A Reflection of America: New Jersey History in Brief

You can find New Jersey on the east coast of the United States, between New York and Pennsylvania. Its location is remarkably accessible and indispensable. While millions call it home, many more millions visit, work, or pass through it each year. Connections to the Garden State include those with longstanding family ties to newcomers arriving to attend one of our renowned colleges or universities, work, or raise a family. In fact, wherever you are in the U.S., you’re likely to find someone with Jersey roots.

New Jersey is also a microcosm of the United States of America. In its past are stories that reveal the complexity of the American experience, reflecting the people, places, beliefs, and events that shaped who we are today. By understanding the experiences of Indigenous people, immigrants, free and enslaved African Americans, workers, soldiers, farmers, elected officials, teachers, scholars, activists, social reformers, inventors, and scientists, we hold a mirror up to America, exploring the foundational questions of who we are and where we came from. This brief history provides a general overview of the rich tapestry that constitutes the history of New Jersey.

Homeland of the Lenape

The land now known as New Jersey has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples for over 10,000 years. The ancestors of the Lenape, often referred to as the Delaware, were a network of individual nations whose traditional homelands once covered a vast area along the Eastern seaboard, including parts of present-day New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York. They lived in thriving communities with rich cultural beliefs. A visitor to New Jersey in the 1600s would have found a land populated by approximately 8,000 Indigenous people, with myriad histories and social relationships

New Jersey’s complex settler and colonial past began in the seventeenth century. The first Europeans were the Dutch, who established their New Netherlands colony along the Hudson, Raritan, and Passaic rivers. In 1609, Henry Hudson became one of the first European explorers to chart the land that became New Jersey. The Swedes later established a colony along the southern banks of the Delaware River.

Europeans brought enslaved and free Africans to the territory, beginning a long and painful history of slavery and discrimination. Imported enslaved people were primarily subject to work in agriculture. As the colony’s population grew, so did its ethnic and religious diversity. African Americans – consisting mostly of enslaved peoples – accounted for 12% of the colony’s population by 1776.

In 1664, Charles II of England granted his brother James, Duke of York, a large tract of land along the eastern seaboard of North America. Weeks later, James gave a large portion of this land to his two friends, Lord John Berkeley and Sir George Carteret, proclaiming it “New Caeserea or New Jersey,” after the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel. A decade later, New Jersey was divided into two separate colonies: East and West Jersey. Each colony had its own proprietors, government, and laws. East Jersey’s capital was Perth Amboy and West Jersey’s capital was Burlington. In 1702, the proprietors of East and West Jersey surrendered their civil authority to the Crown, creating one colony under a royal governor. The English encouraged slavery through legislation that rewarded enslavers with grants of land through an agreement that offered 60 acres of land for every enslaved person imported during 1664, 45 acres for each imported the following year, and 30 acres for each in 1666. As the new English Settlers expanded, the enslaved population grew from just 50 in 1664 to hundreds and eventually thousands from 1625-1763.

Quakers played a significant role in New Jersey’s early colonial history, serving as proprietors in both East and West Jersey and accounting for a large portion of West Jersey’s population. The Dutch, English, and Swedes also set their sights on the land, resulting in a colony that, much like New Jersey today, was noteworthy for its diversity. They were joined by French Huguenots, Walloons, Germans, Finns, Welsh, Scots, and Scots-Irish settlers.

Early Dutch and English colonists engaged in trade with the Lenape people, exchanging European goods for furs. However, conflict between Lenape Nations and the colonists, as well as disease, posed threats to Indigenous people. As other immigrant groups grew, the state’s Indigenous population declined, largely due to forced migration. New Jersey’s changing demographics reflected a diverse population as forced migrations of enslaved people, willing and displaced migrants, and the continual forced displacement of Indigenous people created a shifting landscape. New Jersey’s colonial settlement patterns also left important and lasting legacies: diversity in faith, gender, race, ethnicity, and a tradition of representative self-government.

