New Sweden on the Delaware


by Burt Froom

West Mt. Airy:  Yesterday and Today

October, 2013  (Article 11)

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In 1637, Swedish colonists, recruited by the Swedish West India Company, were the first European settlers in the Delaware Valley. They called their colony New Sweden.  I remember my surprise in elementary school when I first learned that Sweden had a colony in the United States!  What was their story?  What contribution did they make to our region?


This was the time of the longest and most destructive war fought in Europe until the First World War: the Thirty Years’ War, fought from 1618 to 1648. All the major European countries – Austria, France, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, and the numerous little principalities that made up Germany – waged constant warfare against each other for a full generation. At first it was Protestants against Catholics, then France against Austria.  Sweden first came to prominence under the brilliant general king Gustavus II Adolphus (king, 1611 – 1632). Under Gustavus, the Baltic Sea became a Swedish lake for a century.

This war killed an estimated seven to eleven million people in Germany and Austria¬ at least one-third of Germany’s population of 22 million in 1600. Marauding armies stole food from the peasants, and destroyed villages and cities. There was wide-spread starvation.  The bubonic plague visited again, and so did typhus and scurvy. In Germany, 18,000 villages were destroyed, and one-third of all German towns. It took over a century for Germany to recover. People became homeless refugees. Many refugees from the Palatinate region, including Cresheim, came to live in Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. So the Thirty Years’ War partly explains the existence of Germantown, Pennsylvania as a refuge from war and disease.

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) confirmed that the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe was saved.  In addition, the Holy Roman Empire remained a weak chaos of 200 principalities; Sweden became a great continental power; the Catholic Church was weakened; and religion suffered skepticism bred by war and famine. This was the setting for the birth of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia.  Let us now meet Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden and his daughter Christina who played such a large role in the age of the Thirty Years’ War.


Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632) became king of Sweden at age 16.  By age 12, he had learned to speak Latin, Italian and Dutch. He was handsome, courteous, generous, merciful, intelligent, and brave. He controlled the nobility, reorganized Sweden’s government, expanded education and manufacturing, and promoted foreign commerce. He was called the “Lion of the North,” and was the leader of all Protestant states. His victories over the German Empire on the battlefield made him very popular in Sweden, but he was killed in 1632, at age 38, at the battle of Lutzen (which the Swedes won in great sorrow).


King Gustavus Adolphus reigned 1611-1632

Queen Christina reigned 1632-1654

Gustavus’ daughter, and only surviving child, Christina (1626-1689), became queen at age six. During her childhood, Count Axel Oxenstierna was her regent, and it was said that during that period no country in Europe had a better government. In 1644, at 18, Christina assumed control of Sweden, a nation of a million and a half souls.

Historian Will Durant says that she liked wearing men’s clothing, indulged in masculine sports, and neglected feminine ornament. She swore lustily. She herself said, “I was suspicious, ambitious, but hot tempered, proud, impatient, and contemptuous,” but she was generous and faithful to her tasks. She slept only three or four hours a night and spent five hours a day reading. At age 14, she knew German, French, Italian and Spanish. Later, she studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic. She corresponded with scholars, scientists and philosophers.

Christina lived as a child queen. She was long regarded by historians as an enigma because it was thought that she chose the masculine clothing and life style. But we are learning from recent scholarship that her choices were directed by Count Oxenstierna. Christina seems to have seen herself as acting as the king without a personal life, and as belonging to the Swedish state. She had to emphasize her masculine side in order to survive as queen. Now she is seen as a visionary, one of the first modern women, because she abdicated her throne and changed her faith and escaped to Rome, so she could choose her own life.

Christina was a friend of the philosopher René Descartes and, persuaded by her excellent written French, she convinced him to come to live at her court in cold Stockholm. But teaching the queen at 5:30 in the morning brought on pneumonia, and the philosopher king, Descartes, died at age 54, when Christina was 26. She mourned. Christina was “one of the most enlightened rulers in history.” She made her own decisions as queen. She did not marry, despite her many suitors, because, reportedly, she knew that a husband would want to be king. She saw marriage as subjugation. She determined to become a Catholic after a severe illness. Then in 1654, after 22 years on the throne, Christina chose her successor, abdicated, and left Stockholm.

West Mt Airy resident and friend of mine, artist and playwright Martha Kearns has written a play called “King Christina.” I have read scenes of this exploration of the fascinating Christina. I asked Martha about the reasons for her interest in Queen Christina. She told me, “The human spirit has been supported by the strength of heroes. Christina was a hero in overcoming the obstacles of the Thirty Years’ War by peaceful means, and by choosing her own life.” If any readers of this column would like to know more about Martha Kearns’ play “King Christina,” please contact me at


King Gustavus Adolphus and Queen Christina were the driving force behind the vision of New Sweden that was founded in 1637. The early settlers were drawn from Sweden’s multi-ethnic Baltic empire, and from the Netherlands, England and north German states, and from Sweden’s Finnish provinces. The colony’s first governor was Peter Minuit (1580-1638), who had been governor of New Netherland (now New York) when in 1626 he famously bought Manhattan Island for the Dutch from the Lenape Indians for 24 dollars. Unfortunately, Minuit soon lost his life when a hurricane in the West Indies destroyed his ship on a voyage back to Europe. New Sweden had to cope with constant adversity. During its 18 year existence, only nine ships arrived from Sweden with food and supplies, and the colony was largely abandoned because Sweden was preoccupied with the costs of its military campaigns in Europe.

