Early Wilmington Settler Arrives On the Kalmar Nyckel in 1638

Surviving a shiwreck and multiple Atlantic crossings, barber surgeon Timen Stiddem proves that determination pays off.

Think you have a bad commute? Consider Timen Stiddem, a physician and early Wilmington settler who crossed the Atlantic four times between 1638 and 1654. The 1649 trip was a doozy. Stiddem’s ship, Kattan, with 70 settlers and 30 crew, hit a reef and sank in the Caribbean. Imprisoned, tortured and robbed by Spanish and French authorities, most died there, including Stiddem’s wife and three young children. “In all, only 19 of the colonists, besides some officers and soldiers, returned to Sweden, 45 or 50 finding their graves on the islands,” wrote historian Amandus Johnson in 1911.

Struggling back to Sweden in 1651, Stiddem sailed again for Delaware three years later. That trip was his last. Considered by Delaware physicians the first of their profession in the state, he remained, remarried and eventually became a wealthy man. At his death, he owned the northern third of what is now downtown Wilmington. Which, all things considered, seems fair.

Stiddem was born in Denmark. Or the Netherlands. Or, possibly, Sweden. No one really knows. But in the 1630s, he lived in Gothenburg, Sweden, where his father, Luloff Stiddem, was sheriff and, later, the city’s construction manager—positions that likely allowed him to help his children become established. When Timen Stiddem made his first voyage aboard the Kalmar Nyckel in 1638, he was one of two barber surgeons. Barbers cut hair. So did barber surgeons. But they also performed surgery, something physicians considered beneath them. Stiddem probably learned his profession as an apprentice.

Photos courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society


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The title page from Stiddem’s medicinal book.

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This is Stiddem’s medicinal book. It is the oldest known item in the collection of the Delaware Historical Society.

Sweden in the mid-17th century was one of the great powers of Europe. And like the others, it wanted a chunk of the New World. The purpose of the 1638 voyage was to transport enough settlers to establish such a colony, which would grow tobacco and trade for furs. The mission was led by Peter Minuit, who had been fired seven years earlier from his job as director of the Dutch colony at New Amsterdam. “Minuit was still disgruntled over his 1631 recall to Holland and was willing to retaliate against the Dutch by working for the advantage of the Swedes,” according to Penn State University historian Elizabeth Covart.

The Swedes’ presence sufficiently annoyed the Dutch that, in 1655, they swooped in and took over New Sweden. The English, in turn, booted the Dutch in 1664.In March 1638, Kalmar Nyckel and a companion ship anchored in the Christina River. Minuit built a fort at the site of Wilmington, then cut a deal with the natives for all the land fronting the Delaware from there to present-day Trenton, N.J. Stiddem’s activities do not seem to have been recorded. But, with dozens of men building and planting, there were plenty of minor and major hurts to tend. Before the Dutch took over, Sweden would send out nine more expeditions with supplies and settlers.

In 1640, Stiddem remained as resident doctor, but returned to Gothenburg in 1644. By 1649, now with a family, he likely looked at New Sweden as a place to build a future rather than to have another adventure. Sailing ships didn’t travel in a straight line. Depending on the season, prevailing winds and currents often required ships bound for North America to sail south to Africa, west to the Caribbean, then north. In late August, Kattan left Antiqua after picking up water. On Aug. 27, about 2 a.m., the ship bumped a reef.“(Colonist Hans) Amundsson and the other officers anxiously requested the captain to lower the sails and bring the ship to a standstill,” wrote Johnson, “but he simply answered, ‘It will all pass over.’” Then, the ship struck again, and again. On the third impact, a rock penetrated the hull and Kattan was pinned to the reef like a butterfly to a board. Efforts to free it failed, and passengers were rowed to a nearby uninhabited island about 80 miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico.

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Stiddem’s Wilmington home stood at 14th and Poplar streets until it was demolished in 1888.

They had their provisions, but no water. “We had to lick the stones with our tongues,” said colonist Johan Rudberus, “but could not secure so much wet for eight days that we could quench our thirst.” After a week, a Spanish ship found them and confiscated the Swedes’ cargo. “Not being content with this, they pulled the clothes off their victims, men and women alike, to seek for money and other valuables,” wrote Johnson. Taken to San Juan, the Swedes were marched to the marketplace “with drums and pipes and great noise.” There, a bonfire was lit and all their books—mostly Protestant religious texts—burned.

Various opportunities for leaving were frustrated by official action, or inaction. “Perhaps religious motives also influenced the council to detain the Swedes,” wrote Johnson. “There was some hope of converting them to Catholicism if they remained on the island.” In April 1650, 25 surviving Swedes bought a small ship, but near St. Croix were waylaid by a French vessel, whose crew “fought like dogs” over their meager property. According to an account by Rudberus, the French governor staged a mock execution of several Swedes for amusement, then bound four men and hung them from hooks for two days and two nights until “their bodies were blue and the blood pressed out of the fingers.” Stiddem does not seem to have been among those tortured. “Our women and boys had concealed some money and pearls down in the ground,” said Rudberus, “which became known to the French, wherefore they tortured and tormented us fearfully, screwed off our fingers with pistol locks, burnt the feet of the women on red-hot iron plates.” One woman was raped by the governor, then killed.

In 1651, a Dutch ship rescued Rudberus, two women and two children. How Stiddem escaped was not recorded, only that—alone—he reached Amsterdam “in most miserable circumstances” and begged his way to Gothenburg from there. And then, amazingly, he sailed again. It’s what commuters do.

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