Dover: History

Dover Becomes State Capital

At the time of the arrival of the first white men, the Lenape Indians lived along the banks of the Delaware River. The land where Dover now stands was part of a much larger grant called Zwaanendael (Valley of the Swans), where a group of Dutch patrons attempting to colonize it were killed by the local tribe in 1631. William Penn chartered Kent County, and Penn ordered his surveyors to lay out a town in 1683. In 1697, a court house was built at the site, but it was not until 1717 that Dover was plotted around a central green. By that time, most of the Native Americans had been forced to relocate elsewhere. Craftsmen and artisans such as cabinet makers, shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, and hatters shared the green with government officials and residents, as well as several inns and taverns. An Act of Assembly in 1742 provided for the establishment of a market square, and the 1751 census estimated the population of Kent County to be 1,320 families. In 1777, Dover became the capital of Delaware, largely because it was deemed safer from attack than the old capital, New Castle. Ten years later, in a Dover tavern, a Delaware convention ratified the Federal Constitution. Because it was the first to ratify, Delaware became known as "the first state" and enjoys the highest level of seniority at ceremonial events.

From the 1720s to the 1770s the construction of many fine homes took place throughout Dover and the surrounding countryside, many of which still survive today. During the Revolutionary War, the famous Delaware militia marched to join Washington's main army. It earned the nickname "Blue Hens Chickens" because of the spirited fighting cocks that Delaware men carried with them to war. The city of Dover was incorporated in 1829, and it has remained one of the nation's smallest state capitals.

During the eighteenth century, Kent County was an important agricultural area, providing grain, fruit, and vegetables to the Continental army. However, worn out by generations of poor farming practices, Kent County's soil became far less productive during the Federal period. By the time of the Civil War, the soil had recovered and agriculture became stronger than ever. Farmers introduced fertilizer and employed scientific methods to graft peach trees. The extension of the Delaware Railroad line to Dover in 1856 enabled Kent County farmers to reach a national market. Just the year before, two men by the names of Richardson and Roberts had opened a canning company to process local products, and other canneries soon followed. Eventually, canning became Dover and Kent County's principal industry.

During the Civil War period in the mid-nineteenth century, every possible attitude toward the Confederate conflict had adherents in Dover, from those who passionately supported the federal government, to those who were willing to fight to maintain the Southern way of life. Federal troops entered the area during the 1862 and 1864 elections to guard the polls from violence.

A Century of Development

During the post Civil-War era, Dover continued to grow, and electricity was introduced to the city. A building boom added the Post Office, a Roman Catholic Church, and a new Kent County Court House. The year 1873 marked the opening of the Wilmington Conference Academy, now Wesley College. The next year Thomas Coke, D.D., founded a new American religion and Dover became known as the "Cradle of Methodism in America."

In 1933, Capitol Square was laid out and the Legislative Hall became the home of the State's General Assembly. The creation of the capitol complex, paid for out of lottery funds, along with the expansion of City Plaza, lent a handsome setting for Dover's Georgian and Victorian architecture.

The first non-agricultural major industry to locate in Dover was International Latex, now known as Playtex, which opened its first operation in 1937 and continues to be an important employer in the community. Among the products assembled at this location, the biggest operation of all of Playtex's North American sites, are tampons, latex gloves, and disposable baby bottles and liners. Today Dover is a pleasant community; it was chosen by Employment Review magazine in May 2000 as one of the best small cities to live and work for job seekers looking for a much quieter lifestyle than can be found in the larger cities that usually appear on such lists. The magazine referred to Dover as a city that has "displayed incredible employment potential, a top-notch quality of life, outstanding educational standards, [and] opportunities for companies interested in relocating."

Dover has created a unique balance between maintaining its small-town feel and economic prosperity. This is illustrated by the continuing population and job growth despite the country's economic recession with Dover Air Force Base providing great stability as the top employer along with prominent manufacturers such as Playtex. NASCAR racing and slots gambling at Dover Downs make the area a hotbed of tourist activity while a 19,000 square foot recreation center was proposed in 2004 that will serve as a huge draw for residents and visitors.

Historical Information: Delaware Public Archives, 121 Duke of York St., Dover, DE 19901; telephone (302)744-5000; email