One of the original 13 colonies, New Jersey was an important battleground during the American Revolution. New Jersey is located in the heart of the bustling Atlantic corridor, nestled between New York and Pennsylvania, and it has the highest population density of any state.
New Jersey was named for the island of Jersey on the English Channel. Its long and beautiful coastline has long made the state a popular vacation destination, with over 50 seaside resort towns including Asbury Park, Atlantic City and Cape May. The state also boasts an impressive musical legacy–Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi and Frank Sinatra all hail from New Jersey. It is known as an industrial center, but earns its “Garden State” nickname as a leading producer of cranberries, blueberries and tomatoes.
New Jersey’s Native American History
Before Giovanni de Verrazano became the first European settler to explore New Jersey in 1524, the Delaware Indians had lived in the region for more than 10,000 years. The Delaware Indians, also known as the Lenni-Lenape, meaning “original people,” were first spotted by settlers in areas of Delaware (hence the name), New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. They harvested clams off the Jersey shore and hunted in the woods depending on the season. They also grew squash, beans, sweet potatoes and corn.
In 1758, the New Jersey Assembly established a permanent home for the Delaware Indians in Burlington County. The settlement was known as Brotherton and is widely considered the first “Indian Reservation” in the United States. In exchange for rights to their land, the Delaware Indians were allowed to stay on the reservation and continue hunting and fishing.
In 1801, the New Jersey Assembly agreed to sell the reservation and give the proceeds to the approximately 85 remaining tribe members. At that point, remaining members of the tribe moved to join tribes in upstate New York, Wisconsin and Mississippi, while others integrated into local communities in South Jersey.
Colonial History of New Jersey
New Jersey’s colonial history began when Henry Hudson sailed the Newark Bay in 1609. From there, small trading colonies emerged in towns where Hoboken and Jersey City are now located. Settlers from the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland settled in Bergen, forming the first permanent European settlement in the state.
In 1664, the Dutch lost control of New Jersey, which was part of the New Netherlands colony at the time, to the English. The British split the colony and gave control to two proprietors: Control of the east went to Sir George Carteret and control of the west to Lord John Berkley. Carteret and Berkley later sold the land, but England eventually regained authority of the state. For many years New Jersey and New York shared a royal governor until 1738 when New Jersey got its own royal governor, Lewis Morris.
The Revolutionary War in New Jersey
Because of its proximity to the 13 colonies, more battles were fought in New Jersey than in any other state during the Revolutionary War. New Jersey housed several iron mills in areas including West Milford, Wharton and Kinnelon that produced ammunition, armaments and other materials essential to the war effort
Many consider the Battle of Trenton to be a pivotal moment in the war that led the United States to victory. In November of 1776, the British gained control of New Jersey and forced General George Washington’s troops into Pennsylvania. Thinking no one would cross the Delaware River during winter, the British set up separate camps around Trenton and planned on waiting until Spring.
By December, Washington’s troops made the perilous journey across the river and launched a surprise attack on the Hessian soldiers (German troops who served the British Army) that claimed 900 prisoners.
Immediately after winning the Battle of Trenton, Washington won the Battle of Princeton, the British fled New Jersey for New York and the Americans were on their way to winning the war.
In 1787, New Jersey became the third state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and the first to sign the Bill of Rights. In 1790, Trenton officially became the state capital of New Jersey, and William Livingston became its first state governor. (Trenton was temporarily the country’s capital during the Revolutionary War in November and December of 1784 and was considered as a possible location to house the capital but was ultimately passed up in favor of Washington, D.C.)
Industrialization in New Jersey
Northern New Jersey became an extremely industrious state starting in the 1800s in areas including Paterson, Trenton, Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City and Newark. These cities hosted factories that produced textiles, trains, silk, clay products, iron and steel.
By 1850, the state’s population rose to nearly half a million, and most of the industries that employed people became concentrated in the north. Southern New Jersey remained mostly rural and grew crops to feed nearby urban areas. Railroads helped expand South Jersey’s seashores and ports.
New Jersey’s population more than doubled between 1900 and 1930, and manufacturing became a $4 billion industry. Following a period of financial hardship and high unemployment during the Great Depression, the state rebounded during World War II in the 1940s as electronic and chemical industries began large-scale operations.
Numerous transportation projects in the mid-1900s, including the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway, helped further expand industry by connecting people in overcrowded New York City and Philadelphia to New Jersey’s rural areas. New Jersey also expanded its passenger and cargo services at Newark airport in 1963, making it one of the busiest airports in the world.
Organized Crime in New Jersey
New Jersey is notorious for its history of organized crime. Positioned in between New York and Pennsylvania with miles of coastline, the state was ideal for moving illegal hooch and other spirits during Prohibition. Areas including Monmouth and Ocean counties saw rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s, which created business opportunities for mob families.
