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Zwaanendael, Dutch for "Valley of Swans," was the first Dutch settlement on the Delmarva peninsula, in what is today Lewes, Delaware. It was established in 1631, but was quickly overrun and destroyed by the Native American people living there. It has the distinction of being the first European settlement in the region, though the first permanent settlement in Delaware was established by the Swedes in 1638. After the destruction of Zwaanenael, the Dutch did not return to Delaware until the latter half of the seventeenth century.

Delaware was first discovered by Europeans in 1609, when the explorer Henry Hudson sighted the Delaware Bay on August 28. Since he didn't have any small ships to explore the shallow bay, he immediately left and headed north to find the Hudson River, soon to be the site of New Amsterdam -- modern day New York. Of course Hudson recorded his first find, calling it the "South River" (the Hudson would be called the "North River"). The Delaware was explored again by the Dutch several times between 1614 and 1620. One of the explorers, Cornelis Jacobsen Mey, discovered and named Cape Mey, later renamed Cape May on the New Jersey side of the Delaware bay. Eventually these explorations were organized under the Dutch West India Company founded in 1621, and minor trading expeditions continued throughout the 1620's. One of these resulted in the founding of a trading post at Fort Nassau, again on the New Jersey side near Gloucester. Most others were just quick stops on the Delaware Bay to see if Dutch traders could pick up any furs from the Lenni-Lenape or Naticokes they encountered. However, it wasn't until 1631 that anyone tried to settle on the Delaware side.

In 1629 a group of patroons, organized under Samuel Godyn back in Amsterdam, planned to buy and settle land along the South River. They chose the west bank, chartering land between Bombay Hook (the original Dutch name was "Bompties Hoek") and Cape Henlopen along the Delaware Bay. Godyn and several other men hired the Dutch navigator David Pietersen de Vries, a native of Hoorn, Holland, to lead a group of colonists to establish a new colony. In 1631, de Vries and the colonists set sail for North America under the command of Captain Peter Heyes in a ship called the Walvis (Whale). They arrived in the spring, and the colonists began setting up a new colony, meant to be a center for farming, ranching, trading, and whaling. A townsite was established and named Swanendael. A nearby creek was named "Blommaertkill" (after Samuel Blommaert, one of the patroons), and the Delaware Bay was dubbed "Godyn's Bay." The fledgling colony was established by just 33 men with enough supplies to begin new homes and new lives. The 28 colonists brought by de Vries were joined by five more from New Amsterdam, including Giles Hosset who became the leader of the colony. De Vries left the men shortly afterward and returned to Holland. Most would never be seen again.

In 1632, Peter Minuit informed the West India Company that the Swanendael colony had been obliterated by native tribes in the area. All men but one had been killed, with their bodies left to rot and their houses and supplies burnt and livestock taken. The only survivor was a man named Thunis Willemsen, who escaped and made it to New Amsterdam. De Vries returned to the South River by way of the Indies, and arrived late in 1632. Upon arriving, he met with the local native tribesmen to find out what happened. Apparently one of the local native chiefs had taken a tin coat of arms from one of the Dutch buildings. Hosset handled the theft very badly, though the details of what happened aren't known. But whatever he did, the natives attacked Swanendael, razing its buildings and killing its inhabitants. De Vries and the other patroons didn't bother sending a new expedition, and eventually the Dutch West India Company bought out their title to the land. Unfortunately, it seems the Dutch experience at Zwaanendael wasn't unique, as they apparently got along poorly with the native peoples surrounding the New Amsterdam colony as well. The Dutch returned to Delaware in force in the later 1640's and 1650's, eventually taking over the Swedish colony before they themselves were finally forced out of North America by the English.

Though the name Swanendael, or Zwaanendael, stuck as part of the town folklore, by the time William Penn and the English took over the region the town was rebuilt and renamed Lewes. Today, the only remnant of the first colony is the name. However, to honor the tercentenary of the first European colony in Delaware in 1931, the state of Delaware built Zwaanendael House, a smaller replica of the town hall of Hoorn, Holland, in honor of de Vries. It still stands and is open to the public; it houses a museum of regional history, though most of the contents are from the later English colonial and early United States history. Zwaanendael House is located near the intersection of Savannah Road and King's Highway in Lewes -- just take Route 9 east from Highway 1. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, and is free. It's a nice diversion if Rehoboth and Dewey Beaches are too crowded.

Sources:
America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty, National Geographic Press, 1967
Delaware: A Guide To The First State, ed. Jeanette Eckman, Hastings House Press; New York, 1955
http://www.destatemuseums.org/zwa/

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