How Did These Iconic Places in Delaware Get Their Names?

These places are well known in Delaware—but where exactly did their unusual monikers come from? We dug deep into local history to unearth the roots of some of our most iconic spots.

Fort Christina, Christina (Christiana) River and the Kalmar Nyckel

Wilmington

The Kalmar Nyckel, Wilmington’s famous ship, led an adventurous life even before she brought the first waves of Swedish settlers to the Delaware Valley in 1638.

Built by the Dutch in 1627, she served as an auxiliary warship for the Swedish navy, carrying 12 cannons into battle at sea. Her role in the New Sweden Co. and its headquarters in Kalmar—a strategic Swedish city on the Baltic Sea—earned her the name Kalmar Nyckel, or the “Key of Kalmar.”

Swedish colonists docked in 1638 and named the waterway and their first fort Christina after the 16-year-old Queen Christina, whose government helped finance the trip.

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Kalmar Nyckel
Kalmar Nyckel. Moonloop Photography.

At some point during British rule in the late 1600s, Christina morphed into Christiana, which lent its name to a town (and eventually a mall, a school, a hospital and more). But in 1938, Delaware legislators changed the name of the river back to Christina to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Kalmar Nyckel’s landing. (The town of Christiana, however, had no interest in changing back.)

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many other dignitaries came up for it,” says Jan Ross, director of marketing public relations for the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation.

Keep a lookout for the ship on Fourth of July weekend around Wilmington and Historic New Castle.

Zwaanendael

Lewes

When Dutch colonists first landed near modern-day Lewes in 1631, they named their settlement—the first European one in Delaware—Swanendael, “an archaic Dutch word that roughly translates to valley of the swans,” explains its site supervisor Devon Filicicchia. As the Dutch language evolved over the centuries, Swanendael became Zwaanendael.

Zwaanendael
Zwaanendael. Moonloop Photography.

But why swans?

There is no record of a massive swan population in the area, Filicicchia says. “But a theory we have [is] that maybe when they landed here, they didn’t see flocks of swans but populations of snow geese that you would see if you landed here in winter. Also, it’s just a pretty name.” Today, the Zwaanendael Museum, fashioned after a Dutch town hall, serves as a showcase for Lewes-area maritime, military and social history.

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Marian Coffin Gardens at Gibraltar

Wilmington

Landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin was a trailblazer. One of only four women enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1901, she opened her own architectural firm in 1905 after being rejected by male-led companies in New York City.

Marian Coffin Gardens at Gibraltar
Marian Coffin Gardens at Gibraltar. Photo by Ashley Breeding.

According to the nonprofit Preservation Delaware, “Coffin made a name for herself as an imaginative, fresh and dynamic architect, bringing an unprecedented flair to landscape design.”

In 1916, Coffin landed a contract to create the gardens for a prominent Wilmington couple, Hugh Rodney Sharp and his wife, Isabella Mathieu du Pont Sharp. They had recently purchased a stately 19th-century mansion called Gibraltar, which included 80 acres of land.

Coffin went full kaleidoscopic on Gibraltar, which was named after the famous Mediterranean landmark due to the property’s rocky, elevated position, according to the National Register of Historic Places. She envisioned outdoor mansions that matched the color and vibrancy of the home, awash in flowers, blooming bushes and cypresses, as well as statues from around the world and a curved marble staircase.

Today, the gardens are considered the best-preserved example of Coffin’s work in the nation.

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Granogue

Centreville

A sweeping 500-acre estate along the Brandywine, Granogue is owned by the renowned du Pont family. It includes active farmland and a nearly 40,000-square-foot Colonial Revival mansion first constructed in 1923 for Irénée du Pont Sr. and his family.

Longwood Gardens acquired the land this year—meaning Granogue, one of the largest plots of unspoiled land in New Castle County, could one day open its gates to public visitors.

Granogue
Granogue. Moonloop Photography.

Influential family member Col. Henry A. du Pont is said to be credited for naming the estate, explains Patricia Evans of Longwood.

The same way he honored du Pont properties like Winterthur and Cossart, he named Granogue after a small French town that doesn’t appear on modern maps.

Mt. Cuba

Hockessin

The late 1800s were a boon for Mt. Cuba, a small community in the hills of the Delaware Piedmont, just outside Wilmington and Hockessin. Amid rolling farmland, a newly built railway brought skilled workers into town to ply their trades at prosperous gristmills and sawmills, according to the National Register of Historic Places.

Mt. Cuba
Mt. Cuba. Photo by Ashley Breeding.

Mt. Cuba also marks one of the highest elevations in the state, making it a perfect spot for both stargazing and sunbathing. In 1935, Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife, Pamela Cunningham Copeland, purchased more than 120 acres of land to develop their home and, eventually, the illustrious Mt. Cuba Center and gardens.

In 1964, a handful of DuPont engineers completed construction on the renowned Mt. Cuba Astronomical Observatory.

“The house is located atop one of the state’s highest points…from which the estate derived its name,” says Martha Boyd, Mt. Cuba Center’s librarian and archivist.

The “mount” part seems relatively easy to discern; the origins of Cuba seem more elusive. One local researcher, Walt Chiquoine, speculates the name might trace all the way back to a stately mansion in 1730s Ireland known as the Cuba House, a thread shared by one of Mt. Cuba’s original landowners, Con Hollahan.

Woodburn Mansion

Dover

Built around 1798 by Charles Hillyard III (the son-in-law of William Killen, Delaware’s first chancellor), Woodburn Mansion has been one of Kent County’s grandest estates throughout the centuries. Today, it is where Delaware’s governor resides.

Woodburn Mansion
Ashley Breeding

The house was originally referred to only as “Hillyard’s mansion,” according to Ashley Dawson, deputy director of communications for Gov. John Carney’s office, who supplied archival documentation gathered by First State Heritage Park. The name Woodburn doesn’t appear in writing until an 1845 letter penned by a member of the Cowgill family, who owned the house at the time. Could the name be a reference to the mansion’s beautiful interior woodworking, most of which is still preserved from the 18th century?

Cannonball House

Lewes

A small panic erupted in the quiet beach town last year when a famous replica cannonball went missing from the wall of the 200-year-old building where it was usually lodged. Thankfully, the cannonball was returned a few days later to retake its role as an unofficial town mascot—a symbol of Lewes’ historic roots and perseverance.

Cannonball House
Cannonball House. Moonloop Photography.

The house is classic Lewes, with indigenous cypress and cedar wood-shingle siding. Its storied history includes seeing action and sustaining damage in the War of 1812 during the bombardment of Lewes by the British in April 1813. Today, it serves as the Lewes Maritime Museum (where you can find the original cannonball).

Johnson Victrola Museum

Dover

As a high schooler, Wilmington-born Eldridge Reeves Johnson was deemed “too Goddamned dumb to go to college” by the head of the Delaware Academy, according to his biography, so he found himself work as an apprentice at a machine repair shop in Philly circa 1883.

But Johnson was no dummy, and in the 1890s, he set off to improve the myriad design flaws of the gramophone—the hand-cranked record player of yesteryear. Johnson’s spring-based motor (later refined with a centrifugal element) eliminated the need for cranking, helping to evolve the music-listening experience.

He continued revolutionizing the industry, improving upon the recording and manufacturing processes themselves and eventually co-founding the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901, which went on to become one of the preeminent recording companies in the history of American music. (Its roots are still alive today as RCA Records.)

Find phonographs, recordings, paintings and plenty of Nipper—the company’s iconic mascot pup—at the museum in Dover.

Related: 5 Native Flowers Perfect for Your Delaware Garden

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