Jersey City: A History & The Future


“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – Inscribed sonnet by Emma Lazarus

The lovely Lady Liberty may stand in New York Harbor, but its welcoming address is unmistakably Jersey City – just one of the reasons this city has seen the welcoming of many nations from every continent and every island. Jersey City boasts festivals from many nations and our welcoming does not stop there. It extends through every household that cooks the food of their nation, the many languages spoken here, the music, the food, the arts, and the customs. They all give testament to the fact that Jersey City is one of the most diverse cities in America and we LOVE IT!

Lenape and New Netherland

What we now know is that Jersey City was originally inhabited by the Lenape, a collection of tribes (later called Delaware Indian). In 1609, Henry Hudson, seeking an alternate route to East Asia, anchored his small vessel at multiple points along the North River. By 1621, the Dutch West India Company was organized to manage this new territory and in June 1623, New Netherland was established, headquartered at New Amsterdam (the southern tip of Manhattan Island).

View of New Amsterdam
View of New Amsterdam

Michael Reyniersz Pauw received a land grant as patroon on the condition that he would establish a settlement of not fewer than fifty persons within four years. He chose the west bank of the North River (Hudson River) and took the land from the Lenape residing there. This grant is dated November 22, 1630 and is the earliest known conveyance for what are now Hoboken and Jersey City. Pauw, however, was an absentee landlord who neglected to populate the area and was obliged to sell his holdings back to the Company in 1633. Relations with the Lenape deteriorated, in part because of the colonists mistreatment of the indigenous people, which led to a series of raids, reprisals and the virtual destruction of their settlement on the west bank. During Kieft’s War, approximately one hundred and twenty Lenapes were killed by the Dutch in a massacre at Pavonia (present-day Hudson County) on the night of February 25, 1643.

Jersey City in the 18th Century

During the American Revolutionary War, the area was in the hands of the British who controlled New York. In the Battle of Paulus Hook, Major General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee attacked a British fortification on August 19, 1779. After this war, Alexander Hamilton and other prominent New Yorkers and New Jerseyeans attempted to develop the area that would become historic Downtown Jersey City. They laid out the city squares and streets that still characterize the neighborhood, giving them names after war heroes, which are also seen in Lower Manhattan (Grove, Varick, Mercer, Wayne, Monmouth, and Montgomery being a few among them).The first village (located inside a palisaded garrison) established on what is now Bergen Square in 1660 is considered to be the oldest town in what would become the state of New Jersey.

Jersey City in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, former slaves reached Jersey City on one of the four routes of the Underground Railroad that led here. Jersey City was the last “station” on the route through New Jersey. Some escaped slaves traveled to Newark and used the Belleville Turnpike to get to Jersey City. From Five Corners (Newark and Summit Avenues), they were driven or hidden in wagons to the Jersey City waterfront. There, and at the Morris Canal basin, abolitionists hired ferry boats and coal boats to take the fleeing slaves across the Hudson River, called the “River Jordan,” to go to Canada, New England, or New York City. 

Panoramic depiction of Jersey City in 1854
Panorama of Jersey City in 1854


The city of Jersey was incorporated by an act of the New Jersey Legislature on January 28, 1820 from portions of Bergen Township, while the area was still a part of Bergen County. The city was reincorporated on January 23, 1829, and again on February 22, 1838, at which time it became completely independent of North Bergen and was given its present name. On February 22, 1840, it became part of the newly created Hudson County. Soon after the Civil War, the idea arose of uniting all of the towns of Hudson County east of the Hackensack River into one municipality. A bill was approved by the state legislature on April 2, 1869, with a special election to be held on October 5, 1869. The consolidation went into effect on May 3, 1870.Three years later the present outline of Jersey City was completed when Greenville agreed to merge into the greater Jersey City.

In the late 1880s, three passenger railroad terminals opened in Jersey City next to the Hudson River. Tens of millions of immigrants passed through these stations as they made their way westward from Ellis Island into the United States. The railroads transformed the geography of the city by building the Erie Cut as well as several large freight rail yards. The railroads became and would remain the largest employers in Jersey City into and during the early 20th century.

Jersey City Today

Today, the United States is still the land of opportunity. Jersey City represents the “Golden Door” to that opportunity. In 1994, 10 major firms relocated to Jersey City, bringing in more than 6,000 jobs. Many of them based their decision to relocate on the successful track record of the 1980’s which witnessed a renaissance in Jersey City. Nearly 30 firms moved to or opened offices within the city during the decade. The skyline of the waterfront and downtown was totally transformed from rail yards and warehouses along the Hudson to sleek, modern office towers, and developments. Several billion dollars were invested in Jersey City during the 80’s and early 90’s. This investment renovated not only the appearance and image of Jersey City, but also the city’s infrastructure.

Aside from bridges, highways, public transportation, Jersey City’s “information infrastructure” was re-wired with fiber-optic cable and other high-tech devices, making it an ideal location for corporations depending on a solid information link with the rest of the world. Jersey City was the only one of New Jersey’s six largest cities to gain both in population and employment through the recession of the late 80’s and early 90’s, a time when many other cities watched all of the economic gains they had made during the 80’s disappear.

The city works hard at its goal to become America’s “most livable city” by providing safe, clean streets, reducing property taxes, and improving the range of educational choices. The City is a national model for affordable housing and has developed innovative solutions to help low income families become homeowners. Within Jersey City, there exists a wide range of housing options. Add all of these elements together, the growth, the location, the trends, the opportunity, and you get a dynamic community rapidly stepping up to take its proper place within the fabric of not just the metro area, but of the entire state. Jersey City has a glorious history and an even greater future. Companies that choose to locate here will be catching a rising tide. Jersey City truly is America’s Golden Door, and anyone looking for opportunity has only but to knock. 

Adia Atwell
Author: Adia Atwell