[Updated 20 March 2017]
Nominated by Michelle D. Novak; researched by Afina Broekman and Michelle D. Novak; narrative by Michelle D. Novak
Greetings from Warren Point! From Coytesville! From Orvil Township! From Spikertown! From Peetzville! From Delford! Do you know where these places are? If you don’t, you’re not alone.
The evolution of place names in Bergen County is a long and complicated one, and the subject of about half a dozen books on the topic, but understanding the evolution is of utmost importance to those researching here. For many researchers (me included), you may have a family in a specific place that you need to trace back through censuses, tax records, and land records. But as soon as you hit one of these place name breakpoints, you will discover that where you thought they resided is an entirely new name. They didn’t move—the town and county borders did.
Joseph R. Klett, Executive Director of the New Jersey State Archives, added that the New Jersey State Archives (NJSA) holds some early land records for Richmond County (Staten Island), Orange County, and Rockland County, New York. Border disputes between New York and New Jersey continued to at least 1831 and some deeds at NJSA are for properties as far north as Haverstraw, NY!
The NJSA is currently processing, describing, and indexing more than 80,000 early land records (pre-1785, when the counties took over recording land transactions) in its collection and building a new database that will span more than 60 collections—most of which have never been fully processed or indexed before. More details on this project can be found at www.njlandrecords.org.
Tracing the history of place names can be divided into two broad categories: 1) officially incorporated municipalities, and 2) unincorporated or colloquially named neighborhoods and districts. The first has long been a field of intrigue to researchers, with many excellent publications that break down the complex history into something more useful to researchers. But the second, unincorporated or informal neighborhood names, is wide-open for additional discovery. So in the interest of finding where your ancestors really lived—let’s dive in.
The first of two documents chosen to represent this subject is in New York Genealogical & Biographical Society’s collection now at the New York Public Library (NYGB Local Files Collection, Box 3). It is a blueprint, made in 1937, which attempts to diagram the municipal divisions, called “Bergen Boroughitis,” that culminated in the modern map of the County.
Bergen’s Municipalities and Bergen “Boroughitis”
Today, Bergen County consists of 70 incorporated municipalities—a huge number of boroughs, towns, villages, and cities for a county of Bergen’s size. But between settlement and the modern map is a confusing set of twists and turns.
After the fall of New Netherland in 1664, New Jersey was divided along a diagonal into East and West Jersey. In 1675, the East Jersey legislature created judicial districts across the state. In 1683, four official counties, Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, and Monmouth, were formed—their borders each encompassing a much larger area than today. The original boundaries of Bergen County consisted of modern-day Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic Counties as well as a small portion of Essex County (when Passaic was formed it took a piece of Essex also). On its northern border, Bergen County included a slice of Rockland County, NY, as far north as the area around Haverstraw! (The “Tripartite Deed” of 1719 set the boundary between New Jersey and the Colony of New York along this line. New Jersey lost this territory in 1769 when commissioners appointed by the Crown set the modern boundary where it is today. But disputes continued into the 1800s and those researching early records may find them on both sides of the New Jersey–New York border!)
In 1693 there were only two municipalities in Bergen County—Bergen and Hackensack Townships, which were both east of the Hackensack River. New Barbadoes Township (west of the Hackensack River) was added from Essex County in 1710. Continuing settlement and disputes over land rights slowly shaped Bergen County into nine, then dozens, and, finally 70 incorporated municipalities.
At the time of the American Revolution the five official municipalities were Hackensack, New Barbadoes, Bergen, Harrington, and Saddle River Townships. The pace of settlement and formation of municipalities continued at a rather leisurely pace throughout the early 1800s. In order to keep representation in state government balanced, Passaic County was formed from parts of Bergen County in 1837, and Hudson County was formed in 1840.
