Thursday, October 26, 2017

Even Old New Castle was Once New Amstel: European Rivalry in the Delaware Valley

Please enjoy this installment of New Stories From Old New Castle: Student Perspectives on New Castle’s Past, Present, and Future. Students created the blog entries as part of the Spring 2017 University of Delaware Museum Studies Class, Historical Properties (Museum Studies 605), taught on-site in partnership with the New Castle Historical Society

Aliza Alperin-Sheriff

During the 1600s, the Dutch, the Swedes, and the English all competed for control of the Delaware Valley. The Dutch and the Swedes were primarily interested in access to the fur trade with the Lenni Lenape, the local Native Americans. The English saw the Delaware Valley as a way to connect their colonies in New England and the Chesapeake region, thereby gaining control of the entire eastern seaboard.

The first European to lay eyes on the Delaware Bay was Henry Hudson in 1609. Although he was English, the Dutch employed him to find the Northwest Passage. Hudson found the Delaware River too shallow to navigate, so he continued north where he claimed the area that became New York (then called New Amsterdam) and explored the river that today bears his name.

A Dutch map of the Delaware Valley. From the Library of Congress.

After Hudson, the Dutch continued to explore the Delaware Bay and River. They set up a few trading posts and found a sandy-shored bend in the river that they called Sandhoek. This later became the site of New Castle. But the Dutch were far more focused on New Amsterdam and the North River (the Hudson), than the South River (the Delaware). This benign neglect created an opportunity for Sweden to establish its own colony in the Delaware Valley.

The Swedes bought land near Sandhoek from the Lenape in 1638. They built a fort at the point where the Christina and the Brandywine Rivers join to form the Delaware and sent colonists to populate New Sweden and farm along the river. But Swedish control of the Delaware Valley was short-lived.
New Castle and the Delaware River, c. 2017

In 1651, Peter Stuyvesant, the renowned director-general of New Amsterdam, decided he wanted the Dutch to regain control of the Delaware Valley. After determining that Sandhoek was an important strategic location between New Sweden and the Delaware Bay, he purchased the land from the Lenape and built Fort Casimir. With this purchase, Stuyvesant officially put an end to New Sweden in 1655.

A year later, the city of Amsterdam took ownership of the settlement around Fort Casimir and renamed the area New Amstel. Amsterdam was the only city ever to have its own American colony. It was a diligent colonizer, building up the local economy and sending over settlers. However, Amsterdammer control was also destined to be a short chapter of New Castle’s history.

In 1664, King Charles II gave his brother the area encompassing what is today New York and New Jersey when the English took New Amsterdam from the Dutch. The man in charge of the effort, Colonel Richard Nicholls, decided he also wanted control of New Amstel, although it had not been included in the land grant. The English easily crushed the forces at Fort Casimir. With that defeat the era of European rivalry over the Delaware Valley came to an end and British sovereignty over North America ascended. The following year the settlers in New Amstel decided to rename their village New Castle.

Historic American Buildings Survey photo. The Tile House, a remnant of Dutch life in New Castle, was razed in the late nineteenth century. From the Library of Congress.