Johan Bjornsson Printz—the “Lion of New Sweden”—was born in Bottnaryd, Smaland, Sweden, in 1 592. As a young man, Printz studied theology in Germany and seemed destined for the ministry. However, he was seized by a group of roving soldiers in Germany who forced him to join their ranks, and he went to Italy as a mercenary soldier.
The change fitted Printz surprisingly well. He served as a mercenary for Austria and Denmark; while serving in that capacity for the German state of Brunswick, Printz met and married Elizabeth von Boche, the daughter of an important Brunswick official. Printz joined the Swedish army in 1625 and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
His wife died around 1640, and he married Maria von Linnestau in 1642. In April of that same year he was named director, or governor, of New Sweden, a fledgling colony set up on the banks of the Delaware River. He was knighted by Queen Christina and sailed for the New World in 1643.
Printz served as governor for slightly more than 1 years. A man of tremendous appetite, he grew to nearly 400 pounds and was known as “Big Guts” by the Native Americans in the region. Despite his physical size, Printz was active and energetic. He built a blockhouse, a church, a wharf, a grist mill, and a brewery.
Printz greatly encouraged trade, and New Sweden became known for its two major exports: tobacco and beaver skins. Printz was clearly out to make his fortune as well as to enlarge the possessions of Queen Christina. He had a house built for himself on Tinicum Island and called it New Gothenborg. Printz also owned a pleasure yacht, the first of its type in North America.
Although he made peace with the Indians, and gave land to farmers, Printz could be a severe leader. In 1653 a group of settlers asked permission to send a petition to Sweden to request mediation in a dispute between the governor and the populace. To Printz, this was clearly treason.
He had Anders Jonsson, one of the group’s leaders, executed at once. A few months later, however, Printz decided that trying to govern the tiny colony without the real support of its inhabitants was impossible. He handed over the government to his deputy, Johan Papegoja, and sailed for home.
Printz later became commander of Jonkoping Castle and then governor of his own native district of Jonkoping Lan. He died after a fall from his horse in 1663.