Jersey City: History

Dutch Explore Tribal Land

Before the coming of Europeans, the indigenous Algonquian tribe who called themselves Lenape, "the People," lived in the Hudson County region. A peaceful people, they were respected by other tribes and often called to settle disputes between rivals, hence they became known as the "Grandfather tribe." White settlers renamed the Lenape Delawares, for the Delaware River they had designated for Lord de la Warr, then governor of the Jamestown Colony.

In 1609, English navigator Henry Hudson, financed by the Dutch East India Company, explored the area in his third unsuccessful attempt to find a passage to Asia by setting out north and west from Europe. Jersey City abounds with Dutch street names because it was Michael Pauw, an agent of the Dutch West India Company, who purchased and pioneered a permanent European settlement there in 1630. Pauw and his fellow trappers encountered Native Americans of the Delaware tribe and began trading with them. For the next 20 years the peninsula served as a western gateway for trade with other Native American tribes. This land of present day Jersey City and Hoboken, which the Indians had called Communipaw and Harsimus (both are spelled at least 15 different ways in historical documents) was dubbed Pavonia, by Pauw's Latinization of his own name, and Paulus Hook, after the next governor of the area, Michael Paulusen. In 1638, William Kieft was sent to Pavonia as the new director general of the colony. His swindling trade practices and brutality, culminating in 1643 in an un-provoked massacre of the Raritan tribe, (who had come to the Dutch for refuge from their warring enemies to the north, the Mohawks) resulted in an eight month war with the Indians, and sickness and poverty spread over the settlement. In 1647 Petrus Stuyvesant became the new director general of New Amsterdam and enacted a policy of conciliation that led to an uneasy peace with the Indians for a while. This peace was disturbed in 1655, when a Delaware maiden was killed for trespassing in a settler family's peach orchard in what is now lower Manhattan. The natives fled back across the Hudson River to Pavonia, then exacted revenge by driving out all white people from the Jersey Shore. Whoever did not flee was killed; livestock was slaughtered, and every building burnt down. The Dutch fled to New Amsterdam (now New York) to escape, but after five years went by, they wished to return to the fertile farmlands and hunting grounds of Pavonia. Stuyvesant re-bought the land from the Indians in a ceremony which included nine chiefs, and made sure the new settlement was built so as to be more easily defended.

The settlement shifted to English rule in 1664 when Charles II, who had always thought he owned it, gave it to his brother James, Duke of York. After a brief period of struggle with the Dutch, they asserted permanent control there in 1674, renaming the land New Jersey in honor of the largest island in the English Channel, where James' friend George Cartaret was born. Jersey City itself was known during this early English time as the Towne of Bergen. For the next century, agriculture and transportation occupied the region, where ferries traveled across the Hudson to and from New York. Jersey City was also an important stop on first the road route and then the stagecoach route from New York to Philadelphia.

Bergen, Paulus Hook, Harsimus, Communipaw Cove—all the old communities that became the core of modern Jersey City and Hoboken—played crucial parts throughout the Revolutionary War. After the earlier skirmishes at Lexington and Bunker Hill, it became obvious the British were turning their focus, and their naval strength, to the New York-New Jersey area in late June 1776. George Washington recognized the strategic importance of the region, ordered fortifications to be made quickly, and named the Bergen militia. Skirmishes and all out battles went on between the patriots and the British, along with their many Tory sympathizers in the region, but the British maintained an outpost on Paulus Hook until the night of August 18, 1779, when American Major Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee led a surprise attack on the fort. Lee captured about a third of the English garrison while Americans suffered only two casualties. The humiliating loss of Paulus Hook was followed by a brutal winter of 1779-1780 wherein people could walk back and forth from New York to New Jersey on the ice to buy and sell increasingly rare and expensive firewood. The English forces began to lose their strength and resolve. In October of 1780, General Lafayette joined with the American forces to challenge the English at the place Jersey City Cemetery is now. The British retained a small hold on the area for the next couple of years but were finally driven out of America in 1783.

Modern Jersey City Emerges

In 1812, steam ferry service began with Robert Fulton's Jersey. Old Paulus Hook was incorporated as Jersey City in 1820, but only a small part of the size it is now, and was still considered part of the town of Bergen. Jersey City's first police force, the "watch," was formed in 1829. When an 1834 treaty settled the middle of the Hudson River as the boundary between New York and New Jersey, development of Jersey City began in earnest. The Morris Canal extension to Jersey City in 1836, then two railroad lines arriving in the same year, bolstered the city's transportation and distribution capabilities. Coal from Pennsylvania could be shipped in to fuel factories, and the factories' goods readily shipped out anywhere in the United States. Resulting industry included the Colgate-Palmolive Company, makers of soaps, perfumes, and toiletries, which relocated from New York City to Jersey City in 1847. That year the Hibernia, was the first Cunard (luxury yacht makers of the Queen Mary II and Queen Elizabeth II) liner to dock at Port Jersey. Jersey City also became home of the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company, famous for lead pencils; the Dummer's Jersey City Glass Company, known for its flint glass; Isaac Edge's fireworks factory; and the American Pottery Company. From 1860 to 1870 Jersey City's population shot from 7,000 to 29,000, a tribute to the economic strength of the city's factories, but also due to several municipalities in the area voting to consolidate themselves under the name Jersey City in 1869. Among the immigrants arriving through Port Jersey to work in the plants were Germans, Polish, Irish, and Italians. Prior to and during the Civil War, Jersey City was an important station on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves, who entered the city hidden aboard Erie Canal boats. Jersey City was also a major embarkation point for Union soldiers.

Following the Civil War, activity centered around struggles between competing railroads and political infighting in municipal government. In the 1870s the first paid fire department was hired and the first public high school was opened. A railway tube between Jersey City and New York City opened in 1910.

Jersey City suffered from World War I aggressions when, on the night of July 30, 1916, German saboteurs exploded ammunition-laden railroad cars into Black Tom Island (which now comprises a south side portion of Liberty State Park, across from the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.) The blast was felt as far as Manhattan and Philadelphia, Connecticut and Maryland. Property losses were estimated at $22 million, $1 million of which went to replace glass in Jersey City windows.

A three decade political era began in 1917, when Frank Hague became mayor; his Democratic machine remained in power for the next 30 years. The Colgate clock, largest in the world, with a face spanning 50 feet in diameter and a 23-foot minute hand weighing over a ton, was erected in 1924, and in 1927 the Holland Tunnel opened. In 1937 Roosevelt Stadium opened and eventually became one of the fields upon which the great Jackie Robinson played when he broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1946.

Jersey City's population peaked at 299,000 in 1950. Residents and businesses, lured to suburbs accessible by new highways, began to leave the city in the 1950s. In response, older brownstone row homes were rehabilitated and massive downtown redevelopment projects were sponsored by private, municipal, state, and federal government dollars. Liberty State Park opened in 1976, and the first New Jersey Waterfront Marathon was run in 1985. By the late 1980s, Jersey City had become a "back office" site for businesses fleeing high rent and other exorbitant business costs in New York City. In fact, Jersey City was the only one of the state's six largest cities to gain both in population and employment during the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1994, ten major firms relocated to the city, bringing more than 6,000 new jobs. Nearly 30 firms moved to or began operations within the city during the 1990s, and the skyline was transformed from rail yards and warehouses along the Hudson River to modern office towers and trendy artist's neighborhoods. Massive ongoing development projects into the new millenium promise continuing prosperity for Jersey City.

Historical Information: Historian, Jersey City Library, 472 Jersey Avenue, Jersey City, NJ 07302; telephone (201)547-4503