Delaware Family History Research

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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
the Delaware Family History Research series.
History of Delaware
Delaware Vital Records
Census Records for Delaware
Background Sources for Delaware
Delaware Maps
Delaware Land Records
Delaware Probate Records
Delaware Court Records
Delaware Tax Records
Delaware Cemetery Records
Delaware Church Records
Delaware Military Records
Delaware Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Delaware Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Delaware Immigration
Delaware Naturalization
Ethnic Groups of Delaware
Delaware County Resources
Delaware Special Interests
Map of Delaware
County Map of Delaware

History of Delaware

For such a small state (only Rhode Island is smaller), Delaware has an involved history. Henry Hudson discovered Delaware Bay in 1609, but the first attempted settlement was in 1631 by the Dutch, who were driven out by Native Americans. From 1638 to 1655 Delaware was controlled by the Swedes as part of New Sweden. The Dutch regained control for the next nine years, during which time some Finns settled there, as did more Dutch and some Mennonites. When New Netherland was taken over by the English, Delaware fell under the control of the Duke of York from 1664 to 1682, with the Dutch regaining control briefly in 1673 to 1674. By deeds executed in 1682, Delaware became the “Three Lower Counties” of Pennsylvania under a proprietary system. William Penn introduced the English tradition of “hundreds” as subdivisions of counties, and Delaware is the only place in the U.S. where the term is still used today, mostly as a geographical description in wills, deeds, and assessment records. Delaware remained a part of Pennsylvania until the Revolutionary War but had its own assembly from 1704.

While many English came directly to Delaware, others, including English Quakers, migrated from Pennsylvania and Maryland. For a long time a dispute existed between Delaware and Maryland over who controlled the areas of western Kent and western and southern Sussex counties. Consequently, very few Delaware records exist for this area before 1775.

Delaware experienced no major battles during the Revolutionary War, but the British did come through on their way to Philadelphia. It has been estimated that about half the population was Loyalist, although there was not as great an exodus from the colony as there was from New York and New Jersey. After the war, many soldiers headed south to Georgia, where they took advantage of attractive land grants.

The Dutch had imported some slaves to the area from Africa, but Maryland planters were responsible for bringing the largest number of African Americans to Delaware. By the time of the Civil War, however, the number of slaves had decreased substantially, mostly through manumission.

Delaware was also the destination of some French who arrived from the West Indies after the American Revolution, and others who came directly from France, including the famous du Pont family. The mid-nineteenth century saw further immigration of large numbers of Irish Catholics and Germans, and by the end of the century, Jews, Poles, and Italians had arrived, with smaller numbers of eastern Europeans and Scandinavians. Most of these people settled in the Wilmington area.

Calling itself the “First State,” Delaware was the first of the former thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution on 7 December 1787. From that time the state’s development has been characterized as stable, conservative, and placid, except during the Civil War. Economically, Delaware was allied with the North, especially with its river trade and the coming of the railroads; but there was also strong sympathy with the South, particularly after the war.

Delaware was originally created as part of Pennsylvania and has long been associated with that state, mostly because it shares the commerce and transportation of the Delaware River. This has also caused major growth in the northern part of the state, with much industry developing in and around Wilmington. By the early twentieth century, over half the population and wealth of the state were concentrated in the north, where it remains today. Until recently, the southern part of the state has been more agriculturally oriented. Delaware is one of the most densely populated states.

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