Burlington and Ocean counties each have long and rich histories, dating far beyond colonial America.
The indigenous Lenni Lenape were the earliest-known inhabitants of the area that would be Burlington and Ocean counties. Annually, these people migrated from as far away as the area of what would be Delaware to enjoy the shore and its plentiful food supply.
Anglo-European records of Burlington County date to 1681, when a court was established in the Province of West Jersey. The county was formed May 17, 1694, named for Bridlington, a town in England. Burlington County was the seat of government for the Province of West Jersey until its amalgamation with East Jersey in 1702, forming the Province of New Jersey. The county was much larger and was partitioned to form additional counties as the population increased. In 1714 one partition to the north became Hunterdon County, which itself was later partitioned to form three additional counties. The county seat had been in Burlington, but, as the population increased in the interior, away from the Delaware River, a more central location was needed. The seat of government was moved to Mount Holly in 1793.
The 1793 state legislature approved the relocation of the Burlington County seat from Burlington City to Mount Holly, which was approved by voters in a 1796 referendum. Several important municipal buildings were constructed, including the courthouse in 1796 and the county prison built circa 1819. The Burlington County Prison was designed by Robert Mills, a nationally known architect who designed the Washington Monument. The town has numerous 18th- and 19th-century buildings, most of which are included in the Mount Holly Historic District; it is listed in the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places. Commercial buildings were constructed primarily along High Street. In 1849, the Burlington and Mount Holly Railroad was established, connecting communities along the Delaware River to Philadelphia, the major city of the area. The railroad supported industrialization along its route.
In addition to the indigenous people and the European settlers, people of color played important roles in developing the region. The African-American presence in New Jersey, including the area that encompassed Mount Holly, extended back at least to the late 17th century, when slavery served as a source of labor for agriculture and industry. That practice continued until 1804, when the New Jersey legislature passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Although this law freed children of enslaved parents when those children reached the age of majority, it did not emancipate those currently enslaved and it permitted the practice of “apprentice for life” until 1865. Members of Burlington County’s African American and Quaker communities participated actively in the antebellum abolition movement, and Mount Holly became one of the original stops on the Underground Railroad. The town’s historic village of Timbuctoo, a community of free African Americans founded in 1820, was such a haven for escaping slaves using this network.
Burlington County’s proximity to the transportation hubs of Philadelphia and Camden, as well as its agricultural, canning, manufacturing and textile industries, contributed to its economic success as a regional force by the onset of the 19th century.
In the 20th century, the region’s economy received a boost from the Camp Dix Army base, established in 1917 as a staging and training center for World War I. During the 1930s, the camp served as a base for members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and in 1939 the Army made it a permanent military base, Fort Dix. In 1948, Fort Dix Airport was renamed McGuire Air Force Base.
As in Philadelphia and Camden, to which Mount Holly’s economy was closely tied, the latter part of the 20th century became a period of economic decline. National trends of mills, factories and food-processing plants relocating to less unionized states or overseas meant a loss of blue-collar and middle-class jobs and residents.
During Dutch exploration in the early 1600s, Capt. Cornelius Hendrickson charted the New Jersey coast and Barnegat Bay in the areas that would eventually become Ocean County. Hendrickson sailed through Barnegat Inlet into the bay on a small Dutch ship from which he charted the Toms River, the forks of Forked River and Great Bay. By the end of the 17th century, whalers were at work off the coast. This opened the region to settlement. Soon saw and grist mills flourished along the streams and rivers leading into the bay.
These whalers were the grandfathers and fathers of the privateers during the American Revolution. Ocean County endured 23 Loyalist and British attacks on its saltworks, as well as other skirmishes during the Revolution. There were 77 naval battles off the coast.
After the Revolution, new industries grew. Forges and furnaces were built to smelt the local bog ore into pig iron. Thousands of acres of trees were cut to produce charcoal. Commercial fishing and boat building along the coastal region became primary industries in the county. By the mid-1850s, “cranberrying” and farming had expanded in the rural regions of the county.
Ocean County was officially established Feb. 15, 1850, from portions of Monmouth County, with the addition of Little Egg Harbor Township which was annexed from Burlington County March 30, 1891.
Toms River was selected as the seat of the new county government. On May 8, 1850, the first Board of Chosen Freeholders, consisting of two representatives from each of the six original townships, selected insignia to represent the public officials of the time. The sloop, schooner and steamboat are still the official seals of the Freeholders, County Clerk and Surrogate, respectively. The choice of these symbols reflects the maritime tradition of the area.
One of the first tasks was to construct a courthouse and a jail. By September 1851, the new courthouse was serving the public’s needs. The adjoining county jail, containing 10 cells, was of compatible architecture. The sheriff’s residence, built in the courtyard behind the courthouse, remains to this day. The courthouse quickly became a gathering point for social meetings, political rallies and conventions, as well as a mustering center during the Civil War. With the start of the war in 1861, members of the county supported President Lincoln’s call for volunteers to join the Union Army. Of the 478 who served, the county lost 59 to the ultimate sacrifice. It was also during this time that railroad service began in the area, transporting Union troops.
A continuous history of shipping accidents along the coast during the 19th century prompted Congress to appropriate funding for the construction of lifesaving stations. Within a few years, the first station, built in 1849, was joined by many more, every 5 miles along the shore. This early Lifesaving Service became the forerunner to the United States Coast Guard Service founded in 1915. That year also saw Ocean County as the only county in New Jersey to support a referendum to amend the state constitution extending suffrage to women.
As the United States entered World War I, the U.S. Army established Camp Kendrick. The U.S. Navy, which had acquired Camp Kendrick from the Army in 1919, commissioned it in June as Lakehurst Naval Air Station to be used as a lