The state of New Jersey played a significant role in shaping the past and present of the US. From early Native American inhabitants and the arrival of European settlers to the crucible of the American Revolution and its modern-day prominence, the state has a rich history filled with tales of resilience and innovation.
Explore the captivating tale of how New Jersey came to be the most urbanized state in the US and look at the pivotal moments that led to it becoming the first state with electricity, the first to legalize online casino games and the only state with no rural metropolitans.
The First Settlers
So, when was NJ founded? The earliest inhabitants of the area were Native Americans. Referred to as the Delaware Indians (or the Lenni Lenape,) they originally lived in self-sufficient groups spread across the land. These groups were able to thrive through strong ties to nature and a rich cultural heritage, both of which have been carefully preserved until today.
But if Native Americans lived on the land for centuries, when did New Jersey become a colony? That question can be answered by going back to the first meetings between the Delaware Indians and migrant settlers.
In the 16th century, Dutch and British settlers brought trade and the concept of land ownership from Europe. Food tours and holiday resorts were still a ways away, but the settlers worked quickly to establish colonies on popular trading routes. Bergen was the first permanent settlement, which would eventually become Jersey City after more than a century of turbulent development.
After the British took control of New Jersey from the Dutch, the diverse population of settlers enjoyed political and religious freedom. This was a major contributor to the ethnic diversity that set New Jersey apart from other colonies in the surrounding area.
Throughout the colonial period, governance of the colony shifted between various authorities put in place by the British government. The history of New Jersey became a bit convoluted with these constant changes. At one point, the state was even split between two provinces, East Jersey and West Jersey, but luckily that division only lasted for about 28 years.
In 1738, New Jersey finally got its own governor, Lewis Morris. Campaigning against the poor track record of shared governance, Morris and his supporters pushed for independence during a time when there was growing dissatisfaction with British rule. In the years that followed, dissent increased rapidly and the state would end up playing a pivotal role in the American Revolution.
The Revolutionary War
In the year 1776, everything changed when the balance of power shifted from colonial rule toward independence and local legislation. Five of the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence were New Jersey representatives, demonstrating the state’s fierce desire for progress and freedom.
New Jersey became a major conflict zone during the war, thanks to its proximity to all 13 of the original US colonies. British and American armies crossed the state several times, inevitably resulting in famous confrontations such as the first and second battles for Trenton and the Battle of Monmouth. In total, over 100 battles took place in New Jersey, earning it the nickname “The Crossroads of the American Revolution.”
As far as facts about New Jersey go, this was one of the most significant changes in the state’s history. Under the leadership of General George Washington, American Patriot forces won the war in 1783, meaning progress toward true US independence could finally take place. In 1787, New Jersey became the third state to approve the US Constitution and the first to enact the newly formed Union’s Bill of Rights.
In its early years as an independent state, New Jersey focused on rebuilding cities and infrastructure impacted by the war. New roads and railways allowed for faster travel around the state, and canals brought much-needed water to dry areas with crucial resources. But then, the American Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865, causing a slump in growth where over 25,000 men fought for the Union.
Following the end of the Civil War, attention was refocused on growth. The global “Industrial Revolution” was underway and mining iron was a game-changer for cities like Trenton, Jersey City, Paterson and Newark. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, New Jersey prospered and reached significant milestones in technology, agriculture and entertainment.
World-famous inventor Thomas Edison made over 1,000 patents in his lab in New Jersey, inventing revolutionary technologies like motion picture cameras and electric light bulbs. Immigrants came from all over the world to live in one of the fastest-growing states, accelerating New Jersey’s growth by doubling the population between 1900 and 1930.
Manufacturing became a multi-billion dollar industry at the turn of the 20th century, but the Great Depression caused significant setbacks and many residents lost their livelihoods. Strangely enough, World War I and II were exactly what the state needed to overcome this challenging period. The strength of the state’s manufacturing sector allowed it to produce naval vessels quickly and efficiently, including the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo ship.
The 21st Century & Beyond
The combination of increased production, globalization and the development of technology have ensured that New Jersey continues to grow at a healthy rate. The arts and culture scene has been able to thrive without global conflict, and talented artists like Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra have made a name for themselves on the global stage.
If you’re looking for facts about New Jersey, did you know that the state was the first to have a domestic flight? It was the first state to construct a mechanically ventilated underwater tunnel. It’s also home to two of the oldest universities in the country, Princeton and Rutgers Universities, both of which were founded long before the American Revolution.
With all that being said, New Jersey has seen its fair share of challenges in the modern day. The diversity of the state’s residents has led to clashes of cultural and social values, culminating in race riots during the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a history-changing event covered by international news outlets.
Although racial tensions remain prevalent throughout the US, New Jersey’s social and cultural diversity has left it less impacted by the political debates dominating news channels. The state’s residents share a long history of agreed-upon values fostered through centuries of growth as a diverse society. Every resident has the freedom to make the most of the state’s activities and opportunities, working towards a better life in a land where opportunities for work and play are more abundant than most.
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