Blog Post Jennifer Errick Mar 13, 2023

The Final Frontier?

Every U.S. state is home to a national park site, but this was not the case for most of the history of the National Park System. In 2013, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to create a national park site in the very last state to have one.

It’s ironic that the place known as the First State was the last state to have its own national park site.

The nickname refers to the small but storied Delaware and its role as the first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. When President Obama designated the state’s first national park site in March 2013, which interprets much of the area’s Colonial and pre-Colonial history, the park adopted this title and became the First State National Monument.

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First State National Historical Park

The six sites that make up the national historical park are spread across Delaware’s three counties.

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The park, which Congress redesignated in 2014 as the First State National Historical Park, consists of six individual sites spread across the state and into southern Pennsylvania.

Collectively, these sites preserve stories of the Native American Lenape people who first lived in the state, the early Dutch, Swedish and English settlers who jockeyed for control of the region, the colonists who fought for America’s freedom from Britain, and the people and places that were part of the state’s early history. The six sites are:

  • Brandywine Valley
  • Fort Christina
  • Old Swedes Historic Site
  • New Castle Court House Museum
  • The Dover Green
  • John Dickinson Plantation

The largest tract in the historical park is the 1,300 acres of agricultural fields, pastures, forested hills and streams that preserve the Brandywine Valley along the Brandywine River. It is one of the few large protected areas in northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania.

In Brandywine Valley, visitors can explore more than 20 miles of recreational trails and see remnants of mica mining pits, ruins of 18th century dwellings and old stone markers of Pennsylvania-Delaware border.

This land in the northern part of the state was once home to the Lenape Tribe and later belonged to William Penn, the man best known for founding the colony of Pennsylvania. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the river supported a bustling mill industry of paper and textile manufacturers — even the paper used to print the Declaration of Independence was made here — and the region was also home to the Wyeth family of artists who famously captured its forested landscapes in their paintings. One of the most extensive battles of the Revolutionary War was fought on the banks of the Brandywine River in 1777 as General George Washington’s army fought continuously for 11 hours in a failed attempt to keep the Redcoats from taking Philadelphia.

Other significant historic sites of the park include one of the oldest courthouses in the country, New Castle Court House built in 1732, which once served as Delaware’s first court and capitol building and is now a museum. Also in New Castle, the historic Sheriff’s House is being restored to become a visitor center for First State National Historical Park.

In downtown Wilmington, visitors can see Fort Christina along the Christina River, the site where Swedish and Finnish settlers first landed in the New World, and the Old Swedes Historic Site, which includes burial grounds and the 1698 Holy Trinity Church.

South of Wilmington, in Kent County, the Dover Green is a historic square in the capital city where state officials voted in 1787 to ratify the Constitution, earning Delaware — and the park — its title as “first.” The Green hosts events throughout the year and is located within walking distance of other historic downtown attractions, including shops and taverns that date back to the 18th century.

The nearby John Dickinson Plantation is the early childhood home of one of the Founding Fathers known as the Penman of the Revolution for his ability to capture thoughts and ideas on paper. Enslaved men, women and children worked the farm, spun flax and performed other jobs until the Quakers declared slavery was an unacceptable practice and strongly recommended all people of the Quaker faith set their slaves free.

The First State National Historical Park was years in the making, created after persistent advocacy from the Delaware congressional delegation and cooperation from other conservation agencies — so perhaps it is only fitting that the state would make up for lost time by packing so much history into one varied site. Learn more about where to go and what to see on the National Park Service website.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.