Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

More than half a century before the Eng­lish and German migrations brought large numbers of people into William Penn’s colony on the Dela­ware, three distinct populations had entered into this ancient land of the Lenape. By 1630 Susquehannock invaders as well as Swedish and Dutch traders had established themselves in the Delaware Valley. Very little has been written about the Susquehannock incursion and little is known about these first European immigrants to Pennsylvania who crossed the sea from the Netherlands and the vast Swedish empire, which in­cluded what today has become Norway, Finland and pans of the Soviet Union.

Dutch traders were established on the Delaware River by 1623. The early Swedish settlers in the Delaware Valley first arrived in 1638, and in 1643 they established the first modern seat of government in what is now the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Governor Printz’s home and fort on Tinicum Island became the center of New Sweden. a New World exten­sion of the vast Swedish empire in Europe. The fate of this colony, and its individual members, provides important new insights into early Pennsylvania history and Indian relations.

Unlike the Dutch, who came primarily to trade, these hearty Swedes, and the Finns who were with them, put their knowledge of the northern European forests to work in clearing farmsteads in the vast American wilderness. They in­troduced the solid and comfortable log house (or cabin) to the New World. and made lasting political alliances with the native people they encountered. The Lenape, the original in­habitants of the entire lower Delaware River drainage. were eager to trade furs and food for the metal tools and cloth brought from Europe. In the long run. however, an inter­action of even greater significance apparently took place be­tween the members of these two seemingly different so­cieties.*

The Swedish colonists. like the Lenape, were rugged indi­vidualists who asserted independence in everything they did. The farms and fields which they created were widely scattered up and down the river, reflecting to some extent the pattern or land use employed by the Lenape. The early Dutch colonists nearby, on the other hand, were at this time an offshoot of the colony at New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. Like their kin on the North (Hudson) River, the Dutch along the Dela­ware lived within, or very close to, their trading stations and rarely ventured out to establish independent and self-suffi­cient plantations. This pattern of settlement differed greatly from that of both the Swedes and the Lenape. These differ­ences became important in the subsequent political picture and help to explain just what became of the various groups and how they influenced early colonial history.

The Lenape lived in extended family hunting bands thinly distributed along the tributaries and feeder streams of the Del­aware Bay and River up to the area near Trenton, or the Falls of Delaware. Each of these groups, probably never number­ing more than thirty or forty related individuals, spent the warmer months at a cleared area along the Delaware River. Here the men could fish and hunt with ease and the women could grow corn and beans to balance the diet and provide food for the lean winter. In the late fall each small band would separate into family units which would move into the forest to forage over the lands that were considered their terri­tory.

Early contacts between the Lenape and European explorers, fishermen and possibly loggers appear to have been infre­quent and relatively unimportant. But the developing fur trade along the North River and in the region of the Potomac generated significant shifts in native political relations which became important to the Lenape’s future.

By 1600 the major patterns basic to the New World fur trade had become well established. The Five Nations Con­federacy (the League of the Iroquois in central New York state) had developed, probably about 1575, with member tribes acting as middlemen to bring furs from the west through the Great Lakes area to the Hudson River. They grew rich and powerful on this trade, which was of immense benefit to the Dutch along the Hudson.

The Susquehannock peoples, living in the uppermost drain­age area of the Susquehanna River in southern New York, were in competition with their Five Nations neighbors for furs and markets. When hostilities increased, the Susquehannock moved their major village down the Susquehanna River into the region near modern Lancaster. Here they were free to de­velop their power through western trade in the Allegheny and Ohio River areas, and even down to the Mississippi. Getting furs to market involved carrying their goods overland co the Dutch at New Amsterdam. One possible route ran south of the Five Nations’ lands, but this still left the Susquehannock subject to attack from their enemies. A safer route was by water down the Susquehanna to the English on the Chesa­peake, but the Indians preferred trade with the Dutch since they paid better prices for furs. As a result, the Susquehan­nock used their power in the early years of the 1600s to open yet another route, this one across Lenape territory to the Dela­ware, or South River as it was known to the Dutch. This was shorter than the long route to Manhattan and brought the best prices.

The sporadic trading between Susquehannock and Euro­peans along the Delaware River before 1620 rapidly became more regular. This led to the chartering of the Dutch West In­dia Company in 1623 and the establishment of formal trade on the South River by the following year. The Lenape, whose local fur-bearing animals had all but vanished by this time, were simply pushed aside by the powerful Susquehannock. Those Lenape who did not join their kin in southern New Jer­sey were vulnerable to attack by Susquehannock raiding parties. The attackers stole what few furs the Lenape had and took the more important corn supplies that were essential for winter survival.

The intrepid Dutch wisely located their trading stations on the east side of the Delaware River in order to place some bar­rier between themselves and the mighty Susquehannock. Ft. Nassau, built by 1626 near Big Timber Creek and across from the mouth of the Schuylkill, was the principal Dutch outpost in this area. Its position shows that the Dutch were quite wary of their trading partners. The massacre of their tiny garrison at Swanendael (Lewes, Delaware) a few years later justified their concerns and confirmed the potential dangers of this sit­uation. These dangers, however, more frequently touched the Lenape than the Dutch merchants.

