New Sweden Colony: History & Explanation

Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

This lesson will cover the New Sweden Colony, which was located in parts of modern New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. We will explore the founding of New Sweden, its ups and downs, and its disintegration.

Swedish Power

By the early 17th century, Sweden had extended its rule far beyond its current boundaries. Along with its home territory, Sweden included nearly all of modern-day Finland and Estonia, large parts of Norway and Latvia, and smaller parts of Germany, Poland, and Russia. Sweden was a world power, and it wanted to act like one. That meant that it needed colonies in the New World in order to keep up with trade and expand even further.

New Sweden Begins

In 1637, several Swedish, Dutch, and German entrepreneurs banded together to form the New Sweden Company with the goal of settling in America, participating in the fur trade, and growing tobacco. Later that year, the Company's first expedition set out in two ships, the Fogel Grip (Griffin Bird) and Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar). Led by former New Netherlands governor Peter Minuit, the expedition reached landfall in late March 1638.

Peter Minuit
Peter Minuit

Minuit set right to work to establish the New Sweden Colony. He knew that Sweden was taking a risk settling right between the Dutch New Netherlands to the north and the English Virginia to the south. In order to legitimize the new colony, Minuit quickly signed a treaty with the local Lenape Indian chiefs, purchasing sixty-seven miles of riverfront along the Delaware River and the lands extending from the river 'to the setting sun.' In actuality, New Sweden covered only small parts of southwestern New Jersey, northern Delaware, and southeastern Pennsylvania.

The New Sweden Colony is shown here in relationship to New Netherlands to the north.
The New Sweden Colony

Minuit and his fellow colonists built Fort Christina on the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware. Then, leaving behind twenty-three soldiers, a slave named Antonius, and Commissioner Henry Huygens, Minuit sailed back to Sweden to recruit more settlers.

New Sweden's Ups and Downs

Over the next 17 years, approximately 600 Swedes and Finns settled in New Sweden. They built snug log cabins and cultivated small farms. Several communities sprang up along the river.

Unfortunately, the colony was not able to achieve self-sufficiency. The farms barely produced enough to feed their inhabitants, and when they didn't, the colonists had to rely on their friendly Lenape neighbors for extra food and supplies.

The Swedish government was not satisfied with the New Sweden Company's colonial management. It took control over New Sweden in 1642 and appointed Johan Printz as governor. He arrived at the colony in 1643. New Sweden reached its high point under Printz's administration. Settlement extended up both banks of the Delaware River, and Printz supervised the building of several new forts.

Johan Printz
Johan Printz

Printz was a good leader, to a point, but he did make a few mistakes. For one thing, he tried to control the settlement too tightly, to the point where even a request for reform from the colonists was viewed as an attempt at mutiny. Further, Printz had been ordered to remain on good terms with the Indians, but he did not. Disappointed that the Lenape were not supplying enough furs, he became hostile toward the tribe, and in 1644 requested soldiers from Sweden to exterminate the colony's Indian neighbors. Luckily for the Lenape, his request was denied.

Trouble began for Printz in 1647 when the New Netherlands colony to the north welcomed a powerful new governor, Peter Stuyvesant. Relations between New Sweden and its northern neighbor deteriorated over the next several years as their mother countries went to war with each other and the colonies argued over territorial boundaries. Further, because of the war, Sweden stopped sending supply ships to its colony in 1648, leaving the colonists to fend for themselves.

Peter Stuyvesant
Peter Stuyvesant

The End of New Sweden

Printz was recalled to Sweden in 1653, and new governor Johan Risingh took his place. Risingh decided to take some action against New Netherlands. He led an attack on the Dutch Fort Casimir in May 1654. It wasn't much of a fight. The fort, lacking gunpowder, surrendered quickly, and the Swedes renamed it Fort Trinity.

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