By the middle of the 17th century, the Realm of Sweden had reached its greatest territorial extent and was one of the great powers of Europe. Sweden then included Finland and Estonia along with parts of modern Russia, Poland, Germany and Latvia. The Swedes sought to expand their influence by creating an agricultural (tobacco) and fur-trading colony to bypass French and British merchants. The New Sweden Company was chartered and included Swedish, Dutch and German stockholders.
The first Swedish expedition to North America embarked from the port of Gothenburg in late 1637. It was organized and overseen by Clas Fleming, a Swedish Admiral from Finland. A Dutchman, Samuel Blommaert, assisted the fitting-out and appointed Peter Minuit to lead the expedition. The members of the expedition, aboard the ships Fogel Grip and Kalmar Nyckel, sailed into Delaware Bay, which lay within the territory claimed by the Dutch, passing Cape May and Cape Henlopen in late March 1638, and anchored at a rocky point on the Minquas Kill that is known today as Swedes' Landing. They built a fort on the present site of the city of Wilmington, which they named Fort Christina, after Queen Christina of Sweden.
In the following years, 600 Swedes and Finns, mainly Forest Finns from central Sweden (and also a number of Dutchmen and Germans in Swedish service) settled in the area. The settlement constituted an invasion of New Netherland, since the river and the land in question had previously been explored and claimed for that colony.
Peter Minuit was to become the first governor of the newly established colony of New Sweden. Having been the Director of the Dutch West India Company, and the predecessor of then-Director William Kieft, Minuit knew the status of the lands on either side of the Delaware River at that time. He knew that the Dutch had established deeds for the lands east of the river (New Jersey), but not for the lands to the west (Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania).
Minuit made good on his appointment by landing on the west bank of the river and gathered the sachems of the local Delawares tribe. Sachems of the Susquehannocks were also present. They held a conclave in his cabin on the Kalmar Nyckel, and persuaded the sachems to sign some deeds he had prepared for the purpose to solve any issue with the Dutch. This deed has not survived. The Swedes said the segment of land purchased included the land on the west side of the South River from just below the Schuylkill; in other words, today's Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, southeast Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. The Delaware sachem Mattahorn, who was one of the participants in the transaction stated that only as much land as was contained within "six trees" was purchased and the rest of the land occupied by the Swedes was stolen.
Director Kieft objected to the landing of the Swedes, but Minuit ignored his missive because he knew that the Dutch were militarily impotent at the moment. Minuit finished Fort Christina during 1638, then departed to return to Stockholm for a second load, and made a side trip to the Caribbean to pick up a shipment of tobacco for resale in Europe to make the voyage profitable. Minuit died while on this voyage during a hurricane at St. Christopher in the Caribbean.
The official duties of the first governor of New Sweden were carried out by Lieutenant (then raised to the rank of Captain) Måns Nilsson Kling, until the next governor was chosen and brought in from the mainland Sweden, two years later.
In 1643 the company expanded along the river from Fort Christina, and established Fort Nya Elfsborg on the south bank near present-day Salem, New Jersey. In 1644, New Sweden supported the Susquehannocks in their victory in a war against the English Province of Maryland. In May 1654, the Dutch Fort Casimir was captured by soldiers from the New Sweden colony led by governor Johan Rising. The fort was taken without a fight because its garrison had no gunpowder, and the fort was renamed Fort Trinity.
The Swedish and Finnish settlers continued to enjoy a degree of local autonomy, having their own militia, religion, court, and lands.
This status lasted officially until the English conquest of the New Netherland colony was launched on June 24, 1664 when the Duke of York sold the area that is today New Jersey to John Berkeley and George Carteret for a proprietary colony, separate from the projected New York. The actual invasion started on August 29, 1664 with the capture of New Amsterdam. The invasion continued, and was concluded with the capture of Fort Casimir (New Castle, Delaware) in October 1664. The invasion was one of the things that was contested in the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
The status continued unofficially until the area was included in William Penn's charter for Pennsylvania, on August 24, 1682. During this later period some immigration and expansion continued. The first settlement and Fort Wicaco were built on the present site of Philadelphia in 1669.
