Delaware River in Pennsylvania

How did Delaware River in Pennsylvania get it’s name? This page provides a brief history about Delaware River in Pennsylvania, the people who settled on it, and the industry rising around it.

1826 Melish Map Bucks County Pennsylvania FM
1826 Melish Map Bucks County Pennsylvania FM

Bucks County’s northeast and southeast boundaries are formed by Delaware River. Pike County, also lying in a bend in the river, is the only other county in the State bounded on two sides by the same body of water. The river drains a basin estimated at 15,000 square miles in area, peopled by approximately 6,000,000 inhabitants. It begins in two branches, the source of the longest being 260 miles from the head of the bay at Delaware City. The West or Mohawk Branch rises in Schoharie County, New York, 1900 feet above sea level, and flows through a plateau until it emerges from Catskill Mountains, crosses Delaware County in a southerly direction, and then turns to the east. The East Branch has two tributaries in Green and Delaware Counties, New York. After their junction, this branch flows across Delaware County almost parallel with and not far from the West Branch, which it joins at Hancock. The branches are moderate-sized streams, except under flood conditions, and are spanned by small bridges, mostly wooden, some covered. From Hancock the main stream holds its easterly course, approaching the Kittatinny Range or Blue Mountains at right angle. At Port Jervis, where it passes over the tri-State line, it takes a southerly course, flowing along the west base of mountains, and thence through the Water Gap to Easton. Here again it swerves to an easterly course until, below Falls of Delaware, it abruptly rounds the southeastern corner of Bucks County and passes on, again in a southerly course, into the estuary of the bay and past the southeastern limits of the county. Below Easton the course of the river is marked by bold hills, with occasional tall red shale cliffs, the most attractive and impressive being The Narrows. Wells Falls, below New Hope, and the Falls of Delaware, below Morrisville, are features partaking the character of rapids, rather than waterfalls, of which the river really has none throughout its entire course. The scenery of the valley is picturesque. The river has a very interesting history. The honor of its discovery is generally conceded to Henry Hudson, an Englishman in service of the Dutch East India Company, who sailed his yacht Half Moon a few miles into the bay on August 28, 1609. Soon after the Dutch made permanent settlements in Manhattan, about 1614, they attempted to colonize the east or New Jersey side of the river. First to enter the bay was Captain Cornelius Jacobson Mey, whose name is still found there in Cape May. The last similar venture was made by Captain David Pieterszen DeVries, who found that a handful of Dutch colonists left on the bay shore by a prior expedition had all been murdered by Indians. When DeVries sailed for home, April 14, 1633, the Delaware was devoid of settlement, save for the Dutch Fort Nassau, erected by Captain Mey in 1623 at the mouth of Timber Creek, now in Gloucester County, N. J., which was held by a small garrison as an Indian trading post. The Swedes next appeared on the scene. Sweden made its first effort to colonize the west shore of the Delaware in 1637-38, when the Peter Minuit expedition landed a small group of adventurers near the present site of Wilmington, naming the place Christina, in honor of Sweden’s queen, and there a fort was built later. However, it was Governor Johan Printz who gave stability to Swedish colonization on the Delaware and established the first permanent seat of government in what became Pennsylvania. He brought from his country a group of colonists in two ships, landing at Christina February 15, 1643, but not liking the location he cruised up the river as far as Sanckhickan (Falls of Delaware), then returned and disembarked at Tinicum Island (now in Delaware County). There he built Fort Gottenburg and his mansion, “Printzhof.” The Finns are entitled to credit for co-operating in this settlement. Sweden and Finland were closely related politically and economically at that time and were joint movers in Sweden’s colonizing plan, though the number of actual settlers Finland provided was small. The basis for Sweden’s claim to territory on the west bank of the Delaware is set forth in Article 5 of the instructions of Queen Christina issued to Governor Printz August 15, 1642, upon the eve of his sailing for America. As this claim took in the whole of what is now Bucks County, the article is here quoted in full:

“5. The Governor, God willing, having arrived in New Sweden, he must, for his better information bear in mind that the boundaries of the country of which our subjects have taken possession extend, in virtue of the articles of contract entered into with the wild inhabitants of the country, as its rightful lords, from the sea-coast to Cape Henlopen, upwards along the west side of Godin’s Bay, and so up the Great South River, onwards to Minque’s Kil, where Fort Christina is built, and thence, still farther along the South River, and up to a place which the wild inhabitants call Sankikans, where the farthest boundaries of New Sweden are to be found. This tract, or district, of country extends in length about thirty (30) German miles but in breadth, and into the interior, it is, in and by the contract, conditioned that Her Royal Majesty’s subjects, and the participants of this Company of navigators, may hereafter occupy as much land as they may desire.”

