The 17th century saw Sweden as an European “Great Power” and one of the major military and political combatants on the continent during the Thirty Years’ War. By mid-century, the kingdom included part of Norway, all of Finland and stretched into Russia. Sweden’s control of portions of modern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Germany made the Baltic Sea essentially a Swedish lake.
Perhaps inspired by the riches other Great Powers gathered from their overseas colonies, Sweden too sought to extend its influence to the New World. In 1637, Swedish, Dutch and German stockholders formed the New Sweden Company to trade for furs and tobacco in North America. Under the command of Peter Minuit, the company’s first expedition sailed from Sweden late in 1637 in two ships, Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip. Minuit had been the governor of the Dutch colony, New Netherland, centered on Manhattan Island, from 1626 to 1631.
The ships reached Delaware Bay in March 1638, and the settlers began to build a fort at the site of present-day Wilmington, Delaware. They named it Fort Christina, in honor of Sweden’s twelve-year-old queen. It was the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware Valley.
During the next seventeen years, twelve more Swedish expeditions left the homeland for New Sweden. A total of eleven vessels and some 600 Swedes and Finns reached their destination. The colony eventually consisted of farms and small settlements along both banks of the Delaware River into modern Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
New Sweden rose to its greatest heights during the governorship of Johan Printz (1643-1653). He extended settlement northward from Fort Christina along both sides of the Delaware River and improved the colony’s military and commercial prospects by building Fort Elfsborg, near present-day Salem on the New Jersey side of the river, to seal the Delaware against English and Dutch ships. Despite these steps, the Swedish and Finnish colonists lived peacefully with their Dutch and Lenni Lenape neighbors.
Unfortunately, Governor Printz’s autocratic rule left many settlers dissatisfied. A petition for reform was branded a “mutiny,” but did lead to that Governor’s return to Sweden.
In 1654, Printz was succeeded by the colony’s last governor, Johan Rising, at a time when the Dutch capitol of New Amsterdam was ruled by the hot-tempered Peter Stuyvesant. Soon after arriving in New Sweden, Rising attempted to remove the Dutch from the colony by seizing Fort Casimir (present-day New Castle, Delaware), below Fort Christina on the western shore of the river. With no gunpowder, Fort Casimir surrendered without a shot and was re-named Fort Trinity.
The furious Governor Stuyvesant had his revenge the following summer, when seven armed Dutch ships and 317 soldiers appeared on the Delaware River. Realizing that resistance would be useless, the vastly outnumbered Swedes surrendered Fort Trinity and Governor Rising surrendered Fort Christina two weeks later.
Swedish sovereignty over New Sweden was at an end, but the Swedish and Finnish presence was very much in evidence. In fact, Governor Stuyvesant permitted the colonists to continue as a “Swedish Nation” and be governed by a court of their choosing, be free to practice their religion, organize their own militia, retain their land holdings and continue trading with the native people. This independent “Swedish Nation” continued until 1681 when the Englishman, William Penn received his charter for Pennsylvania and the three lower counties, present-day Delaware.
While Swedes and Finns continued to settle in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, they did not begin to arrive in the United States in large numbers until the 19th century. Swedish immigration was highest between 1867 and 1914 due to poor local economic conditions in Sweden and the availability of cheap land in the American west. At the peak of immigration in the 1880s, an average of 37,000 Swedes came to the United States each year. Most of the new settlers bypassed New Sweden and headed west to Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, California and Washington, which remain the states with the largest numbers of Swedish-Americans today.