If Delaware had a cartoon alter ego, it would be Speedy Gonzales. This miniature state—larger only than Rhode Island—has made its mark on American history by leaving bigger banditos in its dust.
For starters, Delaware raced past the 12 other colonies to ratify the Constitution, resulting in its status as the first US state. More firsts followed, including the first automated flour-milling system, the first regularly scheduled steam railroad and the first divided highway (the DuPont Highway, widened in 1933).
Delaware also has zoomed ahead of other states in recent years in digitizing its genealogical records. The Delaware Public Archives (DPA) (click on Digital Archives) boasts indexes and record images that will speed your research.
Want to follow in your First State ancestors’ footsteps? Here’s how to get your research off to a running start.
Dutch colonists staked out Delaware’s first European settlement in 1631, at modern-day Lewes. Their outpost didn’t last long, though: The next year, the entire group of 32 perished in a scuffle with the local Lenape Indians (also called the Delaware).
The settlers’ Swedish counterparts fared better. In 1638, Swedes established Fort Christina (now Wilmington) and dubbed their colony New Sweden. But the Dutch hadn’t yet given up on Delaware. Settlers from New Netherland (what’s now New York) challenged the Swedes, capturing Fort Christina in 1655. Then the Dutch found themselves fending off England—which overtook Delaware for good in 1674.
Eight years later, the Duke of York transferred Delaware to William Penn, who also was the proprietor of the new Quaker colony next door. Though it got its own assembly in 1704, for nine decades Delaware remained under Pennsylvania’s jurisdiction as the three “Lower Counties” (with Maryland claiming southern and western Delaware from 1684 to 1736). The Assembly of the Lower Counties of Pennsylvania declared Delaware’s independence in 1776, then pledged its allegiance to the United States.
Early land grants in what’s now Delaware were made in New York from 1664 until 1682, then Pennsylvania until 1776. The Delaware State Archives has microfilm of the Pennsylvania grants.
Today, Delaware has three counties: New Castle, created in 1673, is the only original county. Kent County, established in 1682, began as the Horrekill District (1664 to 1680), followed by a two-year stint as St. Jones County. Sussex County was also formed in 1682, from Durham County, Md., and Deale County, Del. County courts house deeds recording land transactions between private parties, and there’s an unindexed collection of Delaware county land records on subscription site Ancestry.com.
Many Delaware locales adopted new monikers over the years. For a list of place-name changes, go to New River Notes. Name changes also appear in the Delaware Genealogical Society’s Delaware Genealogical Research Guide (see the Toolkit for publication details).
If you don’t live in Delaware, you’ll need a crash course in “hundreds.” This Colonial tax-districting system is now unique to Delaware. Roughly equivalent to a township, a hundred likely represented an area occupied by 100 families, although some sources say it referred to 100 people or 100 soldiers. Delaware’s 33 present-day hundreds haven’t changed borders since 1897, and many bear the same names as cities.
The Delaware Geological Survey has posted historical maps of hundreds. Scanned from the 1869 Pomeroy and Beers Atlas, they show property ownership, churches and businesses. Tax assessment records are arranged by hundreds at the DPA. They’re available on microfilm and in published indexes; find a guide on the University of Delaware Libraries website. Don’t forget migrations. Delaware is situated on the Delmarva Peninsula, so named because it also encompasses parts of Maryland and Virginia. Some families moved multiple times within the peninsula, irrespective of state or colonial borders. Check surrounding areas (and states) in case your ancestors wandered down the coast, ventured inland or simply hopped over to the opposite shore of the Delaware River.
- The Delaware Historical Society (DHS) maintains a Genealogical Surname File with 120,000-plus names from the society’s record holdings. This includes unpublished notes on Delaware families.
- The Rev. Joseph Brown Turner Collection, compiled between 1900 and 1935, consists of notes on 3,000 Delmarva Peninsula families. The DPA owns the collection and has posted portions here.
More records to research
out ahead—just like your clan’s tiny home state.