Historians are uncertain whether Hunterdon’s first settlers were English Quakers moving up from the area south of Trenton in the late 1690s, or Dutch and Scotch farmers migrating west from Somerset county at about the same time. William Penn owned much of the land, but sold it to concentrate on his holdings on the other side of the Delaware River.
We know that ferry service between Lambertville and Pennsylvania was in operation by 1710, and the county was populated enough by 1714 to be split off from Burlington. The new county was named after Robert Hunter, then Royal Governor of New York and New Jersey, and a man of exceptional capability. Church and civil records from the earliest decades of the 18th century abound, detailing births and baptisms, marriages, land grants, the cost of a barrel of cider and the practice of cutting oakbeams in the full of the moon to erect a meetinghouse or a barn, some of which are still standing today.
As Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Scotch-Irish and English settlers moved into Hunterdon, most of the Lenni-Lenape Indians moved west of the Delaware. In 1758, the representatives of 14 tribes were paid $1,000 for title to lands they held in New Jersey. Seven years later, dozens of patriots, calling themselves Sons of Liberty, met in a tavern in Ringoes to organize opposition to the English Parliament’s imposition of the Stamp Act. When the Revolutionary War began, armed resistance was preached from the pulpits, and Hunterdon warehouses bulged with food and material for Washington’s army. Hunterdon was the most densely populated county in New Jersey, so we raised four times more troops than other counties. Although no major battles were fought in Hunterdon, history recounts exciting tales of skirmishes, spies, counterfeiting, Tories and troop movements. If you walk our cemeteries you will find dozens of stones marking the graves of soldiers, renowned and obscure, in English, Dutch and German, who perished in battle, or survived to help build a new nation.
In the early part of the 19th century, almost 10 percent of the county’s population were slaves. But anti-slavery sentiment, strong at the time of the revolution, grew stronger, and by 1860, only four slaves resided in Hunterdon. Many residents were sympathetic to the South, however, and the county’s voters didn’t support Lincoln, but they were the first in the state to respond to his call for troops after the fall of Fort Sumter. A monument to them stands in Flemington Borough.
Following the Civil War, as waves of immigrants flooded into the manufacturing centers of the state, or swept past Hunterdon to homestead western lands, county residents settled into an easy prosperity, leaving hundreds of ornate Victorian homes and Gothic revival churches as testimony to their affluence and aspirations. But in 1935, Hunterdon County attracted world-wide attention when Bruno Hauptmann was tried for the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s small son from the Lindberg’s Hunterdon estate. More than 600 reporters covered the trial in Flemington. During lulls in the action, they filled their columns with background pieces about the county and its people. This publicity attracted "city people" to the area, and some of the hidden charms of the county can be found in the weekend cottages they built.
Many old stone farmhouses, barns and mills that were the backbone of Hunterdon’s agricultural roots exist today. It is easy to find a braced-frame barn erected without a single nail, or a stone milk house, half-sunken into the ground, or the remains of a limekiln that was vital to maintaining the fertility of the soil. Even our place names, Dunkard Church Road, High Bridge, Old Mine Road, Headquarters, Quakertown, Copper Hill, Sergeantsville, and Pralls Mill give testimony to the heritage of the county. Old taverns have become fine restaurants, one former church is now a bed-and-breakfast, and two others serve as town halls; few residents don’t know someone who has converted an old barn into a spacious and unconventional dwelling. So as you visit a small village or drive the back roads of the county, stay alert to the history that lies just around the corner.