From the 15th to 17th Centuries, the Dutch and English were drawn to this area — then occupied by the Lenni Lenapi Indians (or Delaware tribe, as the Europeans called them) — because of its incredibly easy access by sea. They developed the first colonial settlements in the area because of its natural beauty, vast abundance of fertile fields and natural resources, and offer of personal freedom.
The development of the area was greatly helped by the criss-cross network of Indian trails, which became colonial roads and, centuries later, major highways.
In the historic Elizabethtown Purchase of 1664 — the Lenni Lanapi gave a group of English settlers title to an immense tract of land that extended from the Raritan to the Passaic Rivers, and westward for over thirty miles. (It is interesting to note that the Indians believed they were selling the rights to use the land for hunting, fishing, farming and such. The English concept of “owning” land was unknown to them at that time.) The purchase led to the first permanent English settlement in New Jersey. Elizabethtown was laid out along the Elizabeth River near the present Union County Courthouse. As the port of entry and first seat of New Jersey government, Elizabeth became a prominent and thriving economic center, and the leading settlement in the state. (It should also be noted that Warinanco and Matteo were two Indians whose names were later given to two County parks.)
In 1683, the General Assembly, meeting in Elizabethtown, divided East New Jersey into four counties: Bergen, Essex, Middlesex and Monmouth. What we know as Union County was originally a part of Essex County.
With the growth in population and continuous division and sale of land parcels, Elizabethtown’s boundary lines continued to expand and divide. State legislature created the towns of Springfield (1793), Westfield (1794), Rahway (1804), Union (1808) and New Providence (1809).
The creation of Plainfield in 1847 fueled the movement to secede from Essex County, to create a new county better equipped to meet the needs of the southernmost towns. The animosities between Elizabethtown and Newark heightened in 1807 when Newark replaced Elizabethtown as Essex County’s seat of justice, and gradually overcame Elizabethtown in economic importance. It accelerated when Elizabeth incorporated in 1855.
Written by Joanne Rajoppi, Union County Clerk