When you talk family history in Wilmington, Del., it’s hard to escape the long shadow of one particular family—the Du Ponts—whose company, first with gunpowder and then with chemicals, became the major employer of this area and a corporate force throughout the nation. But even if your pedigree doesn’t harken to such a line of wealth and power, records for Delaware’s largest city stretch to the 1600s and likely incorporate your ancestors.
Setting up shop
The Swedes were the first to inhabit the Delaware River Valley, and they founded Fort Christina in 1638 in the area of today’s Wilmington at the confluence of the Christina River and Brandywine Creek. Less than 20 years after that, the Dutch conquered New Sweden, but they were replaced by the English starting in 1664. When the area north of Delaware was given to William Penn as Pennsylvania, the “Three Lower Counties” of Delaware were added to his proprietorship.
While the area was under the rule of the Penns, Thomas Willing founded a community he called “Willingtown” in 1731. Eight years later, Penn’s heirs granted a charter renaming this community as Wilmington. Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, was prime minister in the reign of George II of Great Britain. Delaware separated from Pennsylvania at the beginning of the American Revolution and later became known as the “First State” when it led the way in ratifying the US Constitution.
In 1742, Oliver Canby built a flour mill on the Brandywine, beginning a large commercial flour milling industry in the area. The Du Pont family arrived in 1800. They began their gunpowder mills on the Brandywine Creek just
a couple of years later and have been a prime economic force since.
Over the years, ship building and the manufacturing of carriages and leather were other top industries, but the city has been at the forefront of the transition to America’s service economy. Because Delaware has an efficient court for handling business disputes, more than half of the country’s publicly traded companies are chartered in the state, and nearly all of those in Wilmington. In addition, state law changed about 30 years ago and have made it a haven for banks and credit card firms.
Bankroll of records
Wilmington has been part of New Castle County since the city’s origin and its county seat since the 1880s, but Delaware’s small state size has resulted in many records being available on the state level at the Delaware Public Archives
The historical society’s library has an alphabetical card file that consists of more than 120,000 names with references to births, baptisms, marriages and deaths. They were compiled over the years from newspapers printed before 1850, books, journals, church records and other sources. It also has abstracts of all pre-1800 New Castle County wills and a healthy collection of original deeds.
The genealogical society, on the other hand, has furnished volunteers for projects such as the newspaper abstracts profiled above. Members have compiled three editions of the Delaware Genealogical Research Guide to give a complete view of the research possibilities.
Read on for a rundown of other important records:
Vital records: The magic year for births, marriages and deaths in Delaware is 1913—that’s when the state started keeping all three types of records. The records that are unrestricted (birth certificates at least 72 years old; marriages and deaths after 40 years) are available at the Delaware Public Archives. The Office of Vital Statistics has charge of other vital records, and rather zealously enforces its restrictions to a tight circle of family relationships or legal representatives.
Marriage registrations were legally required as early as 1847, but the law was sporadically enforced—as were attempts at registering births and deaths in the 1860s and again beginning in the 1880s. You can access these records at the public archives.
Subscription website Ancestry.com
has images of some Delaware vital records (marriages and deaths up to 1933), and the state historical society has a manuscript marriage register from Wilmington for 1856 through 1864. FamilySearch.org
provides several free searchable databases of Delaware vital records indexes, as well as digitized records (1710-1962).
Censuses: Delaware was counted in every US census, but the 1790 and 1890 records are missing. Other records from 1800 to 1930 are available on microfilm at the historical society library, public archives and FHL. Censuses through 1940 also are searchable online at Ancestry.com and other commercial genealogy sites, with some records also on the free FamilySearch.org.
The early English grants from the 1600s have been published; some later deeds are at the public archives but most are accessible from the New Castle County Recorder of Deeds’ office. Many deed records that the county recorder houses are online at the office’s website
Cemetery records: The state historical society library has inscriptions from many cemeteries. The the public archives has the Tatnall Tombstone cards (with hundreds of alphabetical names) in its collection.
Newspapers: Volunteers from the Delaware Genealogical Society have published four volumes of abstracts, primarily from the Wilmington-based Delaware Gazette. These volumes include marriages and deaths gleaned from newspapers in the 1850s and 1860s. More volumes are planned. Subscription site GenealogyBank has a number of Wilmington-based newspapers in its collection, including the Delaware Gazette from 1785 to 1831, as well as others from the early 19th century.
Wilmington’s first city directory was published in 1814. Volumes were published in 1845, 1853 and 1857 before annual volumes began in 1859. Most of the area’s libraries and the public archives have good collections of the directories. The 1889 directory has been digitized online
The state historical society has New Castle County naturalization indexes and some records for filings that occurred from the 1830s to the 1850s. Although Wilmington was a port of entry in the 1800s, few passenger lists have survived for it or other Delaware ports. Access the few passenger lists (1820-1848) at the National Archives
, on Ancestry.com or by requesting microfilm from the Family History Library to view at a local FamilySearch Center.
All in all, you need not incorporate or hope for Du Pont roots to benefit from records relating to Wilmington—be they housed right in the city along with its dozens of financial firms or “down state” at the public archives in Dover, the state capital.