Another group of enterprising Dutch business people also believed that trade on the South River could be profitable, even in competition with the Dutch West India Company. This group of speculators took their ideas to the Swedish royal family and won support for a trading venture which would compete with the Dutch West India Company. By 1638 this Swedish-backed expedition had established Fortress Christina near the old Lenape site of Hopokehocking. From this position at the mouth of Minquas Creek, where modern Wilmington now stands, the Swedes had first access to furs being brought overland from the Susquehanna River.

By 1638 a number of political changes had taken place which deterred the Dutch from taking action against the Swedes. English expansion in New England was driving the Dutch from their outposts along the Connecticut River and the entire Long Island Sound area. This activity put pressure on the main Dutch trading stations on the Hudson River sys­tem. Thus, they did not wish to divide their efforts and stir up problems with the Swedish colony. Also, the Dutch had to maintain good relations with the Five Nations, and any great effort to cultivate the Susquehannock might not be appre­ciated. Besides, the total value of furs on the South River did not justify a military confrontation.

The Swedish outpost at Fortress Christina became the point from which the small and dispersed Swedish colony expanded throughout the valley. The Swedes, Finns and other ethnic peoples from the widespread Swedish empire rapidly scattered themselves along both sides of the river in a settle­ment pattern very similar to that used by the Lenape. By 1643 when Governor Printz arrived and built his “gore” (or noble­man’s household complex) on Tinicum Island, the displaced Lenape had returned to their old hunting areas. The Printzhof (house of Printz) became the center of the Swedish colony, serving as the “capitol” until the Dutch overpowered this re­mote and tiny element of the Swedish empire.

The ultimate failure of the Swedish colony which was loose­ly planted along the Delaware was balanced only by the suc­cess which the Scandinavian people had in living together with the Lenape. The Swedes and their Dutch supporters at For­tress Christina were correct in their belief that they could com­pete successfully with the Dutch West India Company. Still, the Dutch and the Swedes maintained a low-level antagonism, as frequently marked by cooperation as by hostilities.

The relationship between the English and Dutch, on the other hand, was quite different. Early in 1642 a small colony of Englishmen from the Red Mountain settlement (New Haven, Connecticut) began a combined settlement and trad­ing post along the Schuylkill River where it flowed into the Delaware. Directly across the river was Fort Nassau. Within a month the Dutch at Fort Amsterdam ordered Jan Jansson Ilpendam, the Commissary at Fort Nassau, to expel the Eng­lish.

The small English settlement was ousted with ease, but the same degree of force was never directed toward the Swedish colonists. Their dispersed settlements made the kind of frontal assault favored by European military strategists quite useless. Though the Dutch could have captured the Printzhof at any time without difficulty, the Scandinavians and their Lenape allies could have created severe problems for the Dutch through the use of hit-and-run tactics.

In 1643 many considerations must have led the Dutch to ignore the arrival of Printz and the establishment of several new fortified Swedish positions. The Dutch were much more con­cerned with their lucrative dealings in the North River, not with the declining Susquehannock- trade. Although the Swedes on the South River seemed to be making an effort to establish themselves, they were poorly provisioned and bought relative­ly few furs. in fact, the Swedes were becoming increasingly in­terested in farming and turned to tobacco production.

In Europe, the declining fortunes of the Swedish empire must have further convinced the Dutch not to expend their energies attempting to dislodge the Scandinavians from the New World. The situation at home certainly affected Swedish royal attempts to hold together a shrinking empire and left little in the way of aid which could be provided to a distant and relatively unproductive colony. Supply ships rarely visited and the Swedes, from the beginning, had few goods to trade. Even when Printz landed in 1643, he was without the proper supplies. His voyage, via the south Atlantic route preferred for winter crossings, did not carry him to New England or Long Island where wampum for trade could be bought at low prices. Although new fortifications were built to protect Swedish interests on the Delaware following Printz’s arrival, the economic value of the whole area was by that time declin­ing rapidly.

By 1645 the Susquehannock found both the Swedish and Dutch outposts on the Delaware River to be poorly stocked with trade goods. As a result they often carried their furs to New Amsterdam where prices were better and the selection of goods much larger. An account of July 13, 1647, from Fort Amsterdam relates that Aquqrichque and Quadickho, both Susquehannock elders, had ignored Printz’s efforts to per­suade them to trade at Tinicum Island. The decline in trade on the Delaware River caused increased competition for the scarce goods which remained.

