Murders Mysteries & Misadventures

Field of Bones: The Bloody Settlement of Delaware

lewes delaware house

lewes delaware house

Spot the old air tank for diving?

Ship in Lewes Delaware

Lewes [pronounced Lou-is, like the town in England] is a beach town in Delaware. At first it was a ship town and a fishing town. And today it still is a fishing town a little bit. But mostly it is a beach and tourist town now, and a very historical one at that. If you’re from the East Coast in America you’re probably more familiar, at least in name, with its louder and flashier neighbor Rehoboth Beach.


My only surviving photo of Rehoboth 🙁 because they’ve all been sadly lost. The people at the bottom right are walking on the boardwalk.

Rehoboth has the boardwalk but Lewes has the history. They’re worked hard at preserving their historical properties and houses there. And they have printed “The First Town in The First State” on nearly everything (if you’re unfamiliar with American history, Delaware was the first official state but not the first part of America settled by Europeans. Still, it made me wonder how Lewes was settled and for that we need to go back to the 1600’s…if you’re European that’s not so long ago but for Americans that’s old!

lewes delaware house

In January of 1633 a small Dutch ship arrived on the Christina River.* On board was a Dutch sea captain and experienced soldier, David de Vries. De Vries’ job was to oversee a brand new colony on the Delaware River the Dutch had named Swanendael (now Lewes), named for the fat swans around the area.

*There are two ways to pronounce this. It was originally Christina [Chris-tina] but somehow over the years became [Christy-anna]. When the Swedish royalty came to Delaware a few years ago  for the anniversary of settling the area the local politicians tried to get everyone to return to the original, and now obsolete pronunciation, because it had been named for the Swedish queen at the time. Anyway, it never really took but occasionally you’ll hear it said like the original name [Chris-tina].

lewes delaware house

lewes delaware house

The area had been claimed by the Dutch Republic and Swanendael was to be their whaling outpost for the Dutch West India Company.

Five years later the Dutch’s rivals, the Swedes, would make their first permanent settlement in the New World not far from where De Vries was now settling. But that wasn’t his problem yet; instead, the British were. The Brits were attempting to extend their territories from Virginia where they’d settled Jamestown 26 years before.

lewes delaware house

You’d think with the British problem and the Swedish one on the horizon that de Vries had his hands full. Swanendael had only recently been established and settled by 28 people, he now had to handle their rivals, place new colonists there and oversee the entire settlement. Some accounts say de Vries received word that there had been an Indian massacre in the new settlement when he first landed in New York, others say he’d known since before he’d left Europe.

Either way, he sailed immediately to assess the damage for his own eyes and hoped to speak to any survivors and find that the news had been exaggerated. When he arrived he found the settlement completely burned, everyone massacred and the settlers bones and skulls bleaching in the field where they’d be slaughtered while hoeing tobacco and grain. In a way he had just met his new biggest problems: warring Indian tribes.

lewes delaware house

lewes delaware house dolls

Some slightly scary dolls waving from the window!

The reason for the massacre is not known for sure because there were no survivors but other local Indians told de Vries that the event had been triggered by a disagreement. An Indian(account differ here too as to which tribe he came from) had stolen a coat of arms from the Dutch. While the Dutch were angry they were horrified when the Indian’s severed head was presented to them by his tribe who had killed him for his crime. The Dutch had been rude according to the tribe in not being pleased with their justice and the slain Indian’s friends were not happy that he had been killed. With tempers high they organized the massacre in revenge.

lewes delaware house

lewes delaware house flowers

After this discovery, the Dutch spent weeks sailing the Delaware River looking for food supplies, especially corn and beans, from any Indians who would engage with them. He attributed the massacre to the settlers botched contact with the Indians. A few times de Vries narrowly escaped being killed as he sought food. The Lenape Indians of the area were terrified of the Minquas who had sent war parties against them and were actually the tribe that had massacred the Swanendael settlers. During this wartime, the Lenape had no food to give the Dutch. The Minquas had already burned their houses and crops down too.


This is the historical society’s headquarters, the Ryves Holt House, and the oldest house in Lewes. You can see the addition if you look at the shingles right over the doorway.

Eventually de Vries was forced to travel to Virginia to buy supplies from his rivals, the British, so that he could travel back home to Holland. Not one to be put off by failure, de Vries returned to America and established a settlement in New York (which is Staten Island now). In the mid-1640’s he returned to Holland for good but you can see his statue on top of the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes today (the building was built on the 300th anniversary of the settlement as part of the New Deal programs during the Great Depression and is modeled after the a city hall in the Netherlands). If I hadn’t lost all of my pictures from Lewes we could see it closer but you can make out where it is in the one photo I still have of the museum.


Here’s the museum in Lewes. Look to the very top to see de Vries.

Sources: 1, 2