The start of the Third Anglo-Dutch War resulted in - among other things - the recapture of New Netherland by the Dutch in August 1673. The Dutch restored the status that pre-existed the British invasion, and codified it in the establishment of three Counties in what had been New Sweden. They were Hoarkill County, which today is Sussex County, Delaware ; New Amstel County, which is today New Castle County, Delaware; and Upland County, which was later partitioned between New Castle County, Delaware and the new Colony of Pennsylvania. The three counties were created on September 12, 1673, the first two on the west shore of the Delaware River, and the third on both sides of the river.
The signing of the Treaty of Westminster of 1674 ended the Dutch effort, and forced them to hand back all of New Netherland to the British, including the three counties they created. That handover took place on June 29, 1674
After taking stock, the British declared on November 11, 1674 that settlements on the west side of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay (in present day Delaware and Pennsylvania) to be dependent on the Colony of New York, including the three Counties. This declaration was followed up on November 11 by a new declaration that renamed New Amstel as New Castle. The other counties retained their Dutch names for the duration.
The next step in the assimilation of New Sweden into New York was the extension of the Duke’s laws into the region. This took place on September 22, 1676 . This was followed by the partitioning of the Counties to conform to the borders of Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The first move was to partition Upland between Delaware and Pennsylvania, with most of the Delaware portion going to New Castle County. This was accomplished on November 12, 1678 The remainder of Upland continued in place under the same name.
On March 4, 1681 what had been the colony of New Sweden was formally partitioned into the colonies of Delaware and Pennsylvania. The border was established 12 miles north of New Castle, and the northern limit of Pennsylvania was set at 42 degrees north latitude. The eastern limit was the current border with New Jersey at the Delaware River, while the western limit was unlimited. Pennsylvania immediately started to reorganize the lands of the former New Sweden within the limits of Pennsylvania. In June of 1681, Upland ceased to exist as the result of the reorganization of the Colony of Pennsylvania, with the Upland government becoming the government of Chester County, Pennsylvania.
On August 24, 1682, the Duke of York transferred the western Delaware River region, including modern day Delaware to William Penn, thus transferring Deale, St. Jones from New York to Delaware. St. Jones County was renamed as Kent County; Deale County was renamed Sussex County; New Castle County retained its name.
America was seen as the standard-bearer of enlightenment and freedom, and became the ideal of liberal Swedes. Admiration for America was combined with the notion of a past Swedish Golden Age, whose ancient Nordic ideals had supposedly been corrupted by foreign influences. Recovering the purity of these timeless values in the New World was a fundamental theme of Swedish, and later Swedish-American, discussion of America.
Since the imaginary Golden Age answered to shifting needs and ideals, the "timeless values" varied over time, and so did the Swedish idea of the new land. In the 17th and 18th centuries, North America stood for the rights of conscience and religious freedom.
In the political turmoil of 19th-century Europe, the focus of interest shifted to American respect for honest toil and to the virtues of republican government. In the early 20th century, the Swedish-American dream even embraced the welfare state ideal of a society responsible for the well-being of all its citizens. By contrast, America became later in the 20th century the symbol and dream of ultimate individualism.
Major Swedish immigration to the United States did not occur until the late 19th century. From 1870-1910, over one million Swedes arrived, settling particularly in Minnesota and other states of the Upper Midwest. With the exceptions of Germany, Ireland and Norway, no other European country has had a higher percentage of its population move to North America.
Traces of New Sweden persist in the Delaware Valley to this day, including Holy Trinity Church in Wilmington, Gloria Dei Church in Philadelphia, and Trinity Episcopal Church in Swedesboro, New Jersey, all commonly known as "Old Swedes' Church".
Perhaps the greatest contribution of New Sweden to the development of the New World is one that is not even thought of as Swedish. The colonists brought with them the log cabin, which became such an icon of the American frontier that it is thought of as an American structure.