As a whole, the state of New Jersey has a very unique history. Inhabited by Lenape Indians for nearly 15,000 years, Europeans first visited the area when Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano dropped anchor along the Jersey Shore in 1524. Settlements started popping up over a century later, when our state was still a part of the New Netherland territory. From 1690-1730, much of our coast was frequented by pirates and in 1776 our state was one of the 13 original colonies that broke off from England.
While I could easily write an entire article about New Jersey’s rich history, this particular post focuses on the start of some of our exceptional cities and towns. Since so many towns in the Garden State have interesting pasts, I chose to focus on the county seat of each of New Jersey’s 21 counties.
1. Mays Landing
This tiny town is the seat of Atlantic County and is a census designated place in the township of Hamilton, which was incorporated in 1813. The area was settled much earlier, by Captain George May who purchased land in the area in 1756.
First settled in 1665 and incorporated in 1693, the town was officially named New Barbadoes until 1921. Portions of the town were actually part of Essex County until 1710. George Washington once camped on "The Green" across from the First Dutch Reformed Church, and a raid by British troops destroyed the town's second courthouse in 1780. The current courthouse (Bergen County's sixth, pictured) was completed in 1912.
3. Mount Holly
The Burlington County seat, Mount Holly was first settled in 1677 and incorporated in 1798. Local residents built a dam on the Rancocas Creek which helped power grist and saw mills. A small community sprung up, though the area was still quite rural. Years later, in 1819, the Burlington County Prison was designed by architect Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument.
The county seat of Camden County, the city was once part of Gloucester County and was incorporated in 1828. The area was settled centuries earlier by employees of the Dutch West India Company. Originally a Philadelphia suburb, Camden became a city in its own right after the railroad came to the area in the 1830s. By the 1900s, major corporations were headquartered in the area including RCA and Campbell's Soup. The drive-in theater was first patented here in 1932. Poet Walt Whitman spent his last years in Camden and is buried in the city.
5. Cape May Court House
This census designated place in Middle Township is the county seat of Cape May County. The area was first settled in 1703 and called Rumney Marsh. The name Cape May comes from the Dutch explorer Cornelius Jacobsen Mey.
The seat of Cumberland County, Bridgeton was incorporated as a town in 1845 and a city in 1865. It got its name from a local bridge on the Cohansey River. A sawmill was established here in 1686, but the town really sprung up around an iron-works in 1814. After the Civil War, Bridgeton became a center of industry and one of the most prosperous towns in the state. They were also well-known at the time for their education system, being home to several notable academies including the West Jersey Academy for women.
The largest city by population in New Jersey, Newark is the seat of Essex County. The city was first founded in 1666 by Puritans from Connecticut and first incorporated (as a township) in 1693. A center of industry, education and culture, Newark is home to the Institute of Jazz Studies, the world's foremost jazz archives. They also host a large portion of Branch Brook Park, the oldest county park in the United States.
The county seat of Gloucester County, Woodbury was incorporated in 1854 but first settled in 1683 by Henry Wood, a Quaker from England. Some of the first known dinosaur bones were found here in 1787, but not labeled as such until later since dinosaurs had not yet been discovered. In 1980, Woodbury became the first city in the United States to mandate recycling.
9. Jersey City
The county seat of Hudson County, British explorer Henry Hudson first docked here in 1609. One of the first homes was built here in 1623, and buildings dating back as far as 1690 (the Newkirk House) still remain in the city. The British were in control of the area for much of the Revolutionary War, and during the Civil War, there were several stops here on the Underground Railroad. The city was officially incorporated in 1838.
The county seat of Hunterdon County since 1785, Flemington wasn't officially incorporated as a town until 1870 and as a borough until 1910. Flemington was purchased from the Lenape Indians by William Penn and Daniel Coxe in 1712. Settlers from Germany and England came to farm here, and the area became a major agricultural center.
