11. New Sweden and a Socialist Experiment

Lenapes trading in New Sweden

‘Poutaxat’ is what the southernmost Lenape people called the large Mid-Atlantic estuary where they lived, and ‘Lenape Wihittuck’ is the name they gave the large river that flowed into it. They lived much as their northern cousins, the Mohicans. They were a largely settled agricultural and matrilineal society, with longhouses and gardens, but they still gathered from the forests and hunted wild game.

The area, which we now call Delaware Bay, after Baron Del A Warr, aka Thomas West, a great-grandson of Mary Boleyn, sister to Ann, the consort of Henry VIII. West was assigned several posts in Turtle Island but didn’t fare well in any of them. Sickness got the better of him, and he returned to England, not leaving behind much more than his royal name.

Territories claimed by Sweden and the Netherlands

The English were far from the first visitors to the Lenape. In 1521, Francisco Gordillo and a slave trader Captain Pedro de Quejo (de Quexo), representing Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth (King of Spain and Austria), toured the area but left little than a new name, ‘St. Christopher’s Bay.’ They were followed by a Dutch explorer, Cornelius Jacobsen May, who left his name on Cape May, the seaward edge of the bay. He actually managed some trade with the Lenape there but moved north to New Amsterdam and the Hudson River.

Next, it’s Sweden’s turn. The Kingdom of Sweden recently expanded after success in a few European wars, and decided to try its hand at taking a piece of the New World. Two ships, Kalmar Nyckel and Fogel Grip, set sail and landed in 1638 in Delaware Bay. They set up Fort Christiana, named for their Queen, near what is now Wilmington, DE. They unloaded both Swedish and Finnish families in the area and also further up the Jersey side to the river, staking out Fort Elfsborg.

Despite the forts, the settlers in New Sweden were far from militarized. In a way, it worked to their advantage. They were compelled to trade with the Lenape and come to agreements about land use amicably. The Finns built their homes as log cabins, much as they had back in Finland, and it is sometimes claimed they were responsible for ‘inventing’ them for the New World. Perhaps many settlers copied them, but the Cherokee and other native peoples had log cabins far from New Sweden.

In any case, New Sweden was thriving and growing. But from the beginning, the Dutch were annoyed by the Swedish colony on land they assumed belonged to them. In 1655 Peter Stuyvesant sent several ships with militia to take them over. Given the settler’s weakness and lack of powder, the skirmishing ended quickly, and New Sweden was absorbed into New Netherlands. On the ground, though, it meant little as Swedes and Finns continued to arrive and settle all around the bay’s eastern edge and up the Delaware River. But Sweden decided to let it go, as not worth another war.

However, our story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Pieter Cornelisz Plockhoy, a Dutchman some claim as ‘the father of modern socialism.’ Plockhoy had devised a plan for a cooperative settlement near Ft Christiana, where worker-members would divide their labor according to their skills, run the project themselves, establish a six-hour day, and equally divide the profits each year. It was set up at Hoorn Kill on the Delaware River, near Swannendaal (New Castle). It reportedly did rather well until 1664, when the English took over New Netherland, including the former New Sweden, changed the name to New York and New Jersey, plundered and looted the coop settlement, and sent Plockhoy off live with Quakers, in what is now Philadelphia. More to come.

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