Ask the Hagley Historian! Why did the du Pont family build their black powder business in Wilmington, Delaware?

Monday, October 19, 2020

Question: Why did the du Pont family build their black powder business in Wilmington, Delaware?

Answer: E.I. du Pont (1771-1834), founder of the DuPont Company, considered several locations in the Eastern United States before deciding on Wilmington, Delaware. He felt that Wilmington had many advantages over other places. First among them was the Brandywine River, an abundant source of water power that ran nearly year-round. Black powder manufacturing was considered a “heavy industry” that required a lot of power. Wilmington already had a reputation as a good place for water power, particularly along the Brandywine, dating to the 17th century.

E.I. du Pont portrait by Rembrandt Peale

The specific location he chose on the Brandywine provided an additional advantage for black powder manufacturing. It is a steep, rugged section of the river that was far enough away from the city of Wilmington (in 1802) to minimize any damage due to explosions. Explosions were inevitable despite the best safety precautions. E.I. du Pont hoped to avoid any loss of life or property in selecting an isolated section of the Brandywine.

Another reason E.I. du Pont chose Wilmington was its access to transportation for receiving raw materials and shipping out finished products. Wilmington’s location on the Delaware River made it easy to get to and from Philadelphia. It also allowed shipments through the Delaware Bay for Northern ports like New York, Boston, and New England. The Delaware Bay also served as the main trade conduit with Europe, Africa, and Asia. Wilmington’s access to the port of Elkton, Maryland, gave access to the Southern states via the Chesapeake Bay.

Earliest drawing of the DuPont black powder factory by Charles Dalmas.

Wilmington’s proximity to major financial centers played a large role in E.I. du Pont’s thinking. Paying for materials and getting paid for finished products is, of course, essential for a manufacturer. In the early 19th century, moving money was a complex process based on good credit, good reputation, and reliable financial institutions. Wilmington was close to Philadelphia and New York, America’s financial centers at the time, as well as Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Proximity to these cities plugged E.I. du Pont into America’s financial network, ensuring the movement of money and access to credit.

The French expatriate community in Wilmington further convinced E.I. du Pont to locate his business there. The du Pont family had longstanding connections to many families in Wilmington, spanning to the French Revolution and before. They rekindled these connections and made new ones, all of which facilitated the establishment of the DuPont Company and helped them settle into life in America.

For a more in-depth discussion of how the du Pont family came to America and why they chose Wilmington, please have a look at this video on our Hagley From Home page.

Lucas Clawson is the Hagley Historian at Hagley Museum and Library.​