When writing about Hunterdon history, I will refer to events in New Jersey history that require some explanation. In order to avoid repetition, I will put short explanations of major events here, and update this post as needed.
New Jersey’s Earliest Land Titles
Early in the 1600’s, the Dutch East India Company began sending colonizers out to the area around the mouth of the Hudson River, principally to trade for furs. But the English claimed all of New York and New Jersey based on voyages of discovery made by John Cabot in 1497. The Dutch finally capitulated to Charles II in 1664, and New Jersey became an undisputed English colony. Charles II immediately granted the land between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers (and the right to govern it) to his brother James Duke of York. James gave this land the name of New Jersey (Nova Caesaria) after the island of Jersey, home of Sir George Carteret, to whom he granted one undivided half share of the tract. The other half was granted to another supporter of the king, John Lord Berkeley.
In the Spring of 1674, Berkeley sold his share to John Fenwick “in trust for the use of Edward Byllinge” for £1000. Both Fenwick and Byllinge were Quakers. Byllinge’s financial condition was so wretched he could not purchase anything under his own name. Fenwick was one of his creditors and claimed that the deed from Berkeley was a proper settlement of Byllinge’s debts. Byllinge did not agree and looked to William Penn to settle the dispute. Penn, together with Gawen Lawrie and Nicholas Lucas, all three prominent Quakers, divided the Berkeley-Byllinge share of New Jersey into tenths, giving one tenth to Fenwick and putting the other tenths up for sale.
By this time, Carteret nephew Philip was acting as governor of the eastern portion of New Jersey. Fenwick went to New Jersey with some followers to explore the Delaware Bay, eventually settling at Salem. Penn and Carteret came to an understanding that the two undivided shares of New Jersey would be divided between East New Jersey and West New Jersey. They were vague about a dividing line, and that caused no end of trouble in succeeding years.
The Proprietary Land System
One of the most confusing things about New Jersey history is the way land was first sold. You will often see the terms proprietor, proprietorship, proprietary in old deeds and other records. Sometimes you’ll find that a 1/19th of a 1/32nd of a proprietary was sold. It all goes back to that error of James Duke of York when he gave the land of New Jersey (and the right to govern it) to two people. They were the original proprietors. Because Hunterdon was in West New Jersey, which was sold by John Lord Berkeley to Edward Byllinge, I will focus on the system of land sales practiced there. There were Proprietors in East New Jersey also, but their system was slightly different.
Even before the first boatload of Quaker settlers arrived at Burlington City, there was a system for dividing up the land for future settlers. In England, a decision was made to divide Byllinge’s propriety into ten shares. But soon it was changed to 100 shares. Each share, or propriety, was similar to stock in a corporation. Owners of proprieties were entitled to warrants for surveys of land, and the amount of land depended on how much of a propriety they owned. An owner of one full propriety could divide it into fractions and sell them off. Each purchaser of a fraction of a propriety was entitled to land in West New Jersey.
The Proprietors of West New Jersey met in Burlington to manage the distribution of land and warrants for surveys. They were known as the Council of Proprietors. At first, the Council was also the governing body, but they soon delegated that job to an elected Council and Assembly, under a governor named by the majority Proprietor. In the early days, there were heated disputes over who had the right to name the governor.
In their hurry to acquire more land, the proprietors would issue dividends from time to time. Generally, they would make a large enough purchase of land from the Lenape to provide a dividend of 5000 acres per propriety. That is what was intended when the “Lotting Purchase” was made in 1703. Nearly 100,000 acres was acquired, but it was then discovered to be too little for the size dividend that was intended, so Lewis Morris was ordered to purchase another 100,000 acres, which he did in 1709. It was after that date that warrants for surveys were issued to proprietors for land in what became Hunterdon County.
The Creation of Hunterdon County
The original counties of West New Jersey were Burlington, Gloucester and Salem. They were much larger than those counties are today. Burlington consisted of everything from Pennsauken Creek north along the Delaware River to the Assunpink Creek at Trenton. Above that the land was ‘owned’ by the Lenape.
Following the issue of dividends for the Lotting Purchase, a few hardy settlers began to arrive here, and it was not long before they felt the need for a county seat further north than the city of Burlington. One of those pressing for a new county was John Reading, who had acquired a large tract of land just north of Stockton. He had been instrumental in the creation of a new township in Burlington County in 1708 called Amwell Township, which was just north of Hopewell Township. In 1710, the Assembly passed a bill that moved Burlington’s northern boundary to the northern boundary of Amwell Township.
In 1713, John Reading became a member of the Governor’s Council, under Governor Robert Hunter. The following year, a bill was introduced for “Erecting the Upper parts of the Western division of New Jersey into a County.” Reading served on a committee named to make amendments to the bill, which passed the Council on Feb. 11, 1714. Reading took the bill to the Assembly which approved it on March 13th. It is thought that it was Reading’s idea to name it Hunterdon, in honor of the governor.
The best source for information on all the changes on county and municipal boundaries in New Jersey is John P. Snyder’s The Story of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries, 1606-1968 (see Sources: NJ History).