375th Anniversary of New Sweden Sparks Historic Quest

News courtesy of Robin Brown, for Delawareonline -- The search is on for the fort built by Delaware’s first permanent settlers, with researchers determined to solve a mystery left by Swedes and Finns who landed here 375 years ago.

The location of Fort Christina – the first permanent structure guarding the state’s first permanent European colony, New Sweden – was lost to time generations ago.

And soon, Sweden’s king and queen will start the dig for the traces of the settlers’ first arrival in the New World via the Christina River.

Just determining where the fort stood would be “historic by its very nature,” said Edward Harris, a prominent archaeologist credited with finding more than 90 colonial forts.

And possible fort remnants and artifacts? “Even better,” Harris said.

No trace of the fort has ever surfaced, said Sam Heed, director of education and senior historian of the educational Kalmar Nyckel Foundation. In fact, those leading the search have little more than a sketch on a centuries-old map to guide them.

Excitement for the hunt, Heed said, is fueled by the simple fact that no serious effort ever was mounted to find it.

Heed smiled, adding, “Until now.”

A ceremonial start

On Wilmington’s Seventh Street Peninsula, Fort Christina State Park was created in 1937-38 for the 300th anniversary of the landing. It includes a stone outcrop called “The Rocks,” which formed a natural wharf for the ship Kalmar Nyckel.

Historians know the fort was near the landing site. But no one knows if it stood inside or beyond the brick walls of the park, a national historic landmark now open only for special events.

When the park opens this spring for one such occasion, the archaeological dig for the fort will officially begin, in a royal and symbolic way.

In May, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden, along with Finland’s Speaker of the Parliament Eero Heinäluoma, will turn the first shovelfuls of dirt in the quest to find the fort.

The dig could take many years, run up a steep tab and fall short of finding artifacts or structural remains, even if the fort site is located, noted Craig Lukezic, state archaeologist for the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs since 2003 and president of the Archaeological Society of Delaware, at a recent Kalmar Nyckel Foundation lecture series event.

There is a good chance, he said, that the whole find-the-fort effort could turn out like Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s vault – lots of buildup, not much to look at.

Preliminary efforts – in collaboration with the state and archaeologists Wade P. Catts, Peter Leach and Bill Chadwick of John Milner Associates of West Chester, Pa. – yielded no sign of the fort, Lukezic said.

Ground-penetrating radar found massive amounts of fill, he said. Deep core samples drilled by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control to check for hazardous materials revealed that much of the site had been marshland that was filled in by the 1850s, he said. If the fort had stood in the marshy area, he said, no evidence of it is likely to remain.

Lukezic said test trenches could be the next archaeological step. The trenches probably would be located in a small area of land believed to have been left intact without extensive fill, he said.

Lukezic, a Delaware State University adjunct professor and a founder of the Early Colonial Symposium of the Delaware Valley, has led many archaeological studies at sites including other colonial forts from the era of Swedish and Dutch control of the Delaware Valley, such as Fort Casimir in New Castle.

1654 map best clue

The main reference historians and archaeologists have for the fort, many agree, is a 1654 map by Peter Lindeström – more than 3 feet wide and preserved in Sweden – with a sketch of Fort Christina under the Swedish flag on an outcropping in the Christina River. Heed noted that the jutting end of The Rocks was reduced by blasting to aid shipping.

Shown sticking way into the river on the Lindeström map, the fort is sketched as “a very common type,” basically a square with corners bulged out for armed fortification, Lukezic said.

Finding its on-the-ground spot is growing on Lukezic. After a longtime attitude of not digging “unless we can learn something,” he said, “I’m coming around to see that just proving it was there is important.”

He no longer thinks Harris may be overstating the case by calling the hunt for Fort Christina “vital to history.” Harris said an archaeological dig would be destined to produce unexpected results because every dig is unique.

For example, he said, one of his digs began with the removal of a parking lot, and archaeologists found the first artifacts stuck to the back of the blacktop.

While the riverside location might seem to suggest the fort was lost to water damage, Harris said some historic materials such as wood and leather actually can be preserved by coastal water.

