Tracks & Traces: Historic New Castle DelawareArticle by Annette McDermott
The state of Delaware enjoys a rich history. It was the first state to ratify the Constitution, it was home to the renowned Revolutionary War ‘Fighting Blue Hens’, and it was a vital stop on the Underground Railroad.
Delaware was also home to New Sweden, the first European colony to settle there. However, the Swedes were not the only ones who played an integral role in colonizing the area. The Dutch ruled Delaware for a short time, yet their influence remained and became part of Delaware’s legacy. This is especially apparent in Historic New Castle, a small area with a rich Dutch past located in the center of town.
On a recent trip to Historic New Castle, I immediately felt like I’d been transported to a world where time has practically stood still. Only the cars parked along the streets and a few modern gift shops and restaurants reminded me I was still in the 21st century.
As I walked on uneven cobblestones toward the waterfront at what is now called Battery Park, I was surrounded on both sides of the street by centuries old, weathered brick buildings that loomed tall, aching to share their histories. I looked at each one as I passed and wondered what secrets they held within their walls.
Arriving at the waterfront, I gazed across the Delaware River and then glanced back at the picturesque town. “This is where it all began,” I thought. I was standing in the area where the Dutch West India Company established New Amstel, a settlement under the leadership of Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch director general of New Netherland.
The land changes hands again and again
When the Dutch East India Company sent Henry Hudson on an exploration to the New World in 1609, he discovered what is now Delaware Bay and claimed it and its surrounding areas for the Dutch. His claim included present-day New Castle. Hudson then continued his journey and laid claim to a large expanse of land including the present-day Delmarva Peninsula and areas north along the Hudson River. This land would eventually be known as the settlement of New Netherland.
In 1638, the Swedes arrived at Delaware Bay and, finding no settlement by the Dutch, built Fort Christina (the first settlement of New Sweden). Peter Minuit, the former director of New Netherland, led the settlement. The fact that Minuit built Fort Christina didn’t sit well with the Dutch who believed, because of Henry Hudson’s earlier claim, that they owned the land. As a result, Stuyvesant ordered the construction of Fort Casimir in 1651 on the site of present-day New Castle, approximately five miles from Fort Christina.
Not surprisingly, the Swedes weren’t pleased about Fort Casimir and in 1654, the Swedish governor visited the fort under false pretenses and claimed it with little resistance. Stuyvesant responded in 1655 by leading troops to recapture Fort Casimir, Fort Christina and New Sweden, thus returning the land to Dutch rule. Stuyvesant renamed Fort Casimir ‘New Amstel’.
Stuyvesant laid out New Amstel in a grid system around a town green which still exists and is a great place to enjoy the town’s ambience. Although faced with the same obstacles as other early colonial settlements, New Amstel became a thriving settlement and trading port with a diverse population which included Dutch, Swedes, Finns, and even a scattering of Germans, English, Scots and French.
According to a document written by Michael Connolly, executive director of the New Castle Historical Society, by 1658, the town of New Amstel had one hundred buildings including a guardhouse, bakehouse, sawmill, forge, town hall, brewery and residential dwellings.
Dutch rule over New Amstel was short lived. In 1664, the English seized New Netherland – which included New Amstel – for the Duke of York. The English gave New Amstel the name New Castle. But this was not the last changing of the guards. New Castle returned briefly to the Dutch in 1673. After only a year, rule was returned to the English.
Finally, in 1682, the Duke of York granted New Castle to William Penn as part of the colony of Pennsylvania. Although New Castle would remain under English rule until the American Revolution, the Dutch impact on the settlement remained and can still be felt today.
The Dutch House Museum
The passage of time and The Great Fire of 1824 eliminated most 17th century structures in New Castle, but one treasure remains: the Dutch House. According to the New Castle Historical Society’s website, the Dutch House dates to the late 17th century, when New Castle was a busy trading port for Dutch, English, Swedish and Finnish settlers.
The Dutch House has a small footprint when compared to its surrounding structures. Yet the house has a wonderfully quaint charm that beckons visitors inside. While the Dutch House has elements of 17th century Dutch dwellings, the house has undergone several renovations and also features characteristics of a colonial English home. As a result, the Dutch House represents centuries of colonial architecture.
Despite its assorted structural components, the interior of the Dutch House primarily represents an early Dutch colonial home. The house is two stories tall, but due to safety concerns, only the first floor, which includes the dining room, parlor and kitchen, can be explored. Each room contains Dutch colonial artifacts collected by preservationist Louise du Pont Crowninshield. Pewter steins and plates adorn the dining room table and a period sampler hangs over the fireplace. The parlor holds an impressive ‘kast’(a 17th century wardrobe often used to store linens) as well as an extraordinary family Bible dating to 1714. A built-in corner cupboard houses original flat bricks salvaged from the ‘Tile House’, a colonial Dutch building believed to be built in 1687 in New Castle. Both the dining room and parlor display Dutch Delft ceramics including decorative plates and an ornate flower brick.
The kitchen features many common Dutch colonial kitchen tools such as a waffle iron, spoon molds and molds to make speculaas, a traditional Dutch spice cookie. A substantial mortar and pestle sits in one corner of the room, a foot warmer sits in front of the massive fireplace (for more information on foot warmers, see p. 35), and Dutch wooden shoes line the wall.
In addition to the house, the museum includes two delightful gardens. The Kitchen Garden features many of the vegetables and herbs grown by New Amstel settlers. The Colonial Revival Garden contains a mature magnolia, a variety of annuals and perennials, dwarf trees, berry shrubs and vines.
Visiting Historic New Castle
A visit to Historic New Castle is a wonderful way to absorb Dutch colonial culture and history. The town is charming and the tour guides very friendly and knowledgeable. In addition to the Dutch House Museum, other historic buildings are open to the public. These include the Amstel House, a beautiful mansion built in the 1730s on property originally owned by a Fort Casimir settler; and the New Castle Court House, the first capitol building of Delaware, which dates to 1732 and is designated a National Historic Underground Railroad Site. Walking and guided tours are available for a nominal fee.
For more information about Historic New Castle, Delaware and its colonial Dutch history, visit the New Castle Historical Society’s website: www.newcastlehistory.org.
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