Long before European settlement, various peoples occupied the lands near the Delaware River. By the time of European settlement, these Native Americans called themselves the Lenni Lenape. Later, they were called the Delaware Indians by Europeans. The Lenni Lenape inhabited much of southern New Jersey and their settlements were usually located along stream banks. The subtribe in the Raccoon Creek area called themselves the Narraticon, a word meaning raccoon. They farmed, maintained orchards, fished, and hunted. Deposits of unique blue clay found along the Delaware River also provided painting and pottery material for the Lenni Lenape.
Although these original inhabitants lived in southern New Jersey for thousands of years while leaving a minimal mark on the land, they succumbed to the diseases and encroachment of the newly arrived European settlers. By 1758, the remaining Native Americans south of the Raritan River were encouraged to live in the 3,258-acre reservation called Brotherton in present-day Shamong Township, New Jersey. This has been recognized as the first Indian Reservation in the country, although it did not survive beyond 1802. As with other Eastern tribes, those remaining ultimately moved westward. Tribal members from Brotherton relocated to join the Mahicans (or Mohicans) in New York State, and later moved to Ohio and then Wisconsin.
The first European settlers in the Delaware Valley were the Dutch, who, in 1624, founded a colony near what is today Gloucester City, Camden County. In 1644, King Charles II of England took control of much of America's eastern seaboard, and deeded most of present-day New Jersey to his brother, the Duke of York, who split it into East and West.
In 1686, Gloucester County was formed as a part of Western New Jersey, and at the time included the present-day Atlantic and Camden Counties. During the colonial era, Gloucester County's main economic activity was agriculture, but eventually it expanded to include industrial and residential functions.
While most of Gloucester County was settled by English Quakers, the banks of Raccoon Creek, a tributary to the Delaware River, were first settled by Swedish and Finnish colonists as a part of New Sweden. They arrived as early as 1638, calling the settlement Raccoon due to its close proximity to Raccoon Creek. The Raccoon Creek was navigable up to the settlement. Settlers found the location along the riverbanks ideal for their agricultural lifestyle with fertile soils suitable for crops, freshwater streams, and abundant woodlands of oak, birch, maple, and pine.
The Swedes had well-established homesteads in the area by 1687 and had purchased much of their land from the Narraticon tribe. It was the Swedes who gave shelter to the passengers of the first English ship to arrive in 1677, which docked on Raccoon Creek. As with all Swedish colonies, the 1702 founding of Trinity Church in present-day Swedesboro helped to preserve their culture in the New World.
Peter Kalm, a Finnish botanist and one of the most famous recorders of botany in the colonies, traveled in the region between 1748 and 1751. He established his headquarters in Raccoon and in his important account, Travels in North America, reported the different types of fruit growing on local farms. Early settlers grew grains, fruits, and vegetables and tended livestock. Farming continues to be a principal industry in the region, and some of New Jersey's richest farmland is located around present-day Swedesboro in Woolwich Township.
During the 1700s and 1800s, more people of European descent began moving into the region. Most were English and German settlers arriving from other parts of New Jersey, but there were also people from Ireland and, later, Italy. In addition, African Americans established communities in the area. As the population diversified, Raccoon was renamed Swedesboro in 1765 as a tribute to the original settlers and their heritage. In 1794, Charles C. Stratton was born in the Stratton Mansion located just outside of Swedesboro. Stratton served in Congress and later as the Governor of New Jersey from 1845 to 1848. Stratton was the only Governor from Gloucester County, as well as the first popularly elected governor under the new State Constitution. Tradition claims Dolly Madison was a frequent visitor to the Stratton Mansion.
Swedesboro has long been an attractive location due to its close proximity to an interconnected network of waterways, roads, and railroads. Boats relied on the wide tidal Raccoon Creek to carry farm produce to local markets in Philadelphia while early gristmills and sawmills depended on the tributaries to these streams to provide their power. By the late-1600s, Swedesboro had become a rapidly growing town with the completion of King's Highway, the first road to cross Camden and Gloucester counties. Established in 1854, the Swedesboro Railroad, one of the earliest lines in the southern part of Gloucester County, opened new markets for shipping products, especially farm produce, from the Swedesboro area to nearby regions.
By the mid-1800s, farms and mills were becoming the economic engine for Swedesboro and Woolwich Township. The fertile land provided rich soils for agriculture and the natural woodlands supplied raw material for mills which were powered by the streams. As these industries grew, new businesses arose that catered to their needs. Entrepreneurs supplied farmers with equipment, seeds, and feed while bakeries followed the development of flour- grinding mills. Delivery companies were established to transport these goods to larger markets.
Swedesboro served as the town center for the more rural Woolwich Township. Grocery stores and hardware stores arose to fulfill everyday needs of area residents. Stores selling dry goods and clothing as well as pharmacies opened along King's Highway. In 1848, the first hotel, later named Clark's Hotel, was built on Auburn Avenue. Swedesboro National Bank was founded in 1883 and it, along with its rival bank, Swedesboro Trust Company, survived the Great Depression. Some of the first automobile dealerships also opened in town during the 1910s.
The glass production industry was present in Swedesboro during the late 1800s. Workers learned their trade from other local glass companies, and the industry lasted until the 1920s.
In 1902, Swedesboro was incorporated as a separate municipality from Woolwich Township. However, the borough has remained the center for Woolwich Township's commercial, economic, housing, and social activities.
Two canning factories built in the early 1900s contributed to decades of prosperity for Swedesboro. Workers would process food direct from the fields of Woolwich Township. Tomatoes were an important crop and products such as spaghetti sauce, ketchup, and tomato soup were canned in these factories.
One of these processing plants, founded by Edgar Hurff, was at one time the largest privately owned processing plant in the world. Hurff also developed the largest seed business in the world and was the first to process canned asparagus in the eastern United States. The Hurff plant became the California Packing Corporation plant that packaged Del Monte vegetables for many years. The facility serves today as a Del Monte distribution center and is located next to the railroad tracks on the western boundary of Swedesboro.
By the 1930s and 1940s, Swedesboro's population grew as the demand for farm labor increased. Many people of Italian descent arrived from Philadelphia to work as day laborers before purchasing their own family farms. Area farmers established the Swedesboro Auction as a way to connect farms within Woolwich Township to prospective buyers.
The 1950s to the present brought major changes in the character of Swedesboro. A period of population decline in Swedesboro lasted until the 1980s as farms became increasingly mechanized and fewer laborers were needed. Since that time, the area has seen significant growth. During the first decade of the 2000's, the population of Woolwich Township tripled in size, increasing from approximately 3,000 individuals in 2000 to over 9,000 in 2009. Woolwich Township was the fastest growing municipality on the entire East Coast until the recent economic downturn slowed the pace of development. The rapid growth of Woolwich Township has impacted Swedesboro in complex ways. The joint Swedesboro-Woolwich School District has been the fastest growing in the state, which has led to significant tax increases to support the schools. Despite the rapid growth of the surrounding area, Swedesboro retains its historic charm while continuing to serve the residential, commercial, and civic needs of a diverse community.
† Environmental resource inventory for the Borough of Swedesboro, 2012, www.dvrpc.org, accessed January 2021.
Nearby Towns: East Greenwich Twp • Greenwich Twp • Paulsboro Boro • South Harrison Twp • Trainer Boro • Woodstown Boro • Woolwich Twp •