Colonial Delaware

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Colonial English Research

This article is part of a series.

Overview of Colonial English Research
Colonial New Hampshire
Colonial Massachusetts
Colonial Rhode Island
Colonial Connecticut
Colonial New York
Colonial New Jersey
Colonial Pennsylvania
Colonial Delaware
Colonial Maryland
Colonial Virginia
Colonial North Carolina
Colonial South Carolina
Colonial Georgia
List of Useful Colonial English Resources

This article originally appeared in "Colonial English Research" by Robert Charles Anderson, MA, FASG in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Jurisdictional History

The first permanent settlement within the current borders of Delaware was made in 1638 by the Swedish South Company. The colony was nominally controlled from Sweden but, in fact, received intermittent attention and inadequate resupply from the home country. These immigrants concentrated themselves in the areas now covered by southeastern Pennsylvania; New Castle County, Delaware; and adjoining parts of New Jersey and Maryland.

Peter Stebbins Craig has studied the Swedish (and Finnish) settlers along the Delaware River in great detail, and has compiled his findings in two volumes: The 1693 Census of the Swedes on the Delaware: Family Histories of the Swedish Lutheran Church Members Residing in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West New Jersey and Cecil County, Maryland, 1683'1693 and 1671 Census of the Delaware.<ref>Peter Stebbins Craig, The 1693 Census of the Swedes on the Delaware: Family Histories of the Swedish Lutheran Church Members Residing in Pennsylvania, Delaware, West New Jersey and Cecil County, Maryland, 1683'1693 (Winter Park, Fla., 1993); 1671 Census of the Delaware (Philadelphia, 1999).</ref>

In 1655 the Dutch in New Amsterdam, who had built a fort on the Delaware, responded to an attack on that fort by sending an expedition to the Delaware and taking control of the region. The New Amsterdam authorities allowed the Swedish settlers considerable autonomy in their own government but, at the same time, instituted some aspects of their own system, including the offices of schout and schepens.

When the English conquered New Amsterdam in 1664, control of the Delaware also passed to the English. In parallel with the fate of New York, the settlements on the Delaware briefly returned to Dutch control in 1673 and 1674 but then reverted to the English as one of the provinces of the Duke of York.

In 1682, in anticipation of the arrival of William Penn and the settlers associated with him, the Duke of York transferred the Delaware settlements to William Penn and his associates. The so-called Three Lower Counties were, however reluctantly, an integral part of Pennsylvania until 1704, when they were separated legislatively and obtained their own assembly. Their territory continued under the control of the Penn proprietors until the Revolution. Delaware was the last of the thirteen colonies to achieve its own independent identity but was the first to ratify the Constitution in 1787.

Because the settlements on the Delaware were dependent on New Amsterdam, New York, or Pennsylvania during most of their existence, there are no 'colony records' as such. On the other hand, the researcher must be prepared to examine the records of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey in resolving many Delaware problems.


Courts certainly operated on the Delaware prior to 1676, under the Swedes, the Dutch, and the English, but very few records of these early bodies have survived. What does exist may be found in records preserved in New Amsterdam and New York: New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, Volumes 18'29, Delaware Papers (Dutch Period) . . . 1648'1664 and New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch, Volumes XX'XXI, Delaware Papers (English Period) . . . 1664'1682.

On 25 September 1676, Governor Edmund Andros of New York promulgated to the Delaware a set of instructions, which had already been in use for more than a decade in New York. The second of these instructions was that 'there be three Courts held in the Severall Parts of the River and Bay as formerly to witt. one on New Castell, one above at Upland'Another below att Whorekill.'

The most northerly of these three counties, Upland, had the majority of the Swedish settlers. The records of this county have been published for the years from 1676 to 1681 (The Record of the Court at Upland in Pennsylvania 1676 to 1681 . . . ). In 1681 this upper region of the settlements on the Delaware was chosen for the settlement of William Penn. Upland became Chester, and the later records for this area are found in Chester County.

The records of New Castle County for the same time period have been published as Records of the Court of New Castle on Delaware 1676'1681, as have been the records for Sussex County from 1677 to 1710, as Records of the Courts of Sussex County, Delaware, 1677'1710.<ref>Records of the Court of New Castle on Delaware 1676'1681 (Lancaster, Pa., 1904); Craig W. Horle, ed., Records of the Courts of Sussex County, Delaware, 1677'1710, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1991).</ref>

In 1680 the county structure of Delaware was completed with the erection of St. Jones County, carved out of the northern part of Whorekill County. Later in the same year, the name of Whorekill County was changed to Deale County. In 1683, St. Jones became Kent County and Deale became Sussex County. The Kent County records from 1680 to 1705 were published as Volume 8 of the American Legal Records series.<ref> Leon deValinger Jr., ed., Court Records of Kent County, Delaware, 1680'1705 (Washington, D.C., 1959).</ref>

During the period when New York administered Delaware, the representatives of the Duke of York made grants of land (Original Land Titles in Delaware Commonly Known as The Duke of York Record . . . From 1646 to 1679). Those already holding land granted to them under Swedish or Dutch rule were asked to come forward to have their holdings confirmed, and many of these confirmations were recorded in New York.

After 1681 additional new land grants were made by the Penn proprietors of Pennsylvania. The western reaches of Kent and Sussex counties were claimed by Maryland, and records of landholders in these areas may be found in Maryland colony and county records. When this land dispute was eventually settled in favor of Delaware, confirmations of these lands were often entered in the records of the Penn proprietors.

The early court proceedings noted previously included original grants of land, sales of land from one person to another, and probate proceedings. In the early 1680s, very soon after the three 'lower counties' came under the Penn government, separate Orphans' Courts were established to handle probate, and registries of deeds were also established.

Case Studies

Col. Charles M. Hansen, 'The Paternal Ancestry of Caesar Rodney of Del[aware,] Signer of the Declaration of Independence,' American Genealogist 64 (1989): 97'111. William Rodney, the grandfather of Caesar Rodney, was born in Bristol, England. He arrived on the Delaware in 1681 as a young man, at the time of the migration of English to that region led by William Penn. William Rodney resided in Kent and Sussex counties until his death in 1708. In documenting this man's life, Col. Hansen relies heavily on the county court records from Kent and Sussex, supplemented by family papers, Philadelphia Quaker marriage records, and some other Pennsylvania colonial records.

Patricia Law Hatcher, 'Were the '˜Daughters' of Robert Burton of Sussex County, Delaware, Really the Daughters of Comfort (Bagwell) Leatherbury?' American Genealogist 75 (2000): 250'66. The families discussed in this article lived for the most part in Sussex County but also spilled over into the Eastern Shore portions of Maryland and Virginia. Through extensive exploitation of the probate and deed records of Sussex County, the author determined that there were two sets of daughters, Burton and Leatherbury, with the same given names.