2011-10-03 07:01:57

Significance: Aside from the more heavily populated northern tip of the state around Wilmington, Delaware has not been a popular destination for immigrants. The Wilmington area’s importance as a transportation hub and corporate center has offered prosperity to immigrants with backgrounds in chemistry, business, and technology. However, less well-educated immigrants have not shared in that prosperity.

Migration to the region that would become the state of Delaware began during the seventeenth century with ventures by Dutch and Swedes up the Delaware River to New Castle. During the eighteenth century, much larger contingents of Scotch-Irish and English settlers arrived, and by 1787, when Delaware became one of the original thirteen states, the area was English- speaking, with some Quakers among the settlers. Smaller numbers of French and Irish settlers also lived in the region. The Irish worked in mills and on the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, on which construction began in 1804 but did not reach completion until 1829. The canal remained commercially important into the twenty-first century.

Nineteenth Century Immigration

Delaware’s nineteenth century immigrants were mainly Irish and German until late in the century. The Irish worked in construction and manufacturing, while many of the Germans were painters, upholsterers, woodworkers, brewers, and saloon keepers. Members of both groups clung to cultural elements from their former homes, but the Germans were unsuccessful in preserving the use of their native language. As in other areas, the Irish became increasingly important in local political life as the century unfolded. By the 1870’s and 1880’s, the Irish played significant roles in state politics.

Italians, many of whom were masons and construction workers, began to appear late in the century, as did German and Russian Jews fleeing persecution. The bulk of the immigrants settled in New Castle, the northernmost of Delaware’s three counties, particularly in Wilmington. In 1900, by 1900 that city’s population exceeded 76,000, with the foreign-born constituting about 14 percent of that total. Many immigrants worked in manufacturing of such products as black powder, ships, leather, and textiles.

Twentieth Century Immigration

By 1920, the proportion of immigrants among Delaware’s residents reached its historic high, accounting for just under 9 percent of the total population. By 1970, the percentage of immigrants had dropped to 2.9 percent. During the early twentieth century, Italian and Polish immigrants outnumbered Irish and Germans; most of them worked in factory and service areas. Early in the century three powder companies, including the Du Pont Company, moved into the chemical industry. They concentrated the business, scientific, and technological aspects of their business in Wilmington, much of the manufacturing taking place elsewhere. Delaware saw a sharp decline in the number of bluecollar workers and an increasing need for welleducated ones.

Region Atlantic coast
Entered union 1787
Largest cities Wilmington, Dover (capital), Newark
Modern immigrant communities Mexicans
Population Total Percent of state Percentof U.S. U.S.rank
All state residents 854,000 100.0 0.28 45
All foreign-born residents 69,000 8.1 0.18 41

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract for 2006.

Notes: The U.S. population in 2006 was 299,399,000, of whom 37,548,000 (12.5%) were foreign born. Rankings in last column reflect total numbers, not percentages.

Aside from Puerto Ricans, who are technically not foreign immigrants, the largest concentration of late twentieth and early twenty-first century immigrants in Delaware have been Mexicans. In contrast to Mexican immigrants in other states, relatively few of Delaware’s Mexican residents are agricultural workers. Retail trade has attracted many, especially restaurant operations. Others have worked in finance, insurance, real estate, and rental and leasing occupations. Nearly two thirds of Delaware’s Mexican-born women are in the labor force.

A study of the economic and employment status of Delaware’s Hispanics, including Puerto Ricans, completed in 2008 found that one-quarter of them were living in poverty. In Kent and Sussex, the central and southern of the state’s three counties, 59 percent of the Hispanic households did not earn enough money to meet the basic needs of the family. This report found construction, restaurant operation, and professional services as the most frequent sources of income. Moreover, nearly onehalf of employed Hispanics were judged to be deficient in English-language skills. However, the report also revealed that an overwhelming majority of the state’s Hispanic residents were interested in job training and English classes that many of them were not receiving.

Robert P. Ellis

Further Reading

  • Boyer, William W., and Edward C. Ratledge. Delaware Politics and Government. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 
  • Hoffecker, Carol E. Delaware: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977. 
  • Munroe, John A. Colonial Delaware: A History. Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1978. 
  • _______. History of Delaware. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984. 

See also: English as a second language; Language issues; Maryland; Mexican immigrants; New Jersey; Pennsylvania; Puerto Rican immigrants.