Not long ago, there were more than 400 national parks and monuments in the United States, but the state that started it all didn’t have a single one. In fact, in the 97 years since the National Parks Service was created, the First State was the only state that didn’t have a national park.
That changed in 2014, when the First State National Historical Park was established, linking historical sites in all three counties and highlighting the contributions of the three countries that settled in the state at different times. For more than 100 years the Swedish, the Dutch and the English took turns ruling Delaware, and the First State National Historical Park shows slices of what Colonial and pre-Colonial life was like from those three perspectives.
“We don’t have the grand monuments and parks like Devil’s Tower or Yosemite or Yellowstone,” says First State park superintendent Ethan McKinley. “The history of Delaware may not be seen so easily at a single site, but add it all together and what we have here in Delaware is something unique. And that is the story of three different peoples who were engaged in a power struggle and who, over time, created the history of Delaware and who still have a huge impact on our state today.”
There’s something else that Delaware’s national park has that many bigger and more famous national parks and monuments don’t have—accessibility.
“Our national park represents a new era of national parks,” says Blaine Phillips, a senior vice-president of The Conservation Fund, which was instrumental in securing the Beaver Valley portion of the park. “National parks today are as much about people as they are about place, and our park is about connecting people to the outdoors. And there are five million people living within 25 miles of our park.
“Take the Beaver Valley section, for example,” Phillips adds. “You can go there on your lunch break or visit on your way home from work. You don’t have to pack your suitcases and load up your car and drive for three or four hours. It’s in our backyard.”
Here’s a brief look at the First State Historical National Park, county by county. For more information, including hours of operation, fees and directions, go to the National Park Service website.
Fort Christina marks the spot where the Swedes first arrived in America.//Joe del Tufo
This is the largest section of the park, encompassing 1,100 acres around Brandywine Creek. William Penn acquired the land from the Duke of York in 1682 and the property was purchased in 1906 by William Bancroft, who made his fortune with his mills along the Brandywine. Located west of the busy U.S. 202 corridor, Beaver Valley offers unspoiled nature right next door to strip malls and traffic jams, and includes miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Its serene beauty has inspired generations of the Wyeth family of artists.
The Brandywine/Beaver valleys also offer a glimpse of history, including the birth of industrialization in America. The Brandywine’s shallow depth and fast-running water made it perfect for the milling industry and two families made huge fortunes taking advantage of that, the du Ponts and the Bancrofts. And one of the biggest battles of the American Revolution was fought near its banks in Pennsylvania in 1777, when George Washington’s army was routed by the British in the Battle of Brandywine.
This marks the spot along the Christina River in Wilmington where almost four centuries ago the Swedes first arrived in America aboard two ships, the Kalmar Nyckel and the Fogel Grip. Their leader, Peter Minuit, chose a place near the junction of the Brandywine and Christina rivers because it was a good place from which to trade with local Indians and also a good place to defend the Swedish settlers from hostile natives and/or Dutch.
Initially, the fort was just earthworks, but in 1647 it was completely rebuilt with a wooden palisade. But that didn’t stop the Dutch. In 1655, the Dutch, led by Peter Stuyvesant, laid siege to the fort and after 10 days Fort Christina surrendered, which ended Sweden’s short reign as a power in the New World. Stuyvesant renamed it Fort Altena.
In 1938, the 300th anniversary of the Swedes’ landing was celebrated by making Fort Christina into a park, and the ceremony was attended by President Franklin Roosevelt and Crown Prince Gustav Adolf of Sweden. In 1961, the fort was named as a National Historical Landmark.
Old Swedes Church
Close to Fort Christina, at 606 N. Church St. in Wilmington, Old Swedes Church was built in 1699 and is believed to be the oldest house of worship in continuous use in the United States. Also called Holy Trinity Church, it’s been an Episcopal Church parish since 1791. The graveyard on church grounds dates back to the 1630s and several members of the historic Bayard family are buried there, including James A. Bayard, a former U.S. senator who died in 1880, Richard Bayard, the first mayor of Wilmington who died in 1868, Thomas F. Bayard, secretary of state under President Grover Cleveland who died in 1898, and Thomas F. Bayard Jr., a U.S. senator who died in 1942.
In 1958, the Hendrickson House—built by Swedes in 1690—was moved to the church grounds and today serves as a museum highlighting the contributions of the Swedes in Delaware.
New Castle County Courthouse
Not far from the spot where William Penn landed in America for the first time in 1682, the New Castle County Courthouse, at 211 Delaware St. in New Castle, served as the capital building of Delaware until 1777. Built in 1732, it also housed the Delaware state assembly, which on June 15, 1776, voted to separate Delaware from England and Pennsylvania.
The courthouse was also where abolitionists Thomas Garrett and John Hunn were tried in 1848 for helping a family of slaves escape to freedom, a trial that was presided over by U.S. Chief Justice Roger Taney. Garrett was found guilty and fined $4,500, a debt that his friends helped pay off. In 2003, the New Castle County Courthouse was designated as a National Historic Underground Railroad Site by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Another interesting fact about the New Castle County Courthouse—its cupola served as the center of the 12-mile circular boundary between Delaware and Pennsylvania, which is the only curved state boundary in the U.S. The courthouse is now a museum.
The Green was the hub of business, political and social life in Dover during Colonial times.//Joe del Tufo
The Dover Green
In Colonial times, this was the hub of business, political and social life in Dover. The Green was and is surrounded by government buildings, shops and taverns that date back to the 18th century. One of those taverns, which doesn’t exist anymore, was The Golden Fleece Tavern, where, on Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware’s delegates ratified the Constitution of the United States before any other former colony, the act that made it the First State.
The Green was initially laid out by surveyors commissioned by William Penn in 1717 and it was primarily a market square until the middle of the 19th century, when it was converted into a park. The state capital was moved from New Castle to Dover in 1776—New Castle was too vulnerable to attack from the English navy—and the State House was built in 1787.
There are 79 historic buildings in the Green area, most of them brick Georgian architecture. They include the Eagle Tavern, the Kent County Courthouse, the King Douglass House and the Parke-Ridgely House, which is the oldest documented house in Dover—portions of it date back to 1728. Caesar Rodney once lived in a house at the corner of The Green and Bank Lane.
John Dickinson Plantation
The house was built on 13,000 acres in 1739 by Judge Samuel Dickinson, John Dickinson’s father. John Dickinson was one of Delaware’s delegates to the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, which was responsible for creating the Constitution.
Dickinson earned the nickname “Penman of the Revolution” because his writings did so much to inflame the colonists and incite them to revolt against England. His most well known work was Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies and it was Dickinson who penned the famous phrase “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” Ironically, despite his influence in fomenting revolution, Dickinson was in favor of reconciliation with England and abstained when Delaware voted to sign the Declaration of Independence and split from the British.
The Ryves Holt House
Believed to be the oldest house in Delaware, it was built in 1665 by the Dutch, about 30 years after the first settlers were massacred by Indians at Swanendael. Back then, the Dutch town was called “Hoerenkill” and it was renamed “Lewes” by William Penn in 1682, after a town by the same name in Sussex County, England.
In 1723, the house was purchased by Holt, the first chief justice of Sussex County. The Ryves Holt House was also once an inn and Jacob Jones, who earned distinction as a captain and commodore in the U.S. Navy during the war against the Barbary pirates and in the War of 1812, once lived there.
Today, the Ryves Holt House, located at the corners of Second and Mulberry streets, serves as Lewes Historical Society’s visitor center and museum gift shop.