A Growing Colony Joins the Revolution

In 1746, the College of New Jersey, now known as Princeton University, began in Elizabeth with six students, then moved to Newark and ultimately Princeton. Twenty years later it was joined by Queen’s College, now Rutgers University. These pioneering schools began a long and distinguished tradition of higher education in New Jersey, making it the only North American colony with two chartered colleges at that time.

As ideas around inalienable rights gained popularity, so did the movement for American independence from Britain. After the passage of the Stamp and Townshend Acts, New Jerseyans signed non-importation agreements which increased the demand for domestic goods. In response, women across New Jersey established spinning bees to produce thread for homespun cloth, turning a domestic task into a public and radical act.   

During the War for Independence, New Jersey’s unique location between the British stronghold in New York and the rebel capital in Philadelphia made it quite literally the crossroads of the American Revolution. By the War’s conclusion, more than 600 battles and skirmishes were fought on New Jersey soil, more than anywhere else in the former British colonies.  Political divisions ran deep among New Jerseyans as the state was repeatedly occupied by both British and Continental armies.

As military actions continued through the War, General George Washington spent more time in New Jersey than in any other colony. Some historians describe Washington’s victory at Trenton in 1776 as the most important American military victory ever, as it revived the nation’s conscience, spirits, and determination. Throughout the winters of 1776 – 1777 and 1779 – 1780, Washington maintained his headquarters in Morristown where the Continental Army, alongside the women who tended to the troops, contended with harsh weather, disease, and mutiny. Without Washington and the Continental Army’s successes in New Jersey, the fledgling nation might have failed in its fight for independence

Joining the New Republic

After the war, New Jersey was the third state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and the first to approve the Bill of Rights. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a New Jersey delegate, William Paterson, put forward the "New Jersey Plan." Paterson’s proffer led to the establishment of the U.S. Senate, in which every state, large and small, had equal representation.

While the American Revolution unleashed the notions of equality and freedom, these ideals were slow to be realized in New Jersey. The state did not pass an act gradually abolishing slavery until 1804. Furthermore, this law only applied to the children of enslaved people born in 1804 or after. It was not until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified that enslavement of Blacks in New Jersey ended.

New Jersey’s first constitution permitted property owners to vote, including single women and free Black men. Access to the ballot box was then restricted in 1807 when the state legislature passed a law that redefined voters as property-owning free white male citizens. Over half a century would pass before African American men gained the right to vote in New Jersey, while all women, regardless of race, waited for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Immigration and Invention

In 1791, Alexander Hamilton and his associates selected an area along the Passaic River for Paterson, the first planned industrial city, where the rushing water over the Great Falls powered the new city's textile factories. This was the first step in New Jersey's transition into a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution. While the state was predominantly agricultural at the end of the eighteenth century, the state became increasingly industrial in the centuries that followed.

Industrialization continued to expand throughout the century. Trenton was known as the “Staffordshire of America” because of its unrivaled production of ceramics. South Jersey was home to a vibrant glass-making industry. North Jersey excelled in the production of electronics, chemicals, and plastics. Today, the state has a strong advanced manufacturing sector and remains a leader in many industries, including telecommunications, biotech, and pharmaceuticals.

Situated midway between the northern and southern regions of the country, New Jersey embraced the expansion of canals and roads. Several members of the Stevens family played key roles in the state’s development as a transportation hub, building steamboats, steam ferries, and the Camden and Amboy Railroad.  The Delaware and Raritan Canal operated from 1834 to 1932, connecting Philadelphia with New York and moving a variety of goods ranging from anthracite coal to cornmeal. John Roebling’s wire rope factory in Trenton supplied material to major bridge projects around the country, most notably the Brooklyn Bridge.

In 1876, Thomas Edison established a pioneering research and development enterprise in Menlo Park, where the light bulb, sound recordings, commercial electric service, and other innovations were created or improved.  Edison opened a new, larger laboratory in West Orange in 1887. There he continued to develop the electric light, and the cylinder phonograph, but also expanded into work on motion picture photography and production.

