A spotlight on one of the more than 40 historic properties owned by the state of Delaware and administered by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.
By Brian Cannon, lead interpreter, New Castle Court House Museum
The United States is known as a “melting pot” for good reason. We have always adapted the elements of our many cultures, food and language to enrich our unique American society. In the center of New Castle, Del., lies one of the earliest of these cultural imports—a grass- and tree-covered plot of land called “the Green.”
In 1651, the Dutch West India Company established a military post named Fort Casimir at present-day New Castle to control the adjacent South River, today the Delaware River. In 1655, as colonists began settling the area around the fort, it became necessary to lay out streets and plots of land for homes. In keeping with the European style, Petrus Stuyvesant, director general of the Dutch West India Company’s North American colony, included in the plan a central, open public-area to allow grazing of animals, public markets and eventually, a blockhouse for defense.
Over time, the grazing sheep and town markets moved elsewhere and the Green became known as the Public Square. The blockhouse, not needed for defense, became the court house and jail, and a place for public activities. In October 1682, William Penn arrived in North America to claim his new colony of Pennsylvania and the area known as the Three Lower Counties on Delaware, the present day state of Delaware. He received title to the Lower Counties at the blockhouse in a ceremony called Livery of Seizen, commemorated today with a nearby statue of William Penn by noted sculptor Charles Cropper Parks.
In 1689, a new, wooden court-house-building was constructed on the Green and the old blockhouse was given to the town’s Anglican Church parish. This structure was soon replaced by a new masonry building that today serves the congregation of Immanuel Episcopal Church.
The Public Square quickly developed as New Castle County’s legal and governmental center. In 1729, the old court house was destroyed by fire and replaced in 1732 with a new brick structure that served courts, government offices and the colonial assembly for the Three Lower Counties. Today, that building is the New Castle Court House Museum, interpreting the town’s importance in Delaware and regional history.
As the court system expanded, the need for additional jail- and workhouse-space also grew. At first, jail space was included in the court house itself. However, by the 1800s, the Green included separate buildings for incarceration. A new county prison built in the 1850s would occupy almost a quarter of the Green until it was closed in 1905. The prison was demolished in 1911 except for a two-story brownstone building known as the Sheriff’s House. Originally the administrative offices for the prison and official home for the county sheriff, the house is now owned by the National Park Service and will be used as the offices of the First State National Historical Park. [Editor’s note: The Green and New Castle Court House Museum are partner sites in the First State National Historical Park.]
The fear of a coming war with Great Britain prompted the federal government to erect an arsenal on the Green in 1809 to store weapons and gunpowder. A small, windowless brick-structure, it was eventually given to the town of New Castle and enlarged to become a school house.
The citizens of New Castle had been early enthusiasts of education, supporting the 1799 construction of a building on the Green called the Academy. While it was not a public school in the modern sense, it was ahead of most communities in Delaware, even allowing young ladies to attend. As the population of New Castle grew, the presence of the Academy and Arsenal as schools gave the center of town the nickname the “School Green.”
Today, except for the Sheriff’s House and Immanuel Church, the New Castle Green and its buildings are owned by the state of Delaware and maintained by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. The open space no longer supports sheep and cows, but is designated as an “urban forest” containing over a dozen species of trees, and is used daily by residents and visitors alike as an escape back to a slower time in Delaware history.
Born in Wilmington and raised in New Castle County, Brian Cannon served in the U.S. Air Force before attending Delaware Technical and Community College and Delaware State University. After 25 years of service in fire protection and safety management, he began a second career in the museum field. Cannon joined the staff of the New Castle Court House Museum in 1997 and has served as a full-time staff member since 2007.