The crackdown on crime in urban northern New Jersey areas also encouraged organized crime to relocate near oceanside neighborhoods with relatively small police forces. By the early 1960s, organized crime families, many of European descent, made their way across the Jersey Shore.
During the 1970s, large-scale gambling and loan-sharking operations began to take place, particularly in northern Ocean County, and organized crime members and families became well established. Among them are the DeCavalcante crime family, Bruno-Scarfo family and the Genovese crime family. Around the 1980s, crime families from countries in South America, Asia, and Africa established themselves in the United States, with many setting up operations from New Jersey.
It is believed the hit HBO drama series The Sopranos, which follows a New Jersey fictional Italian American mob boss, Tony Soprano, was based on a handful of notorious New Jersey mob families, among them the DeCavalcante crime family. The series, which aired from 1999 to 2007, was shot at hundreds of iconic locations in New York and New Jersey including Asbury Park boardwalk, Newark Penn Station and the Borgata casino in Atlantic City.
Bruce Springsteen—’The Boss’ of New Jersey
Born in Long Branch, New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen was bound to make waves one way or another. The singer-songwriter’s music is known for detailing the topography of New Jersey and the working-class struggle of the 1970s set to jazzy rock-and-roll riffs.
Springsteen started his career playing local bars in Asbury Park, where he met the members of his famous E Street Band, named in honor of the street where one-time keyboard player Dave Sancious’s mother lived and the band would practice. Springsteen was supposedly nicknamed “The Boss” because he had a habit of evenly distributing money collected at shows with his bandmates.
In 1973, Springsteen released his first studio album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. It was well-received but didn’t sell many copies. Many people compared Springsteen’s lyricism with Bob Dylan, but it did little to boost sales. It wasn’t until 1975 when he released his third album Born to Run, that Springsteen received critical and commercial success. The album hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and made him an overnight success.
Themes on Born to Run such as love, chasing the American Dream and his home state became common across many of Springsteen’s projects. Springsteen is among the largest celebrities born in New Jersey and among the few that proudly spout their love for the Garden State. Spots where Springsteen frequently visited or wrote about in his music including Highway 9, the Stone Pony and Convention Hall have become local landmarks.
Date of Statehood: December 18, 1787
Population: 8,791,894 (2010)
Size: 8,723 square miles
Nickname(s): Garden State
Motto: Liberty and Prosperity
Tree: Red Oak
Bird: Eastern Goldfinch
- One of the first Native American reservations in the United States was established in Burlington County in 1758 for the Lenni-Lenape tribe. The first and only reservation in New Jersey, the Brotherton Reserve, was sold back to the state in 1801 by the remaining members of the tribe, who moved north to join relatives in New Stockbridge, New York.
- The first virtually complete dinosaur skeleton discovered in North America was unearthed in 1858 by William Parker Foulke in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Hadrosaurus foulkii, as it was later named, proved that the existence of dinosaurs was real, and provided shocking evidence that dinosaurs could be bipedal. In 1868, it became the first dinosaur skeleton in the world to be mounted on display.
- The world’s first boardwalk was constructed in Atlantic City in 1870 to reduce the amount of sand tracked into nearby hotels and railroad cars. As hotels, shops, restaurants and casinos sprouted up along the seaside, Atlantic City became one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. As of 2012, the boardwalk remains the longest in the world—stretching for six miles.
- During the last quarter of the 19th century, Thomas Edison generated hundreds of inventions at his Menlo Park laboratory, including the phonograph and an electric-powered railway. While most famous for perfecting the incandescent light bulb, Edison was awarded more than a thousand patents during his lifetime for inventions large and small.
- Saltwater taffy, the popular bite-sized soft candy, originated on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in the 1880s.
- Opening to traffic between New Jersey and New York on November 13, 1927, the Holland Tunnel became the first mechanically ventilated underwater tunnel. At its maximum depth, the tunnel lies roughly 93 feet beneath the Hudson River.
- New Jersey was the site of more than 100 battles during the fight for American independence and is known as the “Crossroads of the Revolution.”
- New Jersey is home to Princeton and Rutgers Universities—two of the nine colleges founded in the 13 Colonies before the American Revolution. Notable revolutionaries who attended Princeton University include Frederick Frelinghuysen, James Madison, Aaron Burr and William Bradford. (Rutgers beat Princeton in the first college football game on November 6, 1869.)
A Short History of New Jersey, NJ.gov
History of Trenton, Trenton.org
Bruce Springsteen, Biography.com
NJ Hall of Fame 2008 inductees, Njhalloffame.org
“Organized crime has a long history at the Jersey Shore,” Asbury Park Press, March 2019