In 1638, a group of Swedish settlers arrived on the shores of present-day Wilmington. Here, they established homes and churches and forged strong, peaceful relationships with their Lenni Lenape neighbors. New Sweden, as they called it, was the first permanent European settlement in the Delaware River Valley.
But just seventeen years later, the colony was conquered by the Dutch, and then again by the English a few years after that. New Sweden ceased to exist, and its brief life faded from memory.
Or did it?
Centuries passed, and in 1938, Delawareans, Swedes, and Finns gathered together to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Sweden. Monuments were built. Swedish royalty traveled across the Atlantic to America. Thousands gathered in the streets for parades, music, and other fanfare. Since then, similar events have been organized for every twenty-fifth anniversary.
But why? What is the legacy of New Sweden? How does this short-lived settlement continue to bring people together nearly 400 years later?
These are the questions I asked as I began research for our library exhibit, New Sweden at 375. I was struck by the genuine connection that remains between these nations, even to this day. I thought that the unique distinction as Sweden’s lone experiment in the New World contributed to the persistent cultural memory. And this may be. But I believe it really comes down to the hard work and dedication of people throughout the 20th century who helped uncover this “lost” history and share it with the public. People like Christopher Ward, president of the Delaware Tercentenary Commission in 1938, laid the groundwork for decades of friendship and sharing between these nations.
We are eagerly anticipating next month’s visit by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden when the next chapter in this intriguing story will be written. In anticipation of this event, come explore New Sweden at 375 now open in our Willingtown Square Gallery!