By 1648 the Dutch had erected Fort Beversreede on the Schuylkill and the Swedes immediately countered with a building of their own. The decline in trade and other external events, however, were leading to an inevitable end for the Swedish colony as a political entity. Their relations with the Dutch continued to be economically competitive and hostile, but without active military action. Swedish farmers were pro­ducing enough tobacco by 1645 to outweigh the value of furs being bought. Tobacco, in fact, became the chief export from New Sweden, though most of it was being grown around Ac­comac (Virginia) and sent overland to the Delaware River for shipment to Europe. But because the supply boats needed to export the goods were few in number, the Swedes were forced to send much of their tobacco on Dutch ships.

Despite the decline in Swedish influence, growing pressure on the Susquehannock from Maryland colonists led these In­dians to try to improve relations with the Swedes. In the mid 1600s the Susquehannock gave the Swedes a huge tract of land on the Elk River (see map), which flows west from the same area as the source of the Christina River. If the Swedes were to secure this area, they could act as a buffer between the Sus­quehannock and the Maryland and Dutch settlers moving up toward the head of Chesapeake Bay. It was too late, however, for Swedish power did not last out the year, and in the 1670s, the Susquehannock were dispersed by a combined attack force of Marylanders and members of the Five Nations.

For all intents and purposes, all vestiges of Swedish polit­ical power had ended by September 1655 when the Dutch recaptured Fort Casimir on the west bank of the Delaware River south or Fortress Christina. For nine years the Dutch had nominal control over this area until the English engulfed the region. The Duke of York period, beginning in 1664, marked the beginning of English domination of the entire northeastern seaboard of the present United States. The huge English immigration, matched by waves of Germans, rapidly changed the cultural composition of European colonists. For various reasons, Pennsylvania history often appears to begin with William Penn’s arrival. Yet for over fifty years before Penn took charge of these lands, Swedes, Dutch, Lenape and Susquehannock were engaged in complex colonial interaction.

The early Swedish colony, the first to lose political control (1655), is much less well known than the Dutch. The declining fortunes of the Swedish empire prevented substantial support from reaching this tiny colony and, in fact, the various Scan­dinavian people who had come to the New World between 1638 and 1655 may not have numbered more than 400. The venture was poorly financed, and without goods to trade the colonists could not compete with the well supplied Dutch at Fort Amsterdam or even the smaller Dutch outposts on the South River. The few Swedes eventually scattered widely and interspersed with the Lenape owners of the land. They bought a few small tracts of land for their farms and forts, but their impact on the forest was as slight as that of the natives.

After the Dutch took control, most of the Swedish leaders returned to Europe. The few elite Swedes remaining shifted their attention to business. They ultimately abandoned the tiny church on Tinicum Island and built a new one at Wicaco, now known as Old Swedes Church. The cabin-dwelling farmers, scattered along the feeder streams of the Delaware River, continued to eke out a living from the soil.

After the Dutch lost political control in 1664, certain simi­larities to the Swedes can be noted in the way the elite re­sponded. Many returned to the Netherlands and others went to Dutch colonies elsewhere in the New World. The merchants either remained or moved to cities where the Dutch popula­tion was large. The few Dutch who were farmers, or “true colonists,” stayed on or bought large holdings in the Mary­land colony.

By 1664 the Susquehannock had lost much of their power and had established cooperative relations with the Lenape. Susquehannock fur trade was being contested by the Five Na­tions and, as already noted, their village was destroyed and the people scattered.

When William Penn arrived, the remnants of these various peoples were all along the river, but only the Lenape, the orig­inal and de facto owners of the land, were in control of the lands which Penn was so eager to purchase. Much has been written about the Lenape, but most of that has focused on the period after 1750 when so many of them left the Delaware Valley and they became more generally known as the “Dela­ware.”

The Swedish elite and the conservative Lenape who kept their old ways and moved away from the colonial settlements have been easy to trace. More difficult to recognize are the ordinary farmers and the Lenape who merged into colonial society. Since the primary evidence of history is derived from written records, more is generally known about the elite than the people who were farmhands or engaged in minor trades. Even census data often miss these people, who lived in scat­tered hamlets away from the mainstream. Given these prob­lems, indirect evidence becomes critical in demonstrating that both Lenape and Swedes merged into the general population in such a way as to lose all ethnic identity.

This acculturation and blending of distinct ethnic character­istics was all part of the process of becoming Americanized. It also demonstrates that long before William Penn arrived the Delaware Valley was the site of complex colonial development on the commercial, political and cultural levels. This detailed social evolution was precipitated by the competition which took place between the Scandinavians and Europeans in the “Land of the Lenape.”


* The low ratio of females to males among the early Swedish colonists and the similarities of settlement pattern and independence between these first settlers and the native Lenape leads the author to suspect that a high rate of intermarriage existed before 1650. The difficulty in documenting this idea has led to a program of study directed at locating lost seventeenth-century Lenapes and Scandinavians.


Marshall J. Becker, who has published several articles on both Johan Printz and the Lenape, is now researching the possibil­ity of intermarriage between these Indians and early Swedish settlers. He has received support for his research from the American Philosophical Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities and West Chester University, where he is a professor of anthropology. Dr. Becker received his Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971.