In the nineteenth century, New Jersey’s status as a state of diversity continued. Immigration from northern and western European countries, including Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia, brought thousands of people to New Jersey in search of work. Following the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the 1870s would see Belleville, New Jersey become home to the first Chinese American settlement on the East Coast, pre-dating the Chinatowns that would form later in Newark and Manhattan. In the 1880s, Hooghly merchants from West Bengal, India traded on the shores of New Jersey, creating the foundations for South Asian communities along the East Coast.

By the turn of the twentieth century, immigration trends had shifted to southern and eastern European countries. Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Russians, and other Slavic peoples came to New Jersey by the thousands. Located just off the coast of New Jersey, Ellis Island served as the first point of entry for millions of immigrants seeking a better life in America. Those who chose to settle in New Jersey brought rich cultural traditions – including religious customs, languages, and foodways – to the state, many of which persist to the present day. African, Asian, South American, and Caribbean communities were always present in the state but continued to amplify and grow stronger in the twentieth century.

New Jersey and the Civil War

New Jersey served as a passageway on the Underground Railroad and home to a large population of free Black people. While some people utilized the Underground Railroad in New Jersey to travel further north, others, such as Levin and Sidney Still, escaped slavery in Maryland and made the state their new home. The Still family would go on to make numerous contributions to New Jersey and beyond, with notable figures such as Dr. James Still a prominent herbalist in Medford. He became the third largest landowner in Burlington County at the time of his death in 1882. William Still, who aided self-emancipated slaves in Philadelphia, eventually wrote The Underground Railroad in 1872 which is still an important record used by historians to understand the clandestine resistance movement. Other free Blacks, such as John S. Rock, a Black physician and lawyer from Salem, New Jersey, held prominent roles in the Underground Railroad by tending to the health and legal needs of self-emancipated slaves.

The state, however, was divided over the Civil War. Political infighting, fueled by long-standing regional rivalries, led New Jersey to be the only state remaining in the Union that Lincoln lost twice. Nevertheless, New Jersey supported the Union war effort, recording over 88,000 enlistments. New Jersey regiments fought throughout the war including at the key battles of Second Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg as well as in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

African Americans from New Jersey supported the Union war effort in invaluable ways. Of the 88,000 New Jersey enlistments, some 2,900 were Black soldiers serving in the U.S. Colored Infantry. In addition to military service, African Americans provided instrumental support to the Union forces as scouts, spies, nurses, cooks, teamsters, carpenters, and laborers.

During the War, Clara Barton – the future founder of the American Red Cross – was a strong supporter of the Union cause. She risked her life on the battlefields of Maryland and Virginia to deliver supplies to Union troops and tend to the wounded. Though not a New Jersey native, Barton made a significant impact on the state as a champion of free education during her years teaching in Bordentown.

While New Jersey provided a large number of troops for the Union cause, the state cannot point to a strong legacy of championing the rights of African Americans during this era. The state legislature initially refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment. In 1866, New Jersey became the last northern state to abolish slavery and even revoked its ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. African Americans, however, stood up for themselves in the courts, streets, and workplace, in addition to petitioning local and state governments for their deserved rights.  They created associations and political groups and built churches as well as other institutions to advocate for their communities.

The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified nationally in 1870 but did not pass in New Jersey until 1871. Nevertheless, on March 31, 1870, Thomas Mundy Peterson of Perth Amboy became the first African American in the nation to exercise the right to vote under the authority of this new amendment – a historic day for constitutional equality, but only the beginning of a new struggle for African American civil rights.

Embracing the Twentieth Century

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, progressive reform movements sprung up around the state. As the nation’s most industrial, urban, and ethnically diverse state, New Jersey was considered the prototype for progressive economic, political, and social agendas. A strong union presence and labor organizing resulted in worker strikes in Paterson, Passaic, and Seabrook.

In 1919, both houses of Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. New Jersey was the 29th state to ratify the amendment, passing the State Legislature by a vote of 34-24. While in some ways the battle for suffrage had been won, Alice Paul, a native of Moorestown, was not satisfied. A prominent advocate and vocal leader in the fight for the Nineteenth Amendment, Paul began a new push for a federal constitutional amendment that would guarantee equality, regardless of sex.

