A Brief History of New Jersey
New Jersey has a long and distinguished history that dates back far before the American Revolution in which the state played a pivotal role.
Also known as the Garden State, New Jersey has been a center for high-tech industry and invention throughout its existence. Originally settled by Native Americans, New Jersey has welcomed waves of immigrants, from the Dutch and English in the 1600s to Asians and Latin Americans today.
New Jersey has also been home to some of the world’s most famous people, among them scientist Albert Einstein, Thomas A. Edison, singer Frank Sinatra, President Woodrow Wilson, rocker Bruce Springsteen, jazz performer Count Basie and countless others..
One of the first European explorers to see the land that would become New Jersey was Henry Hudson, who in 1609 sailed along the coast in his ship, the Half Moon. One of his crew members wrote in his journal: “This is a very good land to fall in with and a pleasant land to see.”
The first colonizers were the Dutch, who established their New Netherland colony along the Hudson River, while a short-lived Swedish colony was established on the Delaware River to the south. In 1664, the English conquered the region and named the area between the two rivers New Jersey, after the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel.
New Jersey played an instrumental role in the American Revolution. Due to the fact that it was located between British-occupied New York City and the rebel capital of Philadelphia, the state was repeatedly invaded by the enemy. For this reason, Gen. George Washington spent more of the war in New Jersey than in any other state.
In addition, more battles and skirmishes – including the battles of Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth – were fought here than anywhere else. Washington’s victory at Trenton in 1776 has been described as the most important American military victory ever, because if he had lost it, the nation would have perished in its infancy. It’s no surprise that New Jersey has rightfully been dubbed the “Crossroads of the American Revolution.”
After the war, New Jersey was the third state to adopt the Constitution and the first to approve the Bill of Rights. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, New Jersey delegate William Paterson put forward the “New Jersey Plan,” which ultimately led to the establishment of the U.S. Senate, in which every state, large and small, has equal representation.
In 1791, founding father Alexander Hamilton and his associates selected an area along the Passaic River as the first planned industrial city, where rushing waters powered the new city's textile factories. This was a first step in New Jersey's transition to a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution. Location was vital to the Garden State, situated strategically at the midpoint between the northern and southern sections of the country.
The state embraced the building of canals and roads, not to mention the first steam railroad in America, built in Hoboken.
Rutgers historian Paul Clemens aptly noted: “Between the early 19th century and the mid-20th century, New Jerseyans created and lived in an urban, industrial economy. Machines driven by water power, steam and eventually electricity replaced handwork. Artisan shops gave way to factories. Farm villages were transformed into manufacturing cities and the children of farm families moved to the cities to find wage work.
There, they were increasingly joined by immigrant workers. By the early 20th century, New Jersey had become among the most urban, industrial and ethnically diverse states in the nation.”
One of the most important figures in New Jersey’s economic development was Thomas Alva Edison. He established a pioneering research and development enterprise in which the light bulb, sound recordings, motion pictures, commercial electric service and other innovations were invented or improved. New Jersey has continued its record of inventions; in the 20th century, these included everything from the transistor to decaffeinated coffee.
Today, New Jersey is a leader in telecommunications and pharmaceuticals, while its resort communities along 127 miles of ocean shoreline continue to be a beacon of relaxation and extraordinary recreational activities.
In 1947, New Jersey adopted a new constitution that has been regarded as a model for other states for its design of the legislative, judicial and executive branches. The constitution banned segregation and other forms of discrimination – a progressive step years before the civil rights revolution.
The post-World War II era witnessed the enormous expansion of the state's suburbs, made possible by affordable housing developments, federally backed mortgages and the interstate highway system, which was manifested in New Jersey by the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike.
Professor Clemens further observed: “New Jersey has moved from being an ethnically divergent set of farming communities to a leader in the urban-industrial economy of the 19th century to a state whose high-density population and mix of suburban and urban living defines the direction of much of the rest of the United States.”
New Jersey ranks 47th in size and 11th in population, making it the most densely populated state in the nation. Despite this, it has preserved hundreds of thousands of acres of open space. Scientists continue to marvel at the variety of soil types, plants and animal species found in this small area, while a higher proportion of the state is covered by forest than many other states, including Alaska and California.
A worthy heritage indeed.
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