Long before Europeans explored the Delaware area, it was inhabited by several Native American groups of the Delaware—notably the Nanticoke in the south and the Minqua in the north. In 1609, Henry Hudson, in the service of the Dutch East India Company, sailed into Delaware Bay. A year later the British captain Sir Samuel Argall, bound for the colony of Virginia, also sailed into the bay. Argall named one of the capes Cape La Warre after the governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Baron De la Warr.
From the time of its discovery, the region was contested by the Dutch and English. The first settlement was established by Dutch patroons, or proprietors, in partnership with the Dutch navigator David Pietersen de Vries; it was called Swanendael and was established (1631) on the site of the town of Lewes. However, within a year it was destroyed by a Native American attack. This attack notwithstanding, the Native Americans were generally friendly and willing to trade with the newcomers.
The Dutch West India Company, organized in 1623, was more interested in trade on the South River, as the Delaware was called at that time, than in settlement (the North River was the Hudson, in the Dutch colony of New Netherland). Several Dutchmen, interested in settling the area, put their services at the disposal of Sweden and colonized the area for that country. The best known of these was Peter Minuit, who had been governor of New Amsterdam (later New York). In 1637–38 Minuit directed the colonizing expedition for the Swedes that organized New Sweden. Fort Christina was founded in 1638 on the site of Wilmington and was named in honor of the queen of Sweden. The colony grew with the arrival of Swedish, Finnish, and Dutch settlers.
English colonists from Connecticut tried to establish trading posts in the Delaware River region and failed, but Dutch interests in the area were not disposed of as easily. Peter Stuyvesant, governor of New Netherland, sailed to the Delaware region in 1651 and established Fort Casimir on the Delaware shore at the site of present-day New Castle. The Swedes captured the fort by surprise in 1654, but their triumph was brief; Stuyvesant returned with an expedition in 1655 and conquered all New Sweden. The Dutch West India Company sold part of New Sweden to the Dutch city of Amsterdam in 1656 and the rest in 1663.
In 1664 the English seized the Dutch holdings on the Delaware. The Dutch recaptured the colony in 1673 and although they held Delaware only briefly, they set up three district courts that marked the beginning of Delaware’s division into three counties. The colony was returned to England in 1674 and remained in its hands until the American Revolution.