To many, Elizabeth, New Jersey is a pleasant, quiet town of about 130,000 between the Passaic and Raritan Rivers, just across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island, home to hundreds of commuter families and the ever-popular IKEA home furnishings store. But Elizabeth is much more than that. From its start as the first permanent British settlement in New Jersey, the town has been steeped in rich history—and as a result of the community's commitment to preserving that history, Elizabeth has inherited beautiful architecture, cultural events, and a sense of itself that few suburban cities can boast.
"The City of Elizabeth is really noted for the beginnings of the state of New Jersey," says Michael Yesenko, the Union Township historian. "It was, among other things, the first state capital of New Jersey, the home of the state's first governor, and the home of the first Colonial Assembly and Council meeting."
Ye Olde Elizabethtown
Elizabeth got its start in the fall of 1664 when, at the behest of Colonel Richard Nicolls—Governor of the North American Territories at the time—a quartet of British traders calling themselves the Elizabethtown Associates purchased 500,000 acres of land west of Newark Bay from the Lenape Indians. According to local records, the purchase price of the land was "twenty fathoms of trading cloth, two 'made' coats, two guns, two kettles, ten bars of lead, 20 handsful of powder, and 400 fathoms of white wampum." By the following spring, the traders had laid official claim to their new acquisition by erecting four houses on the land and laying the groundwork for a permanent settlement.
Some confusion arose, however, when in the summer of 1665, another group of settlers showed up under the leadership of one Philip Carteret, claiming ownership of the land the Elizabethtown Associates and their families and servants had been occupying. As it turns out, unbeknownst to Governor Nicolls, mere months after he had authorized the purchase of the land from the Indians, the Duke of York had given what was to eventually become the entire state of New Jersey—including the land around Elizabeth—to Carteret's uncle and the Lord John Berkeley, who promptly named Carteret Governor of New Jersey and sent him to settle the new land posthaste.
Needless to say, the existing settlers were nonplussed by the new arrivals, but Nicolls and Carteret managed to make an uneasy peace, and the two groups united to found Elizabethtown. In the ensuing months and years, homes, shops, and a church were built, and by 1668, the settlement was named the provincial capital of New Jersey—though thanks to ongoing legal battles over the long-standing questions of ownership, the city wasn't officially chartered and incorporated until 1855.