Ethnic Groups of Delaware

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This entry was originally written by Roger D. Joslyn, CG, FUGA, FGBS, FASG, in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Delaware Family History Research series.
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Swedish, Finnish & Dutch

Prior to 1664, the area claimed by the Dutch along the west bank of the Delaware River was populated by only a few hundred people, a mix of Swedish and Finnish settlers from the period of New Sweden along with mostly Dutch soldiers and merchants, almost all within a couple of miles from the mouth of the Cristiana River. When the British conquered the area in 1664, most of the Dutch were either forcibly relocated (some sold as slaves in Virginia) or willingly relocated back to the settlements in New Netherlands (which was renamed New York). The handful of Swedes and Finns in the area were primarily farmers who pledged their allegiance to the British government and were thus allowed to stay. Much of this history, along with post-1664 census records, is outlined in Scharf's History of Delaware (see Background Sources for Delaware).


The bulk of growth in Delaware after the British takeover in 1664 came from three sources: 1) Land patents sold to immigrants by William Penn; 2) Maryland landowners encouraged by the Calvert government and looking for new land to expand their plantations; and 3) Virginia emigrants also seeking either new land opportunities and/or to escape the growing religious intolerance of the Virginia colony. These immigrants were overwhelmingly English and quickly became the dominant ethnicity along the west bank of the Delaware. For more information on these migratory movements, see Thomas J. Scharf's History of Delaware (see Background Sources for Delaware).


As the Baptist movement grew in Great Britain and Wales during the 17th century, many of the Baptist groups came under growing persecution by the successive changes of government. A group of 17 Welsh Baptists endeavored to emigrate to Philadelphia in 1701 to escape this persecution. Once arrived, they joined the existing Baptist community in Philadelphia. However, their differences in language, culture, and religious beliefs left them estranged from the established Philadelphia Baptist community, and in 1703, their religious group purchased 30,000 acres in New Castle County, Delaware, near what is now known as Newark, Delaware, deeded by William Penn in the 1680s to three Quaker Welshmen: David Evans, William Davis, and William Willis. This area, centered around a geological outcropping known as Iron Hill in Pencader Hundred, became known as the Welsh Tract and became the basis for the Welsh Baptist community that relocated from Philadelphia. They remained relatively isolated from the larger communities established along the Delaware River to the east of them. They also established a vibrant religious community, becoming the source for missionaries sent out and established many of the first Baptist churches throughout the American South. More of this community and its history may be found on-line by searching 'Welsh Baptist' and 'Iron Hill'. A more involved depiction of this community and its history is contained in John T. Christian's History of the Baptists (Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1922): Vol. II, pp. 120-126.

Scots-Irish & Irish

The struggles for government and religious freedom in the British Isles in the mid-17th century (referred to today as the 'Wars of the Three Kingdoms', and including the English Civil War, the execution of King Charles I, the establishment of the Commonwealth, and subsequently the English Restoration) led to the capture of many Scots-Irish and Irish Republicans by the victorious English forces as prisoners of war. As Delaware, along with most of the southern American colonies, was suffering a chronic shortage of manpower, the British government sent many of these prisoners, along with other incarcerated English - a total forced emigration estimated at around 50,000 people - to the American colonies over the next decade as indentured servants. Others came over on their own volition to escape religious persecution and seek fresh economic opportunities. For most of the 18th century, Scots-Irish (Presbyterian) and Irish (Catholic) worked side-by-side with the African slaves and made up as much as 1/2 of the population under servitude in Delaware. Unlike the African community, who gradually found themselves enslaved for life and over multiple generations, most of the Scots-Irish and Irish eventually gained their emancipation and either assimilated into the local community or moved west into new American frontiers. A good source that describes this demographic can be found in William H. Williams' Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865 (Scholarly Resources, Inc, Wilmington, DE 1996).

African American

In addition to Williams' Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, mentioned above, chapters 29 and 30 of Reed’s History (see Background Sources for Delaware) provide an overview on Delaware African Americans, and articles of interest have been published in Delaware History. See also two articles by Mary Fallon Richards: “Black Birth Records, New Castle County, Delaware, 1810–1853,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 67 (1979): 264-66, which lists the name of the African-American child and date of birth, names of parents (usually mother), of master or mistress, and date of registration; and also “Licenses to Import and Export Slaves,” Delaware Genealogical Society Journal 1 (1980–81): 8-12, 30-37.

Native American

Native Americans were on relatively friendly terms with the Europeans that settled Delaware for the first several decades, but were eventually pushed out as forests were cleared and marshes were drained, decimating the flora and fauna that the Native Americans relied upon for their livelihoods. Information about Delaware’s Native Americans is found in at least six works. Frank Gouldsmith Speck wrote The Nanticoke and Conoy Indians (Wilmington: Historical Society of Delaware, 1927). The other five, by Clinton A. Weslager, are entitled Delaware’s Forgotten Folk: The Story of the Moors and Nanticokes (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1970); Delaware Indians: A History (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972); The Delaware Indian Westward Migration (Wallingford, Pa.: Middle Atlantic Press, 1978); Red Men on the Brandywine (1953; reprint, Wilmington, Del.: Delmar News Agency, 1976); and The Delaware: A Critical Bibliography (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).