The coast of New Jersey was first explored by Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. The area was first settled by Europeans in the early 1600s, and we were the third state to ratify the US Constitution. New Jersey is loaded with history, and some of our most interesting history lies within our oldest towns. Please note that these towns are not necessarily the oldest, just SOME of the oldest, with unique histories and storied pasts.
1. Jersey City
Jersey City and parts of Hoboken were deeded to Michael Reyniersz Pauw by the Dutch India Company in 1630 on the condition that he start a settlement in the area. He failed to do so, and was forced to sell his land back, though it still kept his name - Pavonia (the Latin form of Pauw). Soon others inhabited the area, including Cornelius Van Vorst; the Van Vorst neighborhood of Jersey City is pictured. Van Vorst built his home in Harsimus Cove in the 1630s, though it no longer remains. The oldest surviving structure in Jersey City is the Newkirk House (Summit House), built in 1690 - it is now a restaurant called Sanai's.
A popular immigration destination prior to WWII, settlers from Germany, Italy and Ireland worked the docks and at factories for major companies including Colgate and Dixon Ticonderoga. The city reached its peak population in 1930, with over 316,000 residents. It is still the second most populated city in New Jersey with around 260,000 residents as of 2014. A center of economic trade, it is sometimes referred to as "Wall Street West." Jersey City is home to the tallest building in the state, 30 Hudson Street at 781'.
2. Greenwich Township
This Gloucester County town and Philadelphia suburb is home to the oldest surviving log cabin in the United States - the C.A. Nothnagle Log House, built in 1638. Located in the community of Gibbstown, the home is privately owned, though the owners do give free tours by appointment.
The house predates the town, which was formed in 1695, and officially incorporated in 1798. The current population sits at around 5,000 residents.
According to the town's website, Burlington was established in 1677 as part of William Penn's "West Jersey" Quaker settlement. Once the county seat of Burlington County, it is home to the oldest surviving church in New Jersey - St. Mary's Episcopal, built in 1702. Their library system was organized in 1757, making them the oldest continually operating library in New Jersey and the seventh oldest in the United States.
Newark was founded in 1666 by Puritans from Connecticut, and originally became a town in 1693. It is believed that the town's name was derived from Newark-On-Trent, England, though others say the name has biblical roots - New Ark of the Covenant, bringing new hope.
New Jersey's most populous town, Newark is a hub of industry hosting Anheuser-Busch, PSE&G, Prudential Financial, Manischewitz, IDT and Panasonic. It is home to Branch Brook Park, the oldest county park in the United States. The lovely park contains the largest collection of Cherry Blossom Trees in the United States.
First established in 1666, the town is currently celebrating its 350-year anniversary. The land was granted to 12 Massachusetts natives by New Jersey's first Governor, Philip Carteret. Additional settlers soon arrived - Quakers and Baptists fleeing a Puritan colony along the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire.
Piscataway is now home to around 50,000 residents and hosts part of Rutgers main campus. Stroll along River Road to discover some of the town's oldest buildings, part of the Road Up Raritan Historic District. Homes date from 1720-1865. Pictured is the John Onderdonk House, built in 1874.
6. Freehold Township
Freehold Township was first settled on All Hallows Eve, 1693 and was incorporated by the state of New Jersey in 1798. The historic Battle of Monmouth was fought here, and in neighboring Manalapan in June of 1778. Led by George Washington, the legend of Molly Pitcher originates from this battle. Less than a century later, Freehold Raceway opened. Built in 1853, it is the oldest harness racetrack in the United States.
7. Chatham Borough
The Borough of Chatham was first settled by European immigrants in 1710. Originally called John Day's Bridge, the name was changed to Chatham in 1773. Chatham was chosen in honor of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, a member of the British Parliament who advocated for the colonists. One of the state's first printing presses was established here in 1779.
Though the town wasn't officially established until 1894, the area was settled in 1700 by Johannes Van Emburgh. There are a dozen different buildings in the neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places including the Ackerman House and Rathbone-Zabriskie House, both built in the late 1700s. The original Paramus Reformed Church was established in 1725 and used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The site no longer exists, but the current building still dates back to 1800.
