Finding oneself in Central Jersey, whether East or West

As a relative newcomer to the Garden State–I’ve lived in Princeton for only a little more than a year–I rarely know what local and regional history is common knowledge to New Jerseyans and what is little known or a matter of specialized expertise. I only recently learned, for example, about the long-standing dispute around Central Jersey’s existence–a matter finally put to rest in August when S3206 was signed into law. Even less clear, and less familiar to New Jersey residents, it seems, is the distinction between East New Jersey and West New Jersey. I recently asked a colleague who grew up here whether the distinction meant anything to her and she said that she had never heard of it.

The now-defunct East-West boundary arises from New Jersey’s colonial past, marking off a phase of English colonization that had long-lasting consequences, most of all for the Indigenous peoples who had controlled this region prior to European colonization. But, as I’ve learned, that boundary is more difficult to pin down than the existence of Central Jersey, even as it figures into the origin myth of the town of Princeton. The website for the municipality devotes a page to historic Princeton, which describes the establishment of Henry Greenland’s house in 1683 as a significant event in the early recorded history of the town. It goes on to mention a meeting between East Jersey and West Jersey representatives, who were to establish a boundary between their two colonies, as well as the Keith line which marks off the western boundary of Princeton. Following this line’s demarcation of the boundary, Princeton would have sat along the boundary itself as a remote part of East New Jersey. However, it may have been at that moment in time, because each colony stood to gain or lose to the extent that the boundary secured more or less land on each side of the border; the attempts to fix the boundary in the 1670s and 80s would remain contentious well into the eighteenth century and its legal significance would only be settled in the nineteenth century. Some of the other survey lines suggested over those years would have placed all of present-day Mercer County, including the town of Princeton, in West New Jersey.

Learning about the property disputes central to this contested boundary can help to bring the reality of colonization and Indigenous expropriation into view. But one can go deeper to understand this impactful moment of the town’s early history by studying the Lenape communities themselves which were most dramatically affected by this process. While I had been aware already that the entire territory of New Jersey had once been controlled by numerous Indigenous peoples who may generally be identified as Lenape or Delaware, it was only upon taking up my new role as the public humanities specialist, that developing a knowledge of local history falls within my areas of responsibility, that I learned more about the history of European colonization and Indigenous dispossession that unfolded in this specific part of the world. In doing so, I have come to appreciate how concrete knowledge of that history can be attained and how careful historical research on Lenape society can illuminate the ways in which the colonial past conditions present realities.

Some resources that I have found particularly informative as I’ve been researching in this area are collected among the items on the booklist associated with the library’s Living Land Acknowledgement, an articulation of the library’s recognition of the Lenape peoples’ stewardship of the land on which the library sits and its intent to keep informing itself and the public it serves about Lenape culture, history, art, and experience. One item on that booklist, Jean R. Soderlund’s “Separate Paths: Lenapes and Colonists in West New Jersey,” offers a rich and accessible analysis of the social relations prevailing in this region when the Lenape peoples still controlled their lands in spite of accelerating European colonization. Even more than in her other book on social relations in territories controlled by Lenapes, Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society before William Penn, Soderlund’s “Separate Paths” expertly narrates how from 1677 onward proprietors among the English Quakers pursued a campaign to dispossess the Lenape communities in West New Jersey, even in spite of the efforts among Lenape leaders to establish “a broad path” in which coexistence would be possible. Early in the book she quotes from Thomas Budd’s description of a conference held at Burlington between English colonists and a Lenape leader, where the leader is reported to have said the following words: “You are our Brothers, and we are willing to live like Brothers with you: We are willing to have a broad Path for you and us to walk in, and if an Indian is asleep in this path, the English-man shall pass him by, and do him no harm; and if an English-man is asleep in this path, the Indian shall pass him by and say, He is an English-man, he is asleep, let him alone, he loves to Sleep. It shall be a plain Path, there must not be in this path a stump to hurt our feet.” (p. 5) Soderlund goes on to show that, against this proposal of the Lenape leader, the English colonists instead followed a separate path, in which relentless expropriation was chosen over peaceful coexistence.

For myself, a stranger to this land and its ways, I’m still trying to sort out what defines this place where I have so recently arrived. Geography, as I’ve learned, can be a particularly useful resource. But really what is the most helpful is working through the surviving historical sources and richly imagined narrative histories, gathering a more substantive impression of what it must have been like for the Lenapes and colonists to confront one another in that early period of the state’s history. Such historical understanding can perhaps open a way back to that broad path of harmonious cohabitation.

Image: Worlidge, John, and John Thornton. A new mapp of East and West New Jarsey [sic]: being an exact survey. [London, 1706] Map.

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