World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II played pivotal roles in transforming and modernizing New Jersey. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, New Jersey contributed significantly to the war effort. The state was home to munitions factories and shipbuilding companies. Hoboken operated as a major point of embarkation during the war. Camp Dix in Burlington County, part of today’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, was founded as a World War I training ground. Over 140,000 residents served in the armed forces, about 3,400 of whom died fighting for their country. Among those who perished was the poet Joyce Kilmer, known for his poem “Trees,” who posthumously received the French Croix de Guerre for his bravery.

At the start of the War, African Americans continued migrating to New Jersey from the South to seek better opportunities and escape the oppression of Jim Crow laws and race-based violence.  Needham Roberts, an African American man from Trenton, served in the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. For his valor fighting alongside French forces, Roberts was one of the first two Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre.

Throughout the 1930s, New Jersey and the rest of the nation weathered the Great Depression. By 1936, over 120,000 New Jerseyans were working for the Works Progress Administration, a cornerstone of the New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps recruited 91,500 New Jerseyans and left an enduring mark on the landscape of the state, erecting 199 bridges, building 47 dams, and planting more than 21 million trees.

During World War II, more than 560,000 New Jerseyans served in branches of the armed services. The state’s economy boomed during the war years, with its agricultural and industrial sectors playing a critical role in the war effort. Over 200 New Jersey companies won the patriotic Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in the production of vital wartime materials. The industrial workforce increased to nearly a million workers, and unemployment nearly vanished.

The war presented new employment opportunities to women, African American men, and New Jersey’s growing Hispanic and Latino/a communities. During this time, Puerto Ricans and African Americans from the south moved to New Jersey to meet the high demand for agricultural laborers. However, racial discrimination in the workplace persisted. During the 1940s, Seabrook Farms, the site of one of the largest producers of the nations’ produce, hired Japanese labor from WWII incarceration camps, replacing long-time African American laborers who were seeking unionization. Consequently in 1945, New Jersey became the second state in the country to pass a statewide fair employment act barring discrimination by employers on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion.

In 1947, New Jersey adopted a new constitution that strengthened the office of the governor and streamlined the convoluted judicial system. The constitution ordered desegregation in New Jersey’s schools and National Guard – progressive steps years before the civil rights revolution. It also guaranteed the right of labor to organize and bargain collectively.

Following World War II, the state experienced unprecedented prosperity for some. New Jersey witnessed a massive expansion of its suburbs, made possible by affordable housing developments, federally backed mortgages, and a cutting-edge transportation system that eventually led to the creation of the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike. Despite these advancements, the differential treatment of African American war veterans when it came to accessing GI Bill benefits, in addition to restrictive covenants and redlining practices, created a landscape of inequality that persists to this day.

New Jersey innovation exploded during the twentieth century. African-American newspapers established themselves after emancipation, with Alfred R. Smith of Saddle River being, perhaps, the best New Jersey journalist of this time. Fort Lee was the birthplace of the motion picture industry in 1907, with early stars like Pearl White and Theda Bara appearing in popular studio productions. Elizabeth White and Dr. Frederick Coville cultivated the first domesticated blueberry crop in 1916. The Johnson & Johnson Company expanded its successful line of healthcare products with the introduction of the Band-Aid. Sara Spencer Washington founded Apex News and Hair Company, providing a variety of cosmetic products targeting African-American women.

Bell Labs established its headquarters in Murray Hill in 1941. The groundbreaking research conducted there eventually garnered seven Nobel prizes, culminating in the invention of the transistor in 1947. The arrival of the transistor was transformative, providing the foundation for modern communications technology. In 1946, Dr. Walter McAfee conducted Project Diana, which bounced an electronic echo from the moon’s surface and back to the Evans Signal Laboratory in Wall Township. This experiment was regarded as the beginning of the space age.

Popular Culture & Sports

Numerous New Jerseyans left indelible marks on popular culture. In the realm of sports, America’s favorite pastimes can trace their roots to New Jersey soil. In 1846, baseball as it is known today was first played in Hoboken. The first college football game was played in New Brunswick in 1869 between Princeton University and Rutgers University. The first professional basketball game was held in Trenton in 1898. New Jersey’s high impact on the history of sports lives on in Paterson where one of the last remaining Negro Leagues stadiums has been historically restored.

