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The Making of the 50 States: Delaware

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Although Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution, it was not the first of the 13 colonies to be settled. That honor went to Virginia.

Delaware, however, was settled in 1638 by a group of settlers led by Peter Minuit, who might be better known as the man who bought Manhattan Island from Native Americans for 60 guilders ($24) worth of trinkets, knives, and assorted beads.

The Dutch colony of New Netherland was established in 1624. Two years later, Minuit arrived, as governor-general of the colony. The main port of this colony was New Amsterdam, which later became New York. Five years later, Minuit returned to Europe.

In 1638, Minuit returned to America, leading a group of settlers to put down roots in the Delaware Bay. The first settlement was named Christina, after the Swedish child Queen. Sadly, Minuit didn't live to see his colony grow. He died at sea the very same year.

But the Delaware colony, called New Sweden for a time because it was settled at the direction of the Swedish government, thrived. New Sweden proved to be a vital link between the northern colonies, in Massachusetts and New York, and the middle colonies, in Maryland and Virginia.

In 1655, the Swedish colony became Dutch, as Dutch settlers from New Netherland, under the command of Peter Stuyvesant, took over the Delaware colony. It was not the last time other people assumed leadership of the former New Sweden.

In 1681, William Penn arrived from England, leading a group of religious separatists known as Quakers to a colony that would later be named Pennsylvania. The very next year, Penn assumed control of three counties in the Delaware colony, having been given permission to do so by the Duke of York (the second most powerful person in Britain at the time).

Even Maryland got into the act: Lord Baltimore wanted a piece of the Delaware pie and disputed the boundaries for most of the rest of his life.

New Sweden became the largest city in the Delaware colony and was named Willington (after local merchant Thomas Willing) in 1731. Eight years later, it became Wilmington.

How did Delaware get its name? Well, the first governor of the Virginia Colony was Lord de la Warr, whose real name was Sir Thomas West. His influence was such that the Delaware River and Delaware Native Americans were both named after him. (The Native Americans called themselves Lenape.) In time, so, too, was the colony and the state named after this Virginia man.

Delaware was a seaboard colony, of course, and so had a thriving fishing business. The colony also had many trees and had a popular lumbering business as well.

Delaware was not only the first state to ratify the Constitution. It was also the deciding state in the battle over declaring independence from Great Britain. In a famous bit of history, a man named Caesar Rodney rode his horse from Delaware to Philadelphia, through thunderstorms and a heat wave, cast his state's vote in favor of independence. This event is commemorated on the new quarter coin.

When the Revolutionary War came, Delaware was right there with the other colonies, fighting for their freedom from Great Britain. In fact, Delaware declared itself free from Pennsylvania, too, and established its own state government.

Delaware contributed about 4,000 men to the war effort. That is a high number for such a small territory.

After the U.S. victory in the war, Delaware returned to its focus on fishing and lumbering. It also featured inventors, like Oliver Evans of Newport, who in 1785 invented the automatic flour milling machinery. This doesn't sound like much to us today, but the automatic flour mill saved lots of time and money.

In 1786, John Dickinson presided over the Annapolis Convention, which called for a Constitutional Convention. The very next year, the Constitution was ratified for the first time, by Delaware.

And that is how Delaware earned its slogan: "First State."

Graphics courtesy of ArtToday

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