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The Early Swedes in New Jersey

In the days before New Jersey, when the British were still busy colonizing New England and Virginia, and the Dutch controlled New Netherland, which stretched from Toms River to the Vermont-Canada border, another group of European settlers were staking a claim to a New World Colony – the Swedes.

The Swedish, at that time considered a great European power, looked on in envy at the profits the Dutch were realizing in the American fur trade. King Gustavus Adolphus suggested that the Swedes form a company similar to the Dutch West India Company with the idea of expanding trade from Europe to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. He went so far as to draw up articles of association and actively encouraged his subjects to support the new company. Before more concrete plans could be made or a voyage financed, however, the King was killed in early 1633 at the Battle of Lützen. It was not until 1638 when, after his daughter Christina renewed interest in the venture that a voyage was planned.

Dutchman Peter Minuet, ironically, would lead the expedition.  A former director of the Dutch West India Company and ex-governor of New Netherland, he operated under the immediate authority of the Swedish Government. Two ships, the pinnace Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar), and the transport Fågel Grip (Griffin Bird), left Gothenburg in December 1637. The trip ended prematurely when the Kalmar Nyckel suffered damage in a North Sea storm  and the ship diverted to the Netherlands for repairs. The two ships were laid up for a year, finally resuming their voyages on New Year’s Day, 1638.

The ships sighted land at Henlopen, a point of land near modern day Lewes, Delaware. They named this area Paradise Point, now part of Cape Henlopen State Park,. Thomas Gordon, in his Gazetteer, suggests is the Swedes selected this toponym not so much from the beauty or fertility of the land, but from the relief the settlers experienced when finally making landfall after a long voyage. Minuet wasted no time in purchasing the land from the capes up to the Delaware Falls near modern day Trenton. During this time he also established a small settlement known as New Stockholm located on the Racoon Creek in Gloucester County.

Minuet knew the Dutch had a claim on the area, but lacked the military force or resolve needed to hold onto those claims. On March 29, 1638, the Swedes commenced building a town and fort – Fort Christina, named after the now Queen of Sweden, Christina. The director of the Dutch West India Company, Willem Kieft, protested in a letter dated May 6, 1638, claiming that the whole Delaware River had been in possession of the Dutch for many years – studded by forts and sealed with their blood. There are claims, however, that the Swedes purchased the rights to this area in 1631. All the Dutch could do is eventually move its existing Fort Nassau on the New Jersey side of the Delaware downriver and reconstruct it across the river and down below Fort Christina near modern New Castle.

After establishing the fort, Minuet left for Stockholm to pick up a second group of settlers. Deciding to stop in the Caribbean for a load of tobacco to make the voyage profitable, he was lost in a hurricane off St. Christopher. Over the next seventeen years, though, the Swedes made more than eleven trips, four of them with the Kalmar Nyckel, bringing roughly 600 Swedish and Finnish colonists to the area.

Five years later, under the direction of Johan Printz, the new governor of New Sweden, the colony expanded. In 1643 he established two new forts on each side of the Delaware. The largest, Fort Nya Gothenborg (New Gothenburg) stood on Tinicum Island in present-day Delaware County, Pennsylvania to become the new capitol of New Sweden. He also established a church, consecrated in 1646, and a manor house, known as Printzhoff (Printz Hall).

On the New Jersey side he founded Fort Nya Elfsborg in the marshy lands between the Salem and Alloway Creeks near Salem. Often referred to as Fort Mosquito, Printz installed several 12 pound cannons aimed at the river as defensive weapons in the fortification to stop Dutch West India Company ships from traveling up or down the Delaware River.

For several years something of a tense peace held over the area. The New Sweden and New Netherland colonies continued to grow, and several small illegal English colonies sprang up near Salem, New Jersey and along the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. These illicit settlements threw the Dutch and Swedes  together to drive the English out, but Fort Casimir pressed too close to the Swedish domain and, in 1654, Printz demanded that the Dutch hand it over. This being refused, Printz landed a party of thirty men on May 21, 1654, who easily took the fort without a fight as the Dutch failed to supply Fort Casimir with any gunpowder. The Swedes renamed it Fort Trinity.

Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Netherland vowed revenge. Although he directed most of his attention to keeping the English colonists from Connecticut at bay—an action made famous by building a wall at the northern border of New Amsterdam now known today as Wall Street—he personally led a squadron of ships into the Delaware River, arriving on September 9, 1654. An army of six to seven hundred men arrived and one by one the Swedish forts fell – Nya Elfsborg being burnt and abandoned by the hopelessly outnumbered defenders. The last fort to fall was Nya Gothenborg, which surrendered on the 25th of September.

The Swedish and Finnish colonists found life in the newly expanded New Netherland colony more amiable. The The Dutch allowed them to retain some amount of local autonomy, and retain their own militia, court, religion, and lands. New Stockholm continued to grow, but by 1677, the colony had been all but abandoned for reasons unknown in favor of the inland settlement at Swedesboro, founded sometime after New Stockholm.

Tensions between the Dutch and England continued to grow, and by August 1664 with the Second Anglo-Dutch war just starting, the British dispatched an invasion force to capture New Amsterdam. In October the New Netherland colony fell without a shot being fired and the Duke of York subsequently sold the land now known as New Jersey to John Berkeley and George Carteret who later would divide the province into East and West Jersey.

In August 1673 the Dutch recaptured New Netherland from the English and recognized New Sweden by forming three new counties that approximated the boundaries of the former colony. The Treaty of Westminster of 1674, however, spelled an end to the New Netherland colony permanently when the Dutch ceded all of the land, including the counties comprising the New Sweden colony, back to England.

Some traces of the Swedish towns and forts remain in New Jersey. Swedesboro, the most famous, is home to the Trinity Episcopal Church, known locally as the “Old Swedes’ Church” and what is claimed to be the oldest wooden structure in the Americas, the Nothnagle Log Cabin, both of which are in the National Register of Historic Places. The spot where Fort Nya Elfsborg stood is now underwater, commemorated only by a monument outside the Elsinboro Township School and the Fort Elfsborg-Salem Road. Nothing remains of New Stockholm, the community of Bridgeport having expanded into the area where the Swedish settlement once flourished. In 1997, a Wilmington shipyard constructed and launched a replica of the Kalmar Nyckel not far from the site of Fort Christina, providing educational tours and trips from port to port in the Delaware River.

Many thanks to Paul W. Schopp for his invaluable assistance in proofing and editing this article.