The origins of Wilmington go back to Fort Christina, founded by the
Swedes in 1638. The whole region was essentially a
trading center from the time of its founding through the end of the eighteenth century. By 1675, control of the region had passed from the
Dutch to England (having passed from the Swedes to the
Dutch in 1655 after a short and essentially bloodless "fight"), though
many of the original Swedish and Finnish settlers still remained.
Much of the land was broken into large parcels controlled by a relatively
small number of Swedish, Finnish, and Dutch colonists. Around the turn
of the century,
Quakers who followed William Penn to North America began to settle
in Penn's Woods, including the region around the old
Fort Christina. Large parcels of land were in turn purchased by some of
these English settlers.
Englishman Andrew Justison bought up some of this land, mostly from
the sons of the original settlers. He eventually owned a large tract of
land between the Christina River and the Brandywine River. Around
1730, Justison wanted to establish a new town, and he had it surveyed
and split into smaller plots which he started to sell off in 1732. In
1734, Justison's son-in-law Thomas Willing began helping him lay out
and plan this new town, which was christened "Willingtown." The
town itself was meant to be a market, milling center, and gathering
regional farmers, and a service port for shipping up the Delaware River.
In early 1735, a Quaker named William Shipley visited Willingtown, liked
the place, and started buying land of his own in town. He moved his family
there to a small brick house in the autumn of that year, and into a larger
mansion the following year. Many Quakers followed Shipley to the region,
and so the fledgling city started out as more of a Quaker town than a
Swedish or Dutch one.
Things got interesting after Shipley moved to town.
He was a fairly rich businessman, and wanted to turn the city into a
commercial center. Willing
had planned for a market center on what was then Second Street, but
construction never started because none of the families already there would
front the construction costs. Shipley built his own market on Fourth Street
with his own money, so many of the local families fell in behind Shipley
rather than Willing. However, other residents (including Willing) finally
built a (much fancier) market of their own on the planned site, resulting
in some unpleasantness. In November of 1739, when the town received its
charter from Thomas Penn, the markets were ordered to operate on
alternating days of the week (Saturdays at Shipley's, Wednesdays at Willing's)
and alternating seasonal festivals (Spring Fair at Shipley's, Fall Fair at
Willing's). It was around this time that the town proprietor changed the
name from Willingtown to Wilmington, probably as much a
misprint of Willing-town as a tribute to the English Earl of Wilmington,
Spencer Compton. Shipley was elected the
first chief burgess of the town immediately after the charter.
The town developed rapidly after that, quickly surpassing the older nearby town
of New Castle, which went into an economic decline as the newer city's
port was more convenient. Wilmington actually grew a little too quickly,
because it became a haven for smugglers of rum and tobacco due to its many
convenient secluded waterways. The smugglers would then head into town to
party, resulting in the construction of a jail -- with stocks and
whipping post -- in 1740. A library was founded in 1754 and a
printing press installed in 1761. A formal town hall was finally erected
in 1774. Shortly after
that, the American Revolution broke out which Delaware participated
in wholeheartedly, mainly because of the tax on ports and shipping. The
first president of the First State during the war was John McKinly, a
burgess of the City of Wilmington.
I'll only cover up to the American Revolution here, as it makes a sensible
and convenient stopping point.
Source: A neat little book called Delaware: A Guide To The
First State written by the Federal Writers' Project under the
Works Progress Administration in 1938.
This was the revised edition of Jeannette Eckman, published as part of the
American Guide Series, Hastings House, New York, 1955.