From Paul Robeson, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, to Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Celia Cruz, and Queen Latifah, New Jersey musicians have helped shape American popular music. On stage and screen, New Jerseyans such as Jon Stewart, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Zoe Saldana, Peter Dinklage, Kal Penn, John

New Jersey Today

Known as a haven for immigrants since the colonial period, New Jersey has become even more diverse since the 1960s. While earlier immigrants primarily came from Europe, today’s arrivals now come from countries in Central and South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa. New Jerseyans of Hispanic and Latino/a descent form the state’s largest ethnic minority group representing 18% of the state’s population. New Jersey’s Asian American population continues to grow as well with suburbs including Fort Lee, Palisades Park, and Edison. Immigrants of all backgrounds represent an estimated 20% of New Jersey’s current population, reinforcing the state’s stature as a bastion of cultural diversity.

New Jersey ranks 47th in size and 11th in population, making it the most densely populated state in the nation. Even so, it has preserved hundreds of thousands of acres of open space, including the Pinelands National Reserve, designated in 1978 to preserve the unique ecosystem of the state’s Pine Barrens. Nine million people may call New Jersey home, but 42% of the state is still covered by forest. Scientists continue to marvel at the variety of soil types and plant and animal species found in this relatively small area. Despite its dense population, the “Garden State” still has thousands of acres of farmland and continues its historical legacy as a producer of a wide array of agricultural products. Jersey tomatoes, blueberries, and corn are loved and anticipated by residents and visitors alike.

Through its resort communities along the state’s 130 miles of ocean shoreline, New Jersey has also been a pioneer in recreation and tourism. Cape May was reportedly the nation’s most famous seaside resort in 1850, and consistently ranks among the nation’s top resort towns today. Atlantic City, the “Queen of Resorts,” was home to the first boardwalk and the Miss America Pageant. At present, New Jersey is a destination, – not only for travelers, – but for all people to come for those seeking an exceptional quality of life, abundant work opportunities, a first-rate education, and a chance to improve their prospects for a better tomorrow.

This is a brief overview of New Jersey’s history; you can find more information at history.nj.gov and www.discovernjhistory.org.

Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History by Giles R. Wright
Black New Jersey: 1664 to the Present Day by Graham Russell Gao Hodges
Encyclopedia of New Jersey edited by Maxine Lurie & Marc Mappen
Envisioning New Jersey: An Illustrated History of the Garden State by Maxine Lurie and Richard Veit
Honoring the Legacy of Walter S. McAfee ‘85HN, Monmouth University
It Happened Here: New Jersey produced by Kean University and the New Jersey Historical Commission
Jersey Blue: Civil War Politics in New Jersey, 1854-185 by William Gillette
Jerseyana: The Underside of New Jersey History by Marc Mappen
The Latino Oral History Collection from the New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center
Latinos Then and Now by the Newark Public Library
Legislating Slavery in New Jerseyby Geneva Smith
Mapping New Jersey: An Evolving Landscape Edited by Maxine N. Lurie & Peter O. Wacker
Needham Roberts, 369th U.S. Infantry, formerly 15th N.Y.N.G., decorated with the Croix de Guerre, with palm, and wearing two service stripes and two wound stripesfrom the Library of Congress
New Jersey: A History of the Garden State by Maxine Lurie & Richard Veit
New Jersey and the Great War, 1914 – 1919 by Richard J. Connors
New Jersey, The Last Northern State to End Slavery, by Noelle Lorriane Williams
Petticoats vs. Redcoats: New Jersey Women and the American Revolution edited by New Jersey History Partnerships
Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation by Marc Mappen
The Black Freedom Struggle in Northern New Jersey, 1613-1860: A Review of Literature, by N. Mathews
There’s More to New Jersey Than the Sopranos by Marc Mappen

Additional Resources:
Discover NJ History
New Jersey’s Indigenous Voices: Sharing the Continuing Story of Indigenous Peoples in New Jersey
New Jersey’s Revolutionary History Resources from RevolutionNJ
NJ Women Vote Video Series