In 2014, the state of New Jersey marked its 350th anniversary since its founding as an English colony. Although Dutch and Swedish colonizers had already begun to pursue their own ends before the English asserted control of the land between the Hudson and the Delaware Rivers, it was the English who began an influx of settlers in large numbers, altering the natural landscape of New Jersey forever. In the Delaware Valley, despite the discovery of the bay by Henry Hudson sailing for the Dutch in 1609, relatively little impact was made by the Dutch during the life of their colony of New Netherlands (1613-1664). Instead, the Dutch exploitation of the land focused primarily in the Hudson Valley and Manhattan.
The colony of New Sweden (1638-1655), principally established on the western banks of the Delaware River in the vicinity of modern Delaware and Tinicum, also established posts to control the river from the New Jersey side. Swedish and Finnish colonists, some of whom broke away from the restrictive policies of the colonial regime, established isolated farms on both sides of the river and mostly maintained better relations with their native American neighbors than did the Dutch.
In both cases, the Dutch and the Swedes, the purpose of the colonization efforts was not the establishment of populations but the immediate exploitation of natural resources. Giving up on the discovery of a northwest passage to the orient, the Dutch sought commercial gain from the supply of fur bearing animals in the virgin woods of the New World. The Swedes initially thought to establish plantations for tobacco to be sent home, but had little success in that venture and found the fur trade to be more lucrative also.
Colonists of New Sweden farmed a little tobacco and more food to help the colony survive, while others practiced trades necessary to the maintenance of the colony and its trade in furs and lumber. Some hunting and trapping was done, but much more was obtained by trading with the natives for furs of many types, but especially for beaver.
The Lenape and Susquehannock tribes could range over familiar forests and valleys and collect quality pelts that could be traded for cheaply manufactured goods from Europe such as hatchets, knives and scissors. This market in furs soon fomented conflicts between native bands for good trapping grounds, for pelts and for control of the trade with the Europeans.
In 1634, perhaps the first English ship ascended the Delaware River on an expedition, still seeking the northwest passage. On the river, Captain Yong received a visit from a Lenape “king” who presented a gift of two otter skins and then made apology for the meagerness of the tribute, saying that “the Minquas (Susquehannocks) had lately harrowed his country, and carried much beaver from him and his subjects, and that the rest they had trucked away to the Hollanders, who had lately been there.”
New Jersey may never have had the abundance of beaver that could be found on the Hudson and Susquehanna Rivers, and this feverish trade in furs reduced the population rapidly. It is said that before the Swedish colony was conquered by the Dutch in 1655 the most desirable fur bearing animals in New Jersey had been virtually eradicated as an economic resource.
When the English colonists began to arrive after 1664, they came to establish lasting settlements with diverse economies in which the direct harvesting of raw natural resources formed only one part. This shifted the chief impact of colonization toward the slower process of reduction of habitat, a process which has continued to this day.