Lewes, Delaware - As the First Town in the First State and one of the oldest settlements in America, Lewes has a long and colorful history. Following are a few facts and figures to help you become quickly acquainted with the area.

Lewes, Delaware - Town History

Discovered by Henry Hudson on a voyage up the Delaware River in August, 1609, and first settled by the Dutch in 1631, the historic seaport of Lewes (pronounced Loo-iss), Delaware, can tell some of the richest history of any location in the United States.

The First Town in the First State, Lewes boasts old homes and structures that date back to the late 1600s and early 1700s. It has also been the scene of historic battles and has been visited by infamous pirates such as Captain Kidd.

The town was originally settled by 32 Dutchmen, but all were massacred by a local tribe of Lenni Lenape Indians following a disagreement over a coat of arms that had been stolen by an Indian from the Dutch settlement. The Dutch became more furious when the tribe slayed the Indian who stole the piece and presented his head to them. At the same time, friends of the slain Indian were so upset that he had been killed they massacred the settlement in 1632 in revenge.

The area was permanently settled by the Dutch in 1658 when they set up a new trading post called Sekonnessinck. Another colony was established by a group of Mennonites under Peter Cornelis Plockhoy in 1663. The Plockhoy Colony was destroyed by the English a year later.

The Dutch reclaimed the area in 1673, but just six months later surrendered it back to the English for good. The territory which is now Delaware was conveyed to William Penn in 1682. It was then that the town was named Lewes in honor of a town in Sussex County, England.

Throughout, Lewes has relied on the sea for its existence. Home to an excellent harbor, it remains an East Coast port of call and home to a large fleet of fishing boats. It is the base of the Delaware Bay and River Pilots Association. Members of the association guide cargo vessels to and from the ports of Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia.


Interesting Facts About Lewes

Important Dates in Lewes History

As the First Town in the First State and one of the oldest settlements in America, Lewes has a long and colorful history. Following are a few facts and figures to help you become quickly acquainted with the area.

Early Names of Lewes

  • Sikomess or Sikeoyness, after the Indians who lived there
  • Swanendael, by Dutch settlers in 1631
  • Hoorn, during the second David DeVries expedition
  • Whorekill, by the English in 1664
  • Deale, by the English
  • Lewes, in 1682, by the English in honor of the town Lewes in Sussex County, England

Earliest Known Permanent Settler

The earliest permanent settler in Lewes was probably Helmanus Fredrick Wiltbanck. Born in Sweden in 1641, Wiltbanck settled in the area around 1658-59.

A County Seat

Lewes served as the county seat of Sussex County until the seat was moved to Georgetown in 1791. The county courthouse stood on a corner of the present graveyard of St. Peter's Episcopal Church at Second and Market streets.


Lewes had a checkered association with pirates along the Atlantic seaboard in the late 1600s. Pirates raided the town in 1690 and 1698. Finally, a law was passed requiring all citizens to own a musket and ammunition for protection from future raids. Legend also has it that the famous pirate, Captain Kidd, buried a chest of gold in the Cape Henlopen sand dunes during a visit in 1700 on his trip to the West Indies. And the pirate Blueskin was Levi West, the step-son of a respected miller who lived in Lewes in 1750.

A Town of Governors

Because of its importance in the early life of Delaware, the town produced six of the state's governors in the 19th century.

  • Colonel David Hall -- A Revolutionary War patriot and lawyer, Hall was the state's 15th governor, from 1802-1805.
  • Daniel Rodney -- The state's 15th governor, from 1814-1817. He also served as a judge, a Congressman and as a U.S. Senator.
  • Caleb Rodney -- The state's 23rd governor, from 1822-23. Speaker of the Senate when he became governor due to the death of Gov. John Collins in April 1822.
  • Samuel Paynter -- The state's 26th governor, from 1824-27, Paynter was a successful merchant who also served as a judge and in the House of Representatives.
  • Joseph Maull -- The state's 34th governor, for just nine weeks before dying on May 3, 1846. He succeeded Gov. Thomas Stockton on his death nine weeks earlier. He was a physician and a member of the General Assembly.
  • Ebe W. Tunnell -- The state's 50th governor, from 1897-1901, Tunnell joined his brother-in-law in the drug business in Lewes. He also served in the state House of Representatives in 1870.

Street Names Restored

Local residents upset with the destruction of historical landmarks identifying the town's colonial past, in 1937 charged a three-man committee from the Lewes Rotary Club to start a movement to have the town's old street names restored. Thus, on March 1, 1937, Lewes' most historic streets were renamed by their colonial names of Shipcarpenter Street, King's Highway, Savannah Road, Pilottown Road and Knitting Street.

Important Dates in Lewes History

  • 1629-31 -- The Dutch Expedition, captained by Peter Heyes, commander of the ship Walvis, sails from Holland to Delaware Bay and settles at Swanendael on Hoorn Kill (Lewes Creek), land purchased by the Dutch from local Indians. The settlement is soon destroyed by friends of an Indian who had been slain by his Tribe for stealing a metal sheet depicting the painted arms of Holland.

  • 1659 -- A second Dutch fort and trading station are established near Lewes by Alexander d'Hinoyossa and called Sikeomess or Sekonnessink.

  • 1663 -- The Dutch Mennonite Colony of forty one lands at Swanendael under the command of Pieter Cornelius Plockhoy. In 1664, as the English took control of the entire Delaware River, Sir Robert Carr destroyed the colony.

  • 1673-1674 -- In 1673, the Dutch retake New York and Delaware and a court is established at Hoorn Kill. In 1674, the Treaty of Westminster returns New York and Delaware to the English and ends Dutch rule on the river.

  • 1709 -- Lewes is ravaged by 100 men sent on shore from a French Privateer. Two men-of-war finally moved the ships out of the bay.

  • 1767 -- The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse is completed.

  • 1791 -- The Sussex County seat is moved from Lewes to Georgetown.

  • 1812 -- British warships in the War of 1812 demand supplies at Lewes and are refused. In 1813, a British frigate bombards Lewes but does little damage.

  • 1818 -- Lewes incorporated on Feb. 2.

  • 1888-1889 -- Two storms wreak havoc on ships in the area. In March, 1888, 35 of the 50 vessels in Lewes harbor are destroyed during the Blizzard of '88. And in September, 1889, a storm wrecks more than 50 ships at Lewes Beach.

  • 1924 -- On Sept. 30, the Cape Henlopen Light was lit for the last time. The Lighthouse fell into the sea in 1926.

  • 1941 -- Fort Miles built on the current site of Cape Henlopen State Park to prevent the Germans from reaching major cities along the Delaware River during World War II.

  • 1964 -- The Cape May-Lewes Ferry begins operations on July 1.

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