By the late 1800s the US experienced huge social upheaval—especially felt by those states with port cities. The Civil War, waves of new immigrant groups, financial panic of 1873, rise of steam-powered industry and railroads, and US population growth was a shock to many. It’s not unfair to say that those who lived through these times saw more change in 30 years than their ancestors had in the 150 years prior. In the mid-19th century the “commuter class,” who traveled the rail lines daily to higher-paying jobs in the cities, further changed the landscape in Bergen County—beginning the suburbanization that eventually all but erased our rural past.
In the 1890s, a number of acts of the New Jersey legislature set in motion Bergen’s “Boroughitis.” As past GSBC President and author, Arnold Lang, wrote in his series for The Archivist:
“Early in 1894, the New Jersey legislature passed a school act which wiped out the former subsidiary school districts and made each township a separate school district. Taxpayers were obliged to pay, pro rata, existing debts of the old districts in addition to all future debts of the township for school purposes. Exempted from this provision were ‘boroughs, towns, villages, and cities.’
A rush was then made to form boroughs, and 26 boroughs were carved from those early townships between January 23 and December 18, 1894. The rush to form boroughs was slowed down (but not stopped) when the legislature quickly passed an amendment to the school act that stated that no borough could maintain a school separate from the township unless there were 400 children within its limits.
Before 1893, a number of laws had been passed by the New Jersey Legislature which enabled boroughs to be formed. The first was in 1878 when the Legislature provided for formation of a borough in a township or part of a township, not to exceed four square miles and a population of 5,000…Subsequently, in 1891, an act was passed providing for formation of villages whose population was greater than 300 people per square mile…”
Lang continued, “Then, in 1893, an act was passed which brought about the sometimes bizarre borough boundaries that were eventually formed. That act provided that a borough could only have a chosen freeholder if the borough contained a portion of two or more townships. As a result, most of the boroughs that were formed contained small parts of different townships within their boundaries.
The break up of the townships continued after 1894. In addition to the school issue, discontent increased as regions with factories saw their heavy tax assessments being used to support large townships. These split-ups of the townships continued until 1924, when the number of municipalities reached 70. (However, municipal name changes and a few boundary changes still occurred through 1955.)”
In addition to the ever-shifting official municipal boundaries an even greater number of colloquial names for places, intersections, and neighborhoods were, and are, in use. Some of these, such as the Wortendyke section of Midland Park or Campgaw in Mahwah, are preserved in historic buildings and facilities. Others, including the Coytesville section of Fort Lee, where movie-making was born, are familiar to some but unknown to our children and grandchildren. And others, such as Warren Point and Page’s Corner have been all but forgotten. But these place names are important to researchers in many ways.
Some names can give clues to their former use or long-erased landmarks. According to the late Kevin Wright, historian and author, the common name for the place by the new mill where you could easily cross, or ford, the Hackensack River was called the new-mill-ford, which became “New Milford.”
Other names give clues to those who lived there before or were heroes of the era. These names show up again and again on early maps, congregational records, in diaries and journals, and even (but rarely) on official records. These names not only help researchers define areas within Bergen County’s large early towns, but help us connect people with specific places—sometimes within a specific time period.
Our Warren Point postcard is testament to this. Warren Point was, an early part of what would become Fair Lawn in 1924. GSBC member, Patricia Wardell, writes in her publication, A Dictionary of Place Names in Bergen County, New Jersey and Vicinity: “The Warren Point Post Office (sometimes written as Warrenpoint Post Office) was established 26 February 1894 with Johan C. Muller as the first Postmaster…” and “…was discontinued 31 December 1941 and on 1 January 1942 it became a Station of the Fair Lawn Post Office.” Also, Wardell adds that the Warren Point Post Office is noted on the 1900 Federal Census for Midland Township and shown on trolley maps of 1909.