The "Military Capital of the American Revolution" was first settled in 1715 by Presbyterian migrants from Long Island, New York and New Haven, Connecticut. The town was named for Lewis Morris, a Royal Governor of New Jersey. By the mid-1700s, the town was thriving and in 1773, George Washington made his first visit. In the winter of 1777, he and his troops camped here - in the Ford Mansion and Jockey Hollow.
The town's role in the Revolutionary War isn't its only claim to fame - Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail constructed the first telegraph at the Speedwell Ironworks in 1838, and the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was incorporated in 1843. This was one of the first black congregations in Morris County and also opened one of the first schools for black children in the area. An entire article could be dedicated to the rich history of Morristown, and one has been:
Click here for more on Morristown.
10. Cape May
This charming shore town was officially established in 1848 as Cape Island, but was settled decades before. The area was discovered by explorer Cornelius Jacobsen Mey in 1611, and was the nation's first beach resort, dating back to the mid-1700s. Vacationers from Philadelphia flocked to the area, and now tourists from around the world do the same. Cape May was recently ranked one of the top 10 beaches in America by the Travel Channel.
Famous for its stunning Victorian homes, Cape May also has a military past. During WWII, Cape May was essential in protecting the coast of New Jersey and preventing lost ships at sea. A Naval Air Station, Naval Annex, Frontier Base and Anti-Submarine Attack Teacher Training Unit were all located in the area. Cape May is currently home to the nation's only Coast Guard Recruit Training Center. It is also one of the top bird watching destinations in the world, home to over 400 species of migrating birds.
Henry Greenland was the first European to settle in Princeton, building a home and tavern in 1683. The town began to expand in 1709 when Richard Stockton gave the land to his sons. Princeton University was established in 1746 (in Elizabeth) as The College of New Jersey and has been located in Princeton since 1756. Nassau Hall, pictured, originally housed the New Jersey Legislature and briefly served as the US Capitol building. F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was based on his time spent in Princeton as a student.
12. Toms River
Toms River was first established by Royal Charter as Dover Township in 1768. Vital to the Revolutionary War, the town was home to salt works which supplied Colonial troops and harbored privateers who attacked the British. Fast forward a few hundred years and the town's little league team made headlines in 1998 for winning the Little League World Series. The town's youth football and cheerleading squads have also taken home several national titles. You'll find many historic sites and stunning murals in Downtown Toms River.
Incorporated in 1872, the town dates back much further. A land deed noting homes and improvements from 1698 serves as evidence the area was settled over three centuries ago. Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette used a home in the town as their headquarters during the Revolutionary War, and paperwork from their stay details the presence of a church, a mill and over two dozen other buildings in 1778. The entire downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Our state's capital was founded in 1719 and was named for William Trent, a prominent merchant in the area. The Battle of Trenton was George Washington's first military victory, and the US Army had its primary hospital in the city during the War of 1812. The city is also home to the Old Barracks, a vital piece of New Jersey history. You can learn more about the barracks
Named after Greenwich, England, this Cumberland County Town was first founded in 1748, though the area was inhabited before then. Citizens participated in their own Greenwich Tea Party on the Cohansey River, one year after the famous Boston Tea Party. Pictured is a monument dedicated to the event.
First founded as Elizabethtown in 1664, the town was not named after Queen Elizabeth. A common fallacy, it was actually named after Elizabeth Carteret, wife of Sir George Carteret, one of the founders of New Jersey. The city served as New Jersey's first capital and played a vital role in the Revolutionary War. Singer Sewing Machines first major factory was built in Elizabeth in 1865, and one of the first car companies, Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, got its start here. Elizabeth was named one of "America's 50 Greenest Cities" by Popular Science Magazine in 2008.
New Jersey has so many towns dating back hundreds of years (Swedesboro, South Orange, etc.), it would be impossible to include them all on this list. Did you learn anything new? What other New Jersey towns would you be interested in learning the history of?