Lewes was the site of the first European settlement in Delaware, a whaling and trading post that Dutch settlers founded on June 3, 1631 and named Zwaanendael (Swan Valley). The colony had a short existence, as a local tribe of Lenape Native Americans wiped out the 32 settlers in 1632.
The area remained rather neglected by the Dutch until, under the threat of annexation from the English colony of Maryland, the city of Amsterdam made a grant of land at the Hoernkills (the area around Cape Henlopen, near the current town of Lewes) to a group of Mennonites for settlement in 1662. A total of 35 men were to be included in the settlement, led by a Pieter Cornelisz Plockhoy of Zierikzee and funded by a sizable loan from the city to get them established. The settlement was established in 1663, but the timing of the settlement was terrible: In 1664, the English wrested New Netherland from the Dutch, and they had the settlement destroyed with British reports indicating that “not even a nail” was left there.
The area was slow to resettle, but a new settlement gradually regrew around the Hoernkills. In late December 1673, when the area was briefly held again by the Dutch, the settlement was attacked and burned down again by soldiers from the English colony of Maryland. In 1680, under the authority of James Stuart, Duke of York, who had been granted such authority by his brother, King Charles II, the village (and county) was reorganized and known for two years as New Deale, Deale County, Delaware. A log courthouse was authorized to be built at this time. A Church of England congregation was established by 1681 and a Presbyterian church was built in 1682.
In 1682, the Delaware colonies were given to William Penn by English King Charles II in payment of a family debt. When Penn arrived in the New World later that year, he renamed the county as Sussex and the Hoernkills settlement as Lewes, in commemoration of sites back in England. Lewes became and remained the county seat of Sussex County until 1791, when it was moved to a more west-central county location, the current town of Georgetown.
On April 5 and 6, 1813, during the War of 1812, British naval vessels led by HMS Poictiers under the command of Captain Sir John Beresford briefly and ineffectually bombarded the town. A cannonball from the bombardment is lodged in the foundation of Cannonball House, which now serves as the town’s maritime museum.
Lewes Beach itself was an important stop on the Underground Railroad in the years leading up to the American Civil War. As a “border state,” Delaware was not part of the Confederacy, but was still quite dangerous for fugitive slaves. Several houses in Lewes thus housed escaping slaves; these “safe houses” were identified by the residents placing a single candle in the top window of the house.
In 1941, the United States built Fort Miles on Cape Henlopen, immediately south of Lewes, to defend Delaware Bay and the Delaware River and the oil refineries and factories on its shores, as well as the city of Philadelphia.
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