On August 24, 1682, the Duke of York awarded Englishman William Penn a deed to the “Three Lower Counties” that make up the present state of Delaware, recently transferred from Dutch to British jurisdiction. Penn acquired this tract of land just west of the Delaware Bay in order to ensure ocean access for his new colony of Pennsylvania. While Delaware established its own assembly in 1704, it was not until shortly after July, 1776, that Delaware became a separate state. On December 7, 1787, Delaware was the “first state” to ratify the new U.S. Constitution, thereby earning its current proud nickname.
The final boundary separating Delaware from Pennsylvania and a portion of Maryland is an unusual one, featuring the arc of a circle defined by a twelve-mile radius centered on the courthouse at New Castle. An ongoing dispute between Penn and Maryland’s Lord Baltimore about the extent of each’s territory had led to this unique resolution. The same dispute spurred the creation of the famous Mason-Dixon Line in 1763, when British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon were selected to establish a definitive Maryland-Pennsylvania border—a task that took five years to complete. This line, moving west, came to symbolize the divisions of North from South in the years before the American Civil War.
Before Penn, Delaware’s fertile coastal plain attracted the Lenni-Lenape (also known as Delaware Indians), who supported themselves by farming, hunting, and fishing. Swedes, the region’s first permanent European settlers, arrived in the late 1630s, establishing themselves in what is now Wilmington. With its accessibility to other ports, especially the Port of Philadelphia twenty-five miles to the northeast, and its abundance of natural resources, the Wilmington area flourished as a center for saw, paper, and flour mills, aided by creation of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Later, Wilmington served as home to DuPont’s extensive chemical industries, and to the many banks incorporated in the state.
In 1802, French immigrant Eleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours founded DuPontExternal, one of the world’s oldest continuously operating industrial enterprises, as a gunpowder mill outside of Wilmington. While it has transformed itself over the years, the company remains an influential force in the economic life of Delaware, and its founding du Pont family a fixture of the state’s history and institutional growth.
When Delaware sided with the Union during the Civil War, its vital river route was protected by a three-point defense consisting of Fort DuPont on the Delaware shore, Fort Mott on the New Jersey shore, and Fort Delaware in the center of the river. Fort Delaware is perhaps the best known of the three forts because it was used by the Union army to house Confederate prisoners of war, some of whom published their own newspaper. After the Battle of Gettysburg, the fort held a teeming 12,500 prisoners.
One of Delaware’s richest cultural treasures is the former country estate of Henry Francis du Pont, now known as the Winterthur MuseumExternal. A showcase for du Pont’s collection of American decorative arts and architectural interiors, the museum features almost two hundred rooms decorated with objects made or used in America between 1640 and 1860. Winterthur has also become a center for the study of American art and objects, featuring several graduate programs and a premier libraryExternal collection.
- Search on Winterthur in the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection to see more of the Winterthur collection. Search on the name du Pont to find views of mansions owned by other members of the extended du Pont family.
- Search across the collections on Delaware. Do the same search in Printed Ephemera: Three Centuries of Broadsides and other Printed Ephemera to isolate a quirky range of significant or unusual items relating to Delaware’s history.
- Read how one Gettysburg captive endured imprisonment at Fort Delaware. John H. Robertson tells his story in an American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 interview. The Battle of Gettysburg took place over the first three days of July 1863. See the Today in History features for July 1, July 2, and July 3 to learn more about this pivotal battle.