaware eventually attracted other corporations to the region.

In time changing its name to the Du Pont Company, having long since expanded from its original munitions manufacturing, it boasts a large nylon plant in Seaford, in the southwestern part of Delaware, and two major pigment factories in other parts of the state. Its home offices and laboratories are located in both Wilmington and Newark, Delaware. A large refinery in Delaware City drew many petrochemical companies to the state.

The Civil War

In 1790 Delaware had about nine thousand slaves, although the state was divided on the slavery issue and many abolitionists were active in helping African slaves escape from the South through Delaware. The state’s first constitution, in 1776, made the further importation of slaves illegal. Because the state’s tobacco industry was dependent upon slave labor, abolition bills introduced in the 1790’s and again in 1847 were narrowly defeated. Nevertheless, by 1860, the slave population in the state had declined to about two thousand.

Although Delaware was staunchly opposed to secession, Abraham Lincoln won no electoral votes from the state in 1860 or in 1864. Delaware was more northern in its outlook and orientation than states in the Deep South. Some men from Delaware joined the Confederate forces, but most Delawareans fought on the Union side.

Despite its Union leanings, Delaware was occupied during the war by Union troops sent by President Lincoln to disarm some of the militia whose loyalty was suspect and to guard the polling places during elections. At war’s end, many of the people in Delaware were so incensed by the federal government’s punitive measures that the state became solidly Democrat, as did much of the Deep South.


Strategically situated on the Delaware River, Wilmington became a center of industrial activity in the state. In the city and its environs are textile mills, a steel foundry, automobile assembly operations, paper mills, and tanneries. Many large national corporations established their headquarters in Delaware, primarily in Wilmington, because of state’s favorable business climate.

Because of its location near the point where the Delaware River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington has proved an ideal location for shipbuilders, who built iron-hulled ships during the nineteenth century. During World War II, the largest employer in the state was a shipbuilding company based in Wilmington that produced ships for the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine.

The Dover Air Force Base helped Delaware’s economy substantially. The national headquarters of the International Reading Association in Newark, whose outreach is enormous, serves ninety thousand members in ninety-nine countries and employs more than eighty people in its headquarters. In 1998 nearly one-third of the people who worked in Delaware worked in the service sector, whereas slightly more than 20 percent were engaged in construction and about 15 percent in some aspect of manufacturing. The unemployment rate in that year was about 4 percent. The 1997 per-capita income was $29,022, up from $10,339 in 1980. The state had 2,667 federal employees in 1997 with average annual salaries of $40,159.

Despite its size, Delaware has a thriving agricultural industry that produces soybeans, lima beans, corn, potatoes, mushrooms, and various grains. It also produces considerable livestock, mainly chickens, hogs, and cattle. Its timber industry produced fifteen million board feet in 1998. Although it is not rich in minerals, Delaware produces magnesium, as well as sand, gravel, and gemstones.

Delaware’s Population

A few of Delaware’s Native American population, especially descendants of the Nanticoke and Moor Indians, remain in Kent and Sussex counties, although most of the native population was driven out or killed in combat with the Europeans who settled the state. In 1770, more than 20 percent of Delaware’s population was African American; in 1998, 16.9 percent was black and less than 3 percent Hispanic.

During the mid-nineteenth century, many Germans and Irish came to Delaware. By the end of the century, southern and eastern Europeans began to arrive in large numbers, seeking work in the state’s thriving industries. The first decades of the twentieth century saw the arrival of many Ukrainians and Greeks. As industry grew, many people arrived from other states to take advantage of Delaware’s economic opportunities. In 1998 about 3 percent of the state’s population was foreign-born.

Delaware, lying in the highly urbanized corridor that runs from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, experienced rapid population growth in the last third of the twentieth century. It population density of 340.8 people per square mile is among the greatest in the United States, and its population of three-quarters of a million should exceed the million mark well before 2010.

Categories: History