But first, before consideration of artifacts, he said, the fort must be found. After that, a detailed plan would need to be developed for aspects from nuts-and-bolts excavation to long-term preservation of artifacts.

And there’s funding. A dig could cost a few to several million dollars depending on its size and complexity, he said.

Any stage could take years or each one could, he said, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of the quest, of a kind that is becoming more common.

A colonial trend

Fueled by successes and high-profile digs such as those at the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, growing public interest has helped raise the profile of colonial fort archaeology, Harris said.

At the Christina River’s edge, he gazed around with a smile. His eyes settled on a chunk of The Rocks, put up by the Delaware Society of the Colonial Dames of America for the 1903 landing anniversary, then built into the brick wall when the state created the park.

He said its text, all-capitalized, aptly conveys the site’s significance and the fort’s centrality to the New Sweden colony:

“This stone is a portion of The Rocks on which landed the first Swedish colonists in America 29 March 1638. On this spot stood Fort Christina. Here the Swedes held their first civil courts and in the chapel of the fort celebrated their first Christian worship in the New World.”

Now all they have to do is find the fort.

375th Anniversary Events

April 13 – Colonists’ Day at Fort Christina National Historic Landmark, 1122 E. Seventh St., Wilmington, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. with activities at nearby Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church and its annex. 11 a.m. first-landing wreath ceremony at the Carl Milles Monument. Re-enactors, period music, colonial crafts, games, exhibits. Free, donations welcome. Crafts, food on sale. Tours of Kalmar Nyckel, educational re-creation of settlers’ ship, $5 for adults, $3 under 18. Hosted by New Sweden Centre, supported by Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, Old Swedes Foundation, Delaware Swedish Colonial Society.

April 20 – “Trial of Capt. Sven Skute.” Re-enactment of trial of a Swedish officer blamed for loss of Fort Trinity and surrender of New Sweden to the Dutch. 1 p.m. Old State House, 25 The Green, Dover. Free, reservations required at 744-5055. Hosted by Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. 

May 4 – “The Early Colonial Delaware Valley: An Archaeological Symposium,” presentations include archaeologist Craig Lukezic on the hunt for Fort Christina. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., New Castle Court House Museum, 211 Delaware St., New Castle.
May 4-11 – 375th Anniversary Display, Delaware Public Archives, 121 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. North, Dover. Details: www.archives.delaware.gov. 

May 9 – “Royal Ship Kronan: The Archaeology and Development of Swedish Naval Power in the 17th Century.” Lars Einarsson, director of the Kronan Project at Kalmar Lans Museum, talks about the sunken warship found in 1980 off Sweden’s coast. Third in 2013 Kalmar Nyckel Foundation Lecture Series. Reception 6 p.m., lecture 7-8:30 p.m., Dravo Auditorium, Chase Center on the Riverfront, Justison Street, Wilmington. $15 at the door. Advance discount tickets at http://www.kalmarnyckel.org. 

May 10 – Book release and signing, “New Sweden on the Delaware: A Photographic Tour of Historic Sites of America’s First Swedes and Finns,” photographs by Ken Peterson, text by Kim-Eric Williams. Hosted by Swedish Colonial Society. 5-7 p.m., DoubleTree Wilmington Downtown, 700 King St., Wilmington. 

May 11 – Visit by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden – and Finland’s Speaker of the Parliament Eero Heinäluoma – in celebration of 375th anniversary.

  • Symposium: “Making It In America – Finnish and Swedish Success Stories,” 9-10:30 a.m. Independence Seaport Museum, Penn’s Landing, Philadelphia
  • Finnish Monument Ceremony – 11 a.m. Finnish Monument, Concord Avenue, Chester, Pa.
  • Welcome to Wilmington – 2-5 p.m. Dravo Plaza on the Riverfront, Wilmington
  • Landing at The Rocks and Ceremony – 2:30-4 p.m. Fort Christina Park, Wilmington 

Contact writer Robin Brown at 324-2856 or [email protected].

Photo depicts The Fort Christina National Historic Landmark on East 7th Street in Wilmington. Photo credit Jennifer Corbet for The News Journal.