Despite this positive claim of sovereignty and equally sweeping claim to territory, Governor Printz’s twelve years’ administration at Printzhof was marked by frequent clashes with the Dutch, who resented what they termed his abuse of authority. They set up rival trading posts near by and became keen contenders for the rich fur trade with the Indians. Printz, however, was master of the situation while he remained, but he had not long returned to Sweden (1635), when Governor Stuyvesant, of New Amsterdam, in 1655 sent a fleet into the Delaware and captured the Swedish forts. But Dutch sway was also short lived. After the Duke of York’s fleet under Colonel Richard Nicholls took Manhattan from the Dutch, September 4, 1664, Sir Richard Carr was dispatched with several vessels to the Delaware, where, in October of the same year, he reduced the Dutch forts and established the English authority that paved the way for the corning of William Penn. Swedes and Dutch alike became immediately reconciled to the change, as it gave promise of a stability in government they had never experienced. Penn’s title to Pennsylvania as its Proprietor came through the charter granted to him by Charles II March 4, 1681. Penn himself came to America in the good ship Welcome, landing at New Castle October 24, 1682, proceeding to Uplancl (Chester) October 29, and a few days later he stepped ashore from his barge at Philadelphia. He at once set about putting into effect his well-worked-out plan of government in a manner so wise that the little colony grew and prospered beyond his dreams. The Delaware became the pioneers’ main avenue of approach in the settlement of Bucks County. When Penn first saw it, the river was in the glory of its pristine beauty, and it is small wonder he planned to spend the rest of his days at Pennsbury on its banks, The many Indian villages along its shores attested the Lenapes’ love for the stream. They gave it its first name. They called all large streams Gicht-hanne, or Kit-hanne, but their particular name for the Delaware was Lenape-wihittnek, meaning “the river of the Lenape Indians.” In the Indian deed to William Penn (July 15, 1682) the Indian name for the river appears as Maksrickkitton, which however, seems to be a corruption of two Indian words defined to mean “the tide of the big river,” and may have been an Indian name for the part of the river about The Falls. The Dutch called it Zuydt, or South, River, to distinguish it from the Nord, or North, River, their name for the Hudson, while the Swedes, when they spoke of it formally, called it “Swenskas Revier in India Occidentali,” or “Swedes’ River in the West Indies,” as Lindestrotn has it on his map (1654-56), though, like the Dutch, they called it South River.1 In 1610 Captain Samuel Argall, in the service of the English Lord de la Warre, sailed into Delaware Bay and named the cape opposite Cape May, Cape de la Warre (the present Cape Henlopen), and thus, it is now generally believed, the name of the cape corrupted into Delaware, came to be extended from the cape to the bay and river. The name pleased the English and they adopted it, but it probably did not come into general use until after they established their authority on the river in 1664. The Delaware valley has undergone a great transformation since the Swedes and Dutch began trading with the Indians. The transformation began with lumbering and rafting operations. Then a hundred years ago came the canals and railroads as great common carriers. The valley became a beehive of industry. The ruins of that age are strewn along the river bank from Morrisville to Easton-dismantled furnaces, abandoned mines, crumbling limekilns and shattered masonry of deserted shops and houses, reminders of bygone activity. There is at present a disposition on the part of many dwellers upon and near its banks to make it a public playground and to preserve its natural beauties for purely residential purposes, but it remains to be seen what this blossoming age of trucks and super-highways will do to it. If the residents have the courage to do so, they may save what is left of the valley’s glory, but indifference will result in its ultimate ruination. It will be either a public highway bordering an open sewer, or it will be a valley of parks and homes on a beautiful unpolluted stream, and it can not be both.


MacReynolds, George. Place Names in Bucks County Pennsylvania, 2nd Edition. Doylestown, PA: The Bucks County Historical Society, 1955.

  1. An old map published in London in 1648 calls the Falls of Trenton ‘The Falls of Charles River,’ by which the early navigators knew the Delaware. These later became the ‘Falls of Delaware.’ “- Forges and Furnaces in the Province of Pennsylvania, 1914, p. 51. []

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