In 1935, Bruno Hauptmann was tried in the county courthouse here and found guilty of the kidnapping and murder of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's son. The town was named for Samuel Fleming, one of the area's first settlers. His home, built in 1756, now operates as a museum - the Fleming House Museum & Gardens. Tours are held held the second Saturday of each month from 1–4pm.
Trenton is the county seat of Mercer County and the capital of New Jersey. It also once served as the capital of the United States. The first recorded mention of Trenton was made in 1719, in documents requesting a constable for the area. The town was officially incorporated in 1792 and named for local merchant William Trent. In the 19th century, prominent industries were pottery and wire rope manufacturing.
12. New Brunswick
The county seat of Middlesex County, New Brunswick is home to many medical centers, research facilities and corporate headquarters. Established in 1730 and incorporated in 1784, the town was originally known as Prigmore's Swamp. Its current name derives from Braunschweig (pronounced Brunswick), Germany.
Located along the Raritan River and right between New York and Philadelphia, the area was a major trading center in the 1700s. In 1776, one of the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence took place here. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt campaigned in the city (pictured).
13. Freehold Borough
The county seat of Monmouth County, Freehold was first established as a township in 1693 and incorporated as a borough in 1919. Freehold has been the seat of Monmouth County since the county's system of government was first established in 1714; the area was chosen by Freeholder John Reid due to the affordable cost of land. A courthouse was built in 1715.
Scottish immigrants flocked to the area and many descendants still remain. The Battle of Monmouth was fought here and in the surrounding area, and the legend of Molly Pitcher originated here. More importantly (kidding!), Bruce Springsteen grew up in Freehold.
Originally called New Hanover, the town was first settled in 1715 and was incorporated in 1865. While you likely know that George Washington headquartered here during the Revolutionary War, did you know that Alexander Hamilton was married here? Morristown National Historic park houses several important sites and was the first National Historic Park in the United States. This town is loaded with history, including the invention of the telegraph by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail in the Speedwell Ironworks. Pictured is a sketch of the area from 1828.
15. Toms River
The county seat of Ocean County, Toms River was named Dover Township until the year 2006. It was first chartered in 1767 and incorporated in 1798. Much of the town was burned down by British troops in 1782. The above map reflects the area as it was in 1878.
Home to Great Falls National Park, the seat of Passaic County was established by Alexander Hamilton in 1791. He helped to create the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, who settled the area and harnessed the power of the falls. The town was once the center of the Industrial Revolution in America and was named after William Paterson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A major manufacturing center, everything from silk to Colt revolvers were produced here. You can still find the (deteriorating) Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, one of only 3 surviving Negro League stadiums in the United States.
First laid out by John Fenwick in 1695, Salem is the county seat of Salem County. Salem was first incorporated in 1798 and hosted the infamous Hancock House Massacre, an act of treason. Built in 1735, Salem's courthouse, pictured, is the oldest courthouse in New Jersey and the 2nd oldest courthouse (in continuous use) in the country.
Somerville is the seat of Somerset County. Named for Somerset, England, the town was first incorporated in 1863. Somerville was settled by Dutch and Irish immigrants in the mid-1700s. George Washington had a temporary headquarters here, in the Wallace House.
The Sussex County seat was first incorporated in 1864 but was settled some time prior to 1751 by Henry Hairlocker who operated a tavern in the town. Historic buildings in Newton include the stunning Victorian Merriam Manor, pictured, and the courthouse, built in 1765; the exterior is original, the interior dates back to 1847.
Originally Elizabethtown, the area was founded in 1664 by settlers from England. Named for Elizabeth Carteret, the city was officially incorporated in 1855. Elizabeth is the county seat of Union County and served as the first capital of New Jersey.
Belvidere is the seat of Warren County and was incorporated in 1845. Historic sites include the Belvidere Cemetery, the final resting place of many Civil War soldiers, and the Robert Morris house, built by Robert Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Did you learn anything new? What was your favorite fact? Is there any other New Jersey town trivia you could add to this list? What other aspects of New Jersey history would you be interested in learning about.