New Jersey

Situated on a relatively narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River, New Jersey has been one of the most densely populated areas of the nation since the early years of the United States.

History of New Jersey

Situated on a relatively narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware River, New Jersey has been one of the most densely populated areas of the nation since the early years of the United States. Bordering the large cities of New York City to the northeast and Philadelphia to the southwest, New Jersey was heavily urbanized and industrialized at an early date but still retains scenic seacoasts and wilderness areas.

Early History

About six thousand years ago, the Delaware, a Native American people also known as the Lenni-Lenape, arrived in the region between the Hudson River and the Delaware River. The Delaware practiced agriculture, hunted, fished in the rivers, and gathered shellfish from the Atlantic Ocean. Not long after European colonists established settlements in the area, the Delaware, reduced greatly in numbers by newly introduced European diseases, sold their native lands and moved westward. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Delaware were removed to Oklahoma, where many of their descendants reside today.

The first European to reach New Jersey was the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano. Working for the French, Verrazano explored the Atlantic coast from North Carolina to Canada in 1524. During this voyage, Verrazano entered what is now Newark Bay. In 1609, the English navigator Henry Hudson, working for the Dutch, explored what is now Sandy Hook Bay.


Despite this early exploration, settlement of the area began slowly. Although Dutch trading posts were founded on the Hudson River as early as 1618, and Swedish trading posts on the Delaware River by 1638, the first permanent European settlement was not founded until 1660. This settlement, known as Bergen, was founded by the Dutch at the present site of Jersey City. The Dutch, who had taken control of the Swedish trading posts in 1655, retained ownership of the colony until 1664, when an English fleet sailed into New York Harbor and took control of the Dutch colonies of New York and New Jersey without a fight.

King Charles II of England granted all the lands between the Connecticut River and the Delaware River, including New York and New Jersey, to his brother, the duke of York and Albany. The duke (later King James II) in turn granted the region between the Hudson River and the Delaware River to John Berkeley and George Carteret, two friends and allies of the king. This area was divided into East Jersey and West Jersey in 1676, when Berkeley sold his share of the land to a group of Quakers. The Quakers took possession of West Jersey, while Carteret retained control of East Jersey.

East Jersey was mostly settled by Puritans from Long Island and New England. The Quakers purchased East Jersey in 1682. In 1702 English Queen Anne united the two colonies under royal rule and placed them under the administration of the governor of New York. In 1738, New Jersey became a separate colony from New York, with Lewis Morris serving as its first governor.


Located between the two important colonial cities of New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey soon became an important area of transportation, with more roads than any other colony. During the American Revolution (1775-1783), New Jersey’s strategic position between these two vital cities led to more than one hundred battles in the area.

The British, who had captured New York City in late 1776, drove American troops commanded by General George Washington out of New York and New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Early on the morning of December 26, 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey and captured Trenton. Although Trenton was recaptured by the British on January 2, 1777, Washington won another victory at Princeton the next day. These early successes, although not decisive, prevented the American war effort from failing during the early years of the Revolution. A later American victory on June 28, 1778, when Washington attacked British forces withdrawing from Philadelphia at Monmouth Court House, helped maintain a stalemate in the northern states, allowing the Revolution to continue until more critical victories in the southern states led to the end of the war.

After the war, Princeton served as the capital of the United States for brief periods in 1783 and 1784. New Jersey played a key role during the convention in Philadelphia in 1787 that created the U.S. Constitution. The New Jersey Plan, which advocated equal representation for each state, was combined with the Virginia Plan, which advocated representation based on population, to create the Senate and the House of Representatives. New Jersey ratified the Constitution on December 18, 1787, officially becoming the third state. It was the first state to ratify the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, on November 20, 1789.

Industry and Transportation

Although first noted in colonial days as a highly productive area for agriculture, hence the nickname of the “Garden State,” New Jersey quickly became one of the first states to develop an industrial economy. The process began during the American Revolution, when New Jersey supplied much of the iron needed for cannons and ammunition. In 1791 Alexander Hamilton founded the nation’s first industrial town at Paterson, located at the Great Falls of the Passaic River, which supplied water power.

Much of the success of industrial growth during the early nineteenth century was due to improvements in transportation. During the 1830’s, a series of canals linked the Hudson River and the Delaware River, allowing easier transport of goods between New York City and Philadelphia. During the same period, railroads began to appear in the state. An early industry that developed in New Jersey due to the transportation revolution was the dyeing and weaving of cloth. The textile industry would remain important to the state’s economy.

The Civil War and Immigration

Its central position between northern states and southern states, combined with economic ties to southern states, made New Jersey one of the most divided states during the Civil War (1861-1865). The Democratic Party in the state included many Peace Democrats, who advocated an end to the war through negotiation with the Confederacy. The Republican Party demanded complete victory over the Confederacy. This early struggle was reflected in later years, when the two parties continued to share almost equal power in the state. Although the military draft was strongly opposed in 1863, New Jersey supplied large numbers of troops and manufactured goods to the Union. After the war, many politicians opposed granting civil rights to African Americans, who were not allowed to vote in New Jersey until 1870.

Meanwhile, the first of many waves of immigration to the state brought many Germans and Irish to New Jersey in the 1840’s. Immigrants during the late nineteenth century mostly arrived from southern and eastern Europe, particularly Italy, Russia, Poland, and Hungary. The increase in population, particularly in urban areas, combined with an increased demand for manufactured goods, continued the industrialization of the state. One of the largest factories in New Jersey was founded by Isaac M. Singer, who opened a sewing machine plant in Elizabeth in 1871. Other thriving industries at this time included oil refining along the Hudson River and pottery manufacturing in Trenton. Newark became one of the most prominent industrial cities in the state, with a variety of manufacturers as well as an important insurance industry.

The Age of Wilson

New Jersey rose to prominence in national politics in the early years of the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University since 1902, was elected governor in 1910. The success of his progressive policies led to his election as president of the United States in 1912. During his first term in office, Wilson was active in promoting legislation that reformed national economic policies. Reelected in 1916, Wilson helped to establish the League of Nations after World War I, winning him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920.

In sharp contrast to Wilson’s idealism, local politics in New Jersey were often highly corrupt. The most notorious of the state’s political bosses was Frank Hague, who ruled Jersey City from 1917 to 1947. Hague was famous for his boast that “I am the law.” Although reforms diminished the power of political bosses, New Jersey continued to have a reputation for political corruption and organized crime.

The Twentieth Century

World War I made New Jersey a center of shipbuilding and munitions manufacturing. The war also prevented German chemicals and pharmaceuticals from reaching the United States, and New Jersey became a leader in these industries. Chemical production continued to be the most important industry in the state. After the Great Depression of the 1930’s, New Jersey’s economy recovered during World War II, when aircraft manufacturing became a major industry in the state, along with a revival in the making of ships and armaments.

World War II also brought many African Americans to New Jersey. The 1950’s and 1960’s saw large numbers of Puerto Ricans enter the state. After Fidel Castro established a Communist government in Cuba in 1959, many Cubans immigrated to New Jersey. Later decades saw an increase in the number of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.

After a recession in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, New Jersey’s economy shifted from manufacturing to service industries. Unemployment dropped from 10 percent in the middle of the 1970’s to 4 percent in 1988. Despite a strong economy in the 1990’s, New Jersey faced the problems of crime, poverty, and pollution, which were inevitable for any heavily urbanized state.