There is no mistaking the European heritage of Lewes, Delaware, in its city seal.
The seal prominently features a heraldic lion in rampant posture, an image common to several Dutch and English provincial and municipal flags.
The city, now boasting a population of 3,233, is situated on the Delaware Bay adjacent to the North Atlantic Ocean. Lewes has historically been an important seaport, whaling venue and trading post.
The area was discovered in 1609 by English sea explorer and navigator Henry Hudson and was first settled by a contingent of 32 Dutchmen in 1631.
The municipality underwent a series of starts and stops, some tragic, during its history:
- In 1632, one year after the original settlement, the 32 Dutchmen were massacred by a band of local Native Americans over a dispute concerning the Dutch coat of arms posted in the village.
- The area remained neglected and dormant until 1662, when a group of Mennonites established a colony, courtesy of a land grant by Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands. That colony was destroyed the following year by the English.
- A new settlement gradually regrew but was attacked and burned to the ground in December 1673 by English soldiers from the colony of Maryland. The Dutch reclaimed the area that year but permanently ceded the land to the English six months later.
- The village was reorganized in 1680 by order of James Stuart, Duke of York, and a log courthouse was built for official administration. Also constructed on the site were a Church of England in 1681 and a Presbyterian church in 1682.
- In 1682 the colonies throughout Delaware were given by King Charles II to William Penn to pay a family debt. Penn renamed the county Sussex and the settlement — then known as Hoernkills — Lewes, in commemoration of namesake sites in England.
Lewes was established as the county seat of Sussex County until 1791, when it was moved to Georgetown, a more central county location.
Lewes was visited during the latter 17th century by Captain William Kidd and his band of pirates and suffered a cannonball bombardment by British naval vessels during the War of 1812. The attack was ineffectual, but one cannonball is lodged in the foundation of the building now used as the town’s maritime museum.
As the first settlement in Delaware, the inaugural ratifier of the U.S. Constitution, Lewes hails itself as “The First Town in the First State.”
Some of the town’s structures are more than 400 years old. The Zwaanendael Museum features many exhibits about the history of Lewes.