New Castle’s history is fascinating, as it is driven primarily by coincidences. It began in the 1650s when a dispute occurred between the Swedish and the Dutch over the land. Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New Netherland, built Fort Casimir on the land that he purchased from the Native Americans. What he later discovered, when hostility arose, was that this same land had already sold by the native peoples to Peter Minuet, representing the Swedish crown, in 1638. In 1654, the fort was captured by the Swedish and renamed Fort Trinity; but it was only a year before the Dutch gained control of the fort once more.
However, in 1663, all of this area became English territory. In 1664, King Charles II granted this land to Duke James of York –and the name was changed from New Amstel to New Castle. While the land was under English order for many years, it was eventually recaptured by the Dutch in 1673.
The ten-year period when New Castle was under English control was a fortunate mishap for the town. During this time, the English established a colonial court, resurveyed the streets, drained marshes for better land and built dykes to help stop flooding. All of this led to a stronger and more stable town, giving it the ability to play a prominent role in colonial history. However, this rebuilding effort decreased the military character of the town.
The prominence of New Castle lay in its setting along the Delaware River. This led to easy access for trading and commerce. Because of this, the town became a seat of government, and eventually the capital of Delaware. In fact, in 1681, a 12-mile arc was drawn around the town court to mark the New Castle County border.
For many years, the town was a center for commerce, surpassing Wilmington and competitive with Philadelphia. However, in 1824, with the fire that destroyed the George Read I House and many other homes on the Strand (the main street on the waterfront) the commercial industry was forced to turn to the railroad. This supported the town for some time. Small iron and textile factories were built in addition to a gas and water works and many new houses for workers.
Unfortunately, when Wilmington replaced out New Castle in 1881 as the county seat, the town lost its recognition and commerce began to decline. The Pennsylvania Railroad was built, but its route did not include the once important town of New Castle. Finally, in the 1950s the Delaware Memorial Bridge provided an alternate route to New Jersey that also bypassed the town.
-Researched by: Amy Cunningham