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Printz, Johan Bjornssonlocked

(20 July 1592–03 May 1663)
  • Dorothy Rowlett Colburn

Printz, Johan Bjornsson (20 July 1592–03 May 1663), governor of Sweden's colony on the Delaware River, governor of Sweden’s colony on the Delaware River, was born in Bottnaryd, Småland, in southern Sweden, the son of the Reverend Bjorn Hansson and Gunilla Svensdotter. Printz received a liberal arts education at the Universities of Rostock, Greifswald, Leipzig, Wittenberg, and Jena. Having studied for his ordination, he pursued a military education and served in the French and Austrian armies. He returned to Sweden, joined the Swedish army in 1625, and was made a lieutenant colonel in 1638. Forced to surrender the city of Chemnitz in 1640, he was court-martialed and removed from command.

His first wife, Elizabeth von Boche, whom he had married in 1622 and by whom he had six children, died in 1640. In 1642 he married Maria von Linnestau, a widow. They had no children.

On 15 August 1642 the Swedish Council of State appointed Printz governor of their commercial investment, the colony of New Sweden. Printz was knighted just before he sailed in November 1642 with his family and ninety men on the Fama, accompanied by the Swan. They arrived at Fort Christina on 15 February 1643.

Driving himself and his men to near exhaustion, the governor built his residence and one fort on Tinicum Island, just south of present-day Philadelphia, rebuilt Fort Christina, and built another fort on the eastern shore near the Salem River. He built a blockhouse near present-day Chester and another near the Schuylkill River on the Minquas Indians’ trail, so that his traders could buy their pelts before the Dutch could meet the Indians along the Delaware. Printz also established three tobacco farms and had two boats built.

During his first year, twenty of the colony’s 100 men died, the crops were poor, and livestock, tools, and goods to trade were scarce. The Fama arrived in March 1644 with tools, salt, clothing, and copper kettles to trade, but with few new colonists. Governor Printz’s first report, sent back on the Fama, noted that the Lenape chiefs had been summoned and had signed a peace treaty after killing five colonists. The Tinicum fort and Printz’s residence had to be rebuilt in 1645 after being set on fire by a gunner, who was sent back to Sweden in chains.

In 1647 the Dutch sent a new governor, Peter Stuyvesant, to New Amsterdam. He made Printz’s last five years very difficult. Until then the Dutch and the Swedes had cooperated to prevent the English from overpowering them. Annoyed that his ships had to beg permission to pass the Swedish fort, Stuyvesant sent eleven ships up the Delaware and an army overland to his own Fort Nassau, near present-day Gloucester, New Jersey, in 1651. Printz could not prevent their building Fort Casimir, near present-day New Castle, Delaware, which blocked the Swedes’ ships.

In 1652 Printz pulled back to Fort Christina. He was ill, the fort was infested with mosquitoes, and the crops had been ruined by too much rain. No ship had arrived for six years so the colony had nothing to trade for furs. Sweden’s war with Denmark and Queen Christina’s passion for court balls and pageantry had precluded attention to the colony. Only seventy men remained, twenty-two of whom had signed a petition against Printz for brutality, avarice, and injustice. Printz treated the petition as a rebellion and hanged the leader.

At the end of his three-year term in 1646, Printz had asked to be relieved and had been promised a successor. Seven years later, when none had been named, he installed his son-in-law as acting governor, packed his family onto a Dutch ship, and returned to Sweden. In 1657 or 1658 he was made commander of the castle of Jonkoping and, a year later, governor of Jönköpingslän, the town in which he died after falling from a horse.

Printz was said to have weighed over 400 pounds; in awe and respect, the Native Americans called him “Big Guts.” He was a skilled, energetic, efficient, ruthless, and dictatorial administrator, diplomat, and soldier, holding the frail colony together with little support. Without his leadership, the Native Americans, the Dutch, or the English could have dissipated the colonists’ strength and sent them scattering to stronger centers. The colony’s survival is a testament to his leadership.


Johan Printz’s journal and many documents concerning him are kept in the Archives of the Exchequer in Stockholm. Many of his letters and records are kept in the Royal Archives in Stockholm. An English translation of his “Instructions” can be found in Israel Acrelius, A History of New Sweden (1874). David Pietersen de Vries’s contemporary description of Printz and Printz’s 1644 and 1647 reports have been translated in Albert Cook Myers, Narratives of Early Pennsylvania, West New Jersey, and Delaware, 1630–1707 (1912). Histories of Printz’s governorship can also be found in Amandus Johnson, The Swedish Settlements on the Delaware, 1638–1664 (1911), which contains an extensive bibliography; Christopher Ward, The Dutch and the Swedes on the Delaware, 1609–1664 (1930); and C. A. Weslager, New Sweden on the Delaware, 1638–1655 (1988).