According to the book, Fair Lawn 50th Anniversary, 1924–1974: Fair Lawn, New Jersey, County of Bergen County. (Fair Lawn, N.J. : Kimball Press, 1974.) “Warren Point was developed before most of the rest of Fair Lawn, and used to include parts of Elmwood Park. It had its own Fire Dept. in 1912. In 1924, when Fair Lawn became a borough, it was not densely populated, but did have a Church (St. Anne’s, started in 1909 with a chapel on what is now 13th Street, Elmwood Park), a Post Office, a stop on the Hudson River Trolley, running on Broadway between Paterson and Hackensack, and a stop on the Bergen County Rail Line, which was built for one wealthy commuter (unfortunately the Fair Lawn 30th Anniversary book does not tell who this commuter was). Circa 1924 an eight-room schoolhouse was build at 30th Street, replacing an earlier frame structure. The Clarion, an early local paper, was published by Clinton Kimball in Warren Point.”
So, far more than just a post office, this early neighborhood had its own church, fire department, trolley and train stop, newspaper, and school. Would you have known to check The Clarion for information about your family? (I wouldn’t.)
This article is the continuation of work into this subject by the GSBC, its members, and interested researchers. (In this, we pause and reflect the recent loss of former Bergen County Historical Society President and author, Kevin Wright, who was an expert on early Bergen County land records and Bergen’s Boroughitis. When I spoke to him about this issue this summer, he had hoped to have been able to contribute to this article. He will be deeply missed.)
The original article for GSBC on this subject was written by Arnold Lang with the first installment published by the GSBC in Vol. 27, No. 1, February 2000 issue of The Archivist. This article included a diagram of the “Bergen Family Tree.” Revisions and corrections to this article were submitted by Bob Holstrum in 2013. These changes are reflected in a new typesetting of this article which will be posted to the GSBC’s website in early 2017.
In 2016, the GSBC set about revisiting and revising the original article, making additional corrections and additions to this very complex narrative and preparing a new, more detailed version of the “Bergen Family Tree.” This will be published online and will include a downloadable handout of the tree. (Additions and corrections will be made as needed to the online version only.)
Indispensable publications on this topic, many available online or at the Bolger Heritage Center, include:
Karcher, Alan J. (1998). New Jersey’s Multiple Municipal Madness (New Brunswick: 1998) [Print copy available at the Bolger Heritage Center, Ridgewood Public Library.]
Klett, Joseph R. (2014). The Genealogical Magazine of New Jersey, “Understanding New Jersey’s Geography in the Proprietary Period” (Trenton : 2014), www.njgenealogy.com [Print copy available at the Bolger Heritage Center, Ridgewood Public Library.]
Lang, Arnold (2000). “Bergen County's Townships and Municipalities — Part 4, ‘Boroughitis.’” GSBC The Archivist, Vol. 27, No. 1, February 2000.
Sinclair, Donald A. (1996). A Guide to the Literature of New Jersey Place Names (New Brunswick: 1996) [Print copy available at the Bolger Heritage Center, Ridgewood Public Library.]
Snyder, John F. (1968). The Story of New Jersey’s Civil Boundaries 1606–1968, published by the State of New Jersey (Trenton : 1968). A copy of this book is available at the Bolger Heritage Center or download a free PDF scan of the publication, made available by the State of New Jersey, at www.state.nj.us/dep/njgs/enviroed/oldpubs/bulletin67.pdf and the New Jersey State Library at https://dspace.njstatelib.org/xmlui/handle/10929/21587. [Print copy available at the Bolger Heritage Center, Ridgewood Public Library.]
Wardell, Patricia A. A Dictionary of Place Names in Bergen County, New Jersey and Vicinity. To download a copy, see www.dutchdoorgenealogy.com
Wright, Kevin. Punkin Duster Finds the Woodchuck Borough, A Centennial Review of Bergen County Borough Fever 1894-95, www.bergencountyhistory.org/Pages/part1.html
Future investigation into this subject will endeavor to proof and re-inventory all municipal and colloquial place names.
If you know of a place name that is not listed in our tree or on Wardell’s A Dictionary of Place Names in Bergen County, New Jersey and Vicinity, please let us know! We’ll be adding place names and revising our map frequently with the goal to make a one stop list of all Bergen County municipal and place names on our website. GSBCArchivist@icloud.com