By Lorin Felter, Interpretation & Education Coordinator, First State National Historical Park
Have you heard of First State National Historical Park yet? If not, that’s probably because it’s one of the newest national parks in the system. With our establishment in 2013, Delaware was the final piece of the national park puzzle. Now all 50 states have a national park unit! First State is made up of seven sites throughout Delaware that collectively tell stories of courageous historical figures, epic journeys, and ideas of freedom, conservation, and prosperity that shaped the nation’s first state.
The story begins in 1631 when Dutch settlers arrived in current-day Lewes, Delaware, in search of a fresh start in the New World. Explore the history of their Swanendael settlement, named for the beautiful swans found in the area, at the Delaware’s oldest house, the Ryves Holt House. Swedish and Finnish settlers followed in 1638, landing at “the rocks” on the Christina River in the area now known as Wilmington. A monument marking the site of their Fort Christina settlement and the Old Swedes Church around the corner are reminders of the early Swedish influence on Delaware.
Historic New Castle is the site of the first steps William Penn made on American soil. In 1682, Penn, who famously founded Pennsylvania, arrived to take control of his new “Three Lower Counties on the Delaware River,” which King Charles II granted to Penn as a repayment of debt. Penn spared no time in exploring his newly acquired lands. He headed south from New Castle, ordering the city of Dover to be laid out that same year. Penn established it as the Kent County seat, and eventual capital for Delaware.
The Dover Green, which served as the courthouse square, was the place for market fairs, protests, grievances, and celebrations throughout the years. Tour the Green to hear the stories of Caesar Rodney’s all-night horseback ride from Dover to Philadelphia through treacherous storms to ratify the Declaration of Independence and of the 30 men who “Fully, Freely, and Entirely” ratified the fledgling nation’s new constitution on December 7, 1787, at the Golden Fleece Tavern. The constitution was returned to Philadelphia, first, before any other state, thus securing Delaware’s position as the “First State!”
Many of First State National Historical Park’s sites have a special connection with the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Visit the New Castle Courthouse and Museum in New Castle to learn the history of abolitionists like Thomas Garnett and John Hunn, who were both tried in the courthouse for helping enslaved people escape to Pennsylvania. At the John Dickinson Plantation in Dover, learn how the “Penman of the American Revolution” grappled with his pacifist Quaker roots and fought a revolution for equality while owning slaves.
Quakers throughout Delaware have led the way in many causes. William Bancroft, a devout Quaker, established textile mills during the Industrial Revolution with fair and decent labor standards before that was a common practice. Because of him, Beaver Valley has been preserved and maintained in perpetuity to look the way it did one hundred years ago.
Join us for exciting programs throughout the year at all seven sites. You can watch spinning, weaving, and knitting demonstrations at the John Dickinson Plantation; celebrate the first Independence Day at Historic New Castle; gather for a vintage baseball game in Lewes; even be a “citizen scientist” at a BioBlitz! We have six passport cancellation stamp locations for all seven of our sites, including the special edition Centennial stamp and for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.