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Site of ‘first town in first state’ first settled by Dutch colonists

Delaware copy of Hoorn’s city hall houses museum

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

LEWES - The historic seaport of Lewes in Delaware has some of the oldest and richest history of any location in the United States. Discovered by explorer Henry Hudson on a voyage up the Delaware River in August, 1609, and first settled by the Dutch in 1631, Lewes (founded as Zwaanendael) boasts old homes and structures that date back to the late 1600s and early 1700s. It has also been the scene of historic battles and has been visited by infamous pirates such as Captain Kidd.

The town which bills itself as the ‘First Town in the First State’ (of the thirteen independent colonies), originally was settled by 32 Dutchmen. These ‘new Ameri-cans’ all were massacred by a tribe of Lenni Lenape Indians following a disagreement over a coat of arms that had been stolen from the Dutch settlement by an Indian. The Dutch became more furious when the tribe killed the Indian who had stolen the piece and presented his head to them. At the same time, friends of the slain Indian were so upset that he had been killed that they in revenge massacred all the people in the settlement in 1632.


The area was permanently settled by the Dutch in 1658 when they set up a new trading post called Sekonnessinck. Another colony was established five years later by a group of Mennonites (then still called Anabaptists) under the leadership of Peter Cornelis Plockhoy. The Plockhoy Colony was destroyed by English invaders in 1664.

The Dutch reclaimed the area from the English in 1673, but just six months later permanently surrendered it back. The territory which is now Delaware was conveyed to William Penn in 1682. It was then that the town was named Lewes in honour of a town in Sussex County, England.


Throughout its history, Lewes’ inhabitants have relied on the sea for their livelihood. Home to an excellent harbour, the town remains an East Coast port of call and home to a large fleet of fishing boats. It also serves as the base of the Delaware Bay and River Pilots Association. Members of the association guide cargo vessels to and from the river ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia.

Among the reminders of colonial Dutch presence is the site of the Zwaanendael Museum. Local artifacts are housed in a building erected in 1931 as a tricentennial project, copied after the richly gabled municipal hall of the North Holland city of Hoorn. Other reminders of the Dutch presence in local history are Cape Henlopen, the site of an old Lighthouse and a park, and the shipwrecked H.M.S. DeBraak.