Johan Björnsson Printz (1592 - May 3, 1663) was a Swedish
cavalry officer who became the third (and longest-serving) governor
of the short-lived New Sweden colony in North America, along the
Printz was born in Bottnaryd (Bounaryd), County Jönköping, Småland
province, the son of a Lutheran clergyman. As a
youth, Printz was educated in Germany, though rather than entering the
clergy like his father, he turned to the military. He first served as a
mercenary in various European wars in the early seventeenth
century, but later served in the Swedish army where he attained the
rank of lieutenant colonel in the Swedish cavalry by 1631. However,
Printz was involved in a military scandal which curtailed his active
military career; he was a commander of Swedish troops during the
Thirty Years' War, and was forced to surrender the battle of
Chemnitz in 1640, supposedly due to his own poor decisions. After
this, he returned to
Stockholm ostensibly to obtain new marching orders, but mainly because he
was disgraced on the battlefield. He was tried for losing the battle
and stripped of his command, but he was later exonerated and received a
knighthood in 1642. With this title came a new honor,
the Royal Governor of New Sweden.
Sweden had established a very small foothold on the
North American continent, between the mouth of the Delaware Bay and
about half-way up the Delaware river near modern-day Trenton. The
colony was established in 1638 under the command of
Peter Hollander (or Hollandare) Ridder. Although the colony had certainly
taken root under Ridder, it wasn't thriving. Printz was sent to
build the colony into a thriving, self-sustaining venture, providing
trade goods (and profit) to the Swedish government.
Printz arrived in the colony in 1642, with the ships The Fama
and The Swan, along with military personnel and supplies, a
small amount of trade
goods to exchange with the natives, and colonists.
From the start, Printz worked hard to expand the colony and
establish Sweden's claim in the New World. His mandate had several
important facets, including the continuation and promotion of
Christianity (the Lutheran Church of Sweden) among the settlers, as
well as the economic development of the region. This economic development
included extensive, respectful, and peaceful contact and trade with the
native population, a fact which resulted in Printz high regard among Native
In fact, the Swedish colony under Printz is noteworthy as being the
only European colony which neither participated in nor provoked armed
conflict with the Native Americans. Printz worked energetically to
build peaceful ties with the natives who responded in kind. However, they
jokingly called Printz "Big Guts," referring to his great size
(one source says he weighed in at over 400 pounds, another said
he was over seven feet tall).
Printz' mandate for economic expansion also included the
not so peaceful enforcement of Sweden's territorial claims to the region,
particularly against the encroaching colonies of the Dutch and English.
The Dutch and English were vigorously trying to expand their own territorial
holdings in North America -- the English in Canada, New England, and
Virginia, the Dutch in the mid-atlantic -- and although Printz was told
to work peacefully with settlers already living there, he was also told
to dislodge their governments as best he could.
Though he never actually used military force against either, he established
military posts at Fort Tinicum (near modern Chester, PA) and Fort
Elfsborg (near modern Salem, NJ) to fend off Dutch and English claims to
the region. He would eventually use these forts to try and blockade the
Delaware River, with some success. Ships sailing by either fort were
ordered to lower their flags or face artillery bombardment; apparently
none of the guns in the forts were ever fired against opposing ships.
Printz was sent to the colony for a term of three years, from 1642 to 1645,
though he remained governor until 1653. In 1645 and 1648,
expeditions from Sweden to
the colony bore instructions that Printz was to remain in his post
because no good candidates could be found to succeed him. However, he
continued to work hard for the colony. While governor, he made a
vigorous effort to expand New Sweden. He built his mansion,
Printzhof on Tinicum Island, and constructed several other
forts and meeting halls in the surrounding community.
Unfortunately, while Printz worked hard to build the colony, his own
government wasn't supportive. For one, the Swedish crown had unrealistic goals for
the colony, one of which was to cultivate silkworms (which failed
miserably). For another, they weren't very enthusiastic about funding the
venture in America, and did not supply the colony with much in the way
of trade goods for the natives. In fact, Printz' own first expedition
carried little more than bricks as trade goods, rather than metal or
other goods of use to the natives. Because of this, the Dutch and English
colonies were in a much better position to exploit the trade of fur and
tobacco. This was remedied somewhat by the 1645 and 1648 expeditions
which carried larger supplies of trade goods, along with skilled workers
for the colony. However, by 1651, the colony took a turn for the worse.
The Dutch under Peter Stuyvesant increasingly dominated the trade in the
region, and also the water traffic up and down the river. Printz and the
Swedish colony received no additional support from Sweden for nearly four
years, and were no longer in a position to defend the river. They abandoned
Elfsborg and had no choice but to let the Dutch do as they pleased,
particularly since the Dutch built their own Fort Casimir south of Fort
Christina. Casimir effectively blocked Swedish access to the
The lack of support also hurt the colony itself, and many of the settlers
left New Sweden, either to return home or to join with the Dutch.
The settlers were unhappy with the lack of support from home, as well as
conditions in the region which were often demoralizing. Though the colonists
had good relations with the natives, they weren't on good terms with nature;
one of the reasons they abandoned Elfsborg was because of mosquitoes --
they jokingly renamed it Fort Myggenborg (the Swedish word for mosquito)
before they left. The colony's crops were also badly damaged by
heavy rains in 1652, increasing the misery of the colonists.
Finally, Printz decided the colony couldn't continue without help from home,
and he returned to Sweden in late 1653. This was both to surrender his
and to lobby in person for more help from the colony. Printz left his
son in law John Pappegoja in charge though he was soon replaced by Johan Rising, who arrived in the Swedish colony
in 1653. Rising took a much more militarist view of the colony, and tried
to retake control of the Delaware river. He rashly decided to "attack"
Fort Casimir. The Dutch were surprised by this, and not wanting a fight,
surrendered without a
shot. However, when Peter Stuyvesant got wind of this, he sent a fleet of
eleven ships and seven hundred soldiers to the region in 1655, demanding
the surrender of Fort Christina and the Swedish authorities. The Swedish
settlers who wanted to were allowed to remain, but Swedish rule
in America was over.
Though Printz had convinced the Swedes to send some modest support back to
the colony, it clearly wasn't enough, and he never returned to the Americas.
He was left without an official position until 1658, when he was granted
the governorship of Jönköping. He died five years later, after being
thrown from a horse at the age of 71. His home on Tinicum Island has long
since disappeared, and the only reminder of him is the Governor Printz
Boulevard, which runs from downtown Wilmington north to Claymont.
"Wilmington" by E.N. Vallandingham, in Historic Towns of the Middle
States, Putnam, 1899
Delaware: A guide to the First State, American Guide Series,
Hastings House Press, 1955
America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty, National Geographic