The City of Lewes

Lewes was the site of the first European settlement in Delaware, a whaling and trading post that Dutch settlers founded on June 3, 1631 and named Zwaanendael (Swan Valley). The colony had a short existence, as a local tribe of Lenni Lenape Indians wiped out the 32 settlers in 1632.

The area remained rather neglected by the Dutch until, under the threat of annexation from the English colony of Maryland, the city of Amsterdam made a grant of land at the Hoernkills (the area around Cape Henlopen, near the current town of Lewes) to a group of Mennonites for settlement in 1662. A total of 35 men were to be included in the settlement, led by a Pieter Cornelisz Plockhoy of Zierikzee and funded by a sizable loan from the city to get them established. The settlement was established in 1663, but the timing of the settlement was terrible: In 1664, the English wrested New Netherland from the Dutch, and they had the settlement destroyed with British reports indicating that “not even a nail” was left there.

The area was slow to resettle, but a new settlement gradually regrew around the Hoernkills. In late December 1673, when the area was briefly held again by the Dutch, the settlement was attacked and burned down again by soldiers from the English colony of Maryland. In 1680, under the authority of James Stuart, Duke of York, who had been granted such authority by his brother, King Charles II, the village (and county) was reorganized and known for two years as New Deale, Deale County, Delaware. A log courthouse was authorized to be built at this time. A Church of England congregation was established by 1681 and a Presbyterian church was built in 1682.

In 1682, the Delaware colonies were given to William Penn by English King Charles II in payment of a family debt. When Penn arrived in the New World later that year, he renamed the county as Sussex and the Hoernkills settlement as Lewes, in commemoration of sites back in England. Lewes became and remained the county seat of Sussex County until 1791, when it was moved to a more west-central county location, the current town of Georgetown.On April 5 and 6, 1813, during the War of 1812, British naval vessels led by HMS Poictiers under the command of Captain Sir John Beresford briefly and ineffectually bombarded the town. A cannonball from the bombardment is lodged in the foundation of Cannonball House, which now serves as the town's maritime museum.

As Lewes was the earliest settlement in the state, and Delaware was the first state to ratify the Constitution, the town refers to itself as "The First Town in the First State. Lewes is named after the town of Lewes in England, which is situated in a county named Sussex (from which Sussex County, Delaware, takes its name). Lewes, Sussex, England, also has the same seal.T

The historic district in Lewes contains many of the older, preserved homes and Lewes' downtown district features charming shops, restaurants, bed & breakfasts and other accommodations

Bay and ocean beaches in and near Lewes, Delaware provide swimming, fishing, boating and a host of other water sports. Beaches, nature trails, bird sanctuaries and the Seaside Nature Center can all be found at Cape Henlopen State Park just outside of Lewes. 

And the Cape May-Lewes Ferry is an unforgettable way to cross the bay from Lewes to New Jersey.

Lewes: What's In A Name?

Lewes, Delaware- "The First Town in the First State"

Pronounced Loo-iss (not Lose), Lewes, Delaware, the county seat of Sussex County, Delaware until 1791, was named for Lewes, Sussex, England. Previously known as Swanendael (Valley of the Swans) and Hoerekill or Hoerenkill (Harlot's Creek) under the Dutch and briefly as Whorekill and Deale under the English. Contrary to popular belief, the town was never known as Hoornkill, a "Victorianization" of Whorekill/Hoerenkill. In 1680, the magistrates of the town requested of Governor Edmond Andros to consider "summe other name for the Whoorekill." Lewes received its present name by William Penn, proprietor of Pennsylvania, sometime immediately after his acquisition of the land from the Duke of York in 1682. According to research, records do not exist to explain why the name Lewes was chosen, although it is believed that members of Penn's family were from the prominent town in the southeast of England of that name.

After 1682, the courts in Lewes, however, were still known as the Whorekill Courts until the close of the 17th century and into the early years of the 1700s. Known variously as Lewes, Leius, Lewis, Lewestowne, Lewistown, etc., throughout the 18th century, the proper name of Lewes did not become commonly spelled as such until c. 1830 and even by then, primary sources in the Society Archives reveal that Lewestown, etc. still persisted sporadically.

The creek that runs through town was known as Bloemart's Kill (after a Dutch political figure of the 1600s), the Whorekill, and eventually established itself as Lewes Creek until that body of water was widened, lengthened and deepened into the modern day Lewes & Rehoboth Canal. An anchorage just offshore in Delaware Bay was known as Whorekill Roads (roads bring a maritime term for an anchorage area, e.g., Hampton Roads, Virginia) until the early nineteenth century when the Federally funded Delaware Breakwater was constructed to provide safe harbor for mariners.

Residents of Lewes or those native to the town have long had a quandry as to what to call themselves. "Lewesians" has been offered as a suggestion as has "Lewesites," neither of which capture the spirit of the town. One name, however, with deep historical roots harkens back to the 1700s and captures the flavor of "Old Lewes" -- "Lewestowners." In 1873, The Peninsula News & Advertiser refers to the bravery of "Lewestowners" at sea, and their love of foul weather, when at "the first indication of a storm, which it is said always brings joy to the heart of a Lewestowner." In 1956, during the town's 325th Anniversary, local newspaper columnist Virginia Cullen noted in a promotional brochure that "Lewestowners Welcome You."

Lewes's name has gained national attention as being the southern terminus of the famous Cape May-Lewes Ferry, ridden by more than a million passengers throughout the year from across the country. Other national praise came in 2006 when Lewes was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America's "Dozen Distinctive Destinations." Lewes, Delaware is believed to be one of only three places in the world that bear the name, and one of only two towns. Lewes, Sussex, England and the Lewes River in the Yukon Territory, Canada are the other two known "Lewes's" of the world.