Delaware Genealogy: A Guide to Research at the Delaware Historical Society

The history of a family over many generations lies buried in different sources and places. Like a good detective, the genealogist must search for the pieces of a family's past in those many sources such as books, documents, and manuscripts. The genealogist must also be patient and imaginative, for the search can take years and involve a string of clues that lead to new sources. The facts--names, dates, events--that a genealogist gathers through the years are like pieces of a puzzle. Gradually those pieces can be fitted together to make a picture of a family, its many members, and its unique history.

Delaware's rich and complex colonial history offers genealogists a special challenge. Settled first by the Swedes in 1638, control of the area subsequently passed to the Dutch and then to the English, who ruled through James, Duke of York until he granted the land to William Penn in 1682. During those years Delaware was governed from a distance, so early colonial documents might be found in many places, including the archives of New York State and Pennsylvania, as well as those of Sweden, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. Many of those early records have been printed and can be found in books located in the library of The Historical Society of Delaware. A full search would require trips to many archives.

In the 350 years since the first European settled on Delaware's soil, thousands of people have come to Delaware. Some have remained for many generations; others have stayed only a short time. Through much of the colonial period, New Castle served as a major port of entry for ships from the British Isles. Because Delaware was part of the British empire, the journey was considered to be one of internal migration, which did not require the same type of record keeping as did immigration from a foreign country. Thus, few passenger lists exist. Genealogists should not expect to find information in Delaware sources for ancestors who entered through New Castle but immediately passed on to another colony.

Another complicating factor for the study of early Delaware ancestors concerns boundary lines. The boundaries of Delaware did not reach their present configuration until 1760, due primarily to the long battle over control of much of this territory waged by the Penn family of Pennsylvania and the Calvert family of Maryland. It is always wise to check the records of both these states plus Virginia when researching Delaware families, for although Delaware is a small state it is part of a peninsula. Many families migrated more than once within the Delmarva Peninsula. The small size of Delaware and its rich history provide genealogical researchers with special opportunities. A significant number of its early records have been published or microfilmed, while others are easily accessible in the state's major genealogical collections.

We hope you will find some aspects of your family's past in our collections and encourage you to visit the library. Please come to browse the shelves, consult the library card catalogs, and ask the librarians for assistance.

Research at the Delaware Historical Society

Other Sources for Genealogical Research in Delaware

Delaware History Museum   |  Mitchell Center for African American Heritage   |   Old Town Hall   |   Research Library   |   Willingtown Square    |   Read House & Gardens  

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505 N. Market Street, Wilmington, DE 19801
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The Delaware Historical Society is the statewide, non-profit organization that explores, preserves, shares, and promotes Delaware history, heritage, and culture to strengthen our community.