To answer this challenge, Governor Johan Printz (1592-1663) assumed an authoritarian role. He was a huge man – over 400 pounds. The Lenape called him “big belly.” He had a fierce temper, drank heavily, and tolerated no opposition. He did not trust the Native Americans. The arrival of Peter Stuyvesant in New Amsterdam (Manhattan), a formidable combat veteran, with as tempestuous a personality as Printz, altered the colonial dynamics. The resentment at Printz’s overbearing manner among the independent woodland encampments soon exploded into open rebellion. Printz left New Sweden in 1653 on a Dutch ship. After the short governorship of Johan Risingh, Stuyvesent sailed with 317 soldiers to Fort Christina, the center of New Sweden. After a siege of three weeks, Governor Risingh capitulated to the Dutch in 1653.


We must note the place in New Sweden given to the ethnically distinct Finns, were about half of the population of 600 in 1655. They were a migratory people based on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Bothnia, dwelling in dense forests in Finland and Sweden, practicing slash and burn agriculture of nutritious rye, barley, and turnips. These Finns were disrespectful of government, suspicious, and lacked regularity at work.

The log cabin of our frontier was the gift of the Finns who built houses of logs in America that were notched, trimmed, and stacked in interlocking rows. Spaces between logs were filled with moss, clay, and oak chips for insulation. The floor of their one-and two-room cabins had two layers of wood. They built fireplaces with brick walls and wooden chimneys. The Finns of New Sweden colonists had much in common with the Lenape people who were also nomads, living in deep forests and going on long hunts. The Delaware region was thus a natural environment for the Finnish colonists. After 1664, Swedish and Finnish colonists were welcomed by the new English government of the Duke of York, as they were under William Penn later.

During a recent visit to the American Swedish Historical Museum in South Philadelphia (, I learned from its detailed presentations and informed staff members about the rich contributions of New Sweden to the culture of the nascent Pennsylvania. The Swedes established good relations with the Lenape, starting in 1638, and those associations paved the way for the good relations that William Penn was able to establish with the Lenape. Also, many Swedes knew the Lenape language, and Swedes were involved in introducing the Lenape and the English to each other. Swedes were also successful farmers in Delaware Valley. They demonstrated to new settlers that they could feed themselves in this new world. The Lenape and Swedes learned they could work together.


What heritage remains from the Swedes in present day Philadelphia? Several street and neighborhood names come from the days of New Sweden: According to Robert Alotta, Christian Street refers to Queen Christina, Queen Village is named for Queen Christina. But Queen Lane, according to Alotta, is named, for the Indian Queen Tavern. Swanson Street took its name from Lieutenant Swen Shtge (later Swanson) to whom Queen Christina gave eight-hundred acres of land in 1654 that embraced the Kingsessing, Passyunk and Wiccaco (meaning “Peaceful Place) areas with Native American names, according to Alotta. Upsal Street is named for Upsala, the mansion across Germantown Avenue from Cliveden mansion. It was named in the 19th century for Upsalla, the university city in Sweden where Queen Christina abdicated in 1654.


Let us rejoin ex-Queen Christina for her journey by carriage to Rome in 1654. She was celebrated in Catholic cities of Italy and was welcome by the Pope. Her conversion from Protestantism was a triumph for the Counter Reformation. There were splendid Baroque festivities with fireworks and elephants. The 29 year-old Christina was the subject of much gossip for her close relationship with the Cardinal Decio Azzolino. It is said that they were in love with each other’s minds, and they had a life-long friendship. She moved to the Palazzo Farnese and befriended the sculptor-painter-architect, Bernini. Christina lived an extravagant life of her own choosing for 35 years after her abdication, and she remained rebellious and tolerant.


We’ll conclude this exploration of New Sweden with a visit to Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church (, Pennsylvania’s oldest church, built 1698-1700. It is located in Queen Village, named for Queen Christina, and Philadelphia’s oldest neighborhood. It is the only remaining building constructed by Swedish settlers, and recalls the neighborhood’s maritime past. The distinguished Lutheran missionary, Johannes Campanius dedicated the original log church on Tinicum Island in 1646. Companius translated Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the very first book published in the Algonquian language of the Lenapes. Gloria Dei began as a Lutheran church and is now an active religious Episcopalian congregation.

Here, on nearly four acres of land donated in 1654 by Swen Swenson (later Swanson), are brick walks, tall trees and the 313 year old building creating a spacious and quiet refuge against the uproar of truck traffic outside. The church was built of Flemish bond and black-header brick by English carpenters and masons in a mixture of medieval and gothic influences. These may be seen in the use of glazed brick headers, the steep slope of the roof, the narrow tower windows, and the steep pedimented gable. The sanctuary has soaring balconies, light from many windows, and the baptismal font is older than the church. You should visit this relic of the days of New Sweden!



Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church

Robert Alotta, Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer:
The Stories behind Philadelphia Street Names (Chicago, 1990)
Bernard Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, 1600-1675 (New York, 2012)
Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, The Age of Reason Begins, Volume VII (New York, 1961)
Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII (New York, 1963)
The Foundation for Architecture. Philadelphia Architecture: A Guide to the City, (Philadelphia, 1994)
Christopher Hibbert, Rome: The Biography of a City (New York, 1985)
The Foundation for Architecture. Philadelphia Architecture: A Guide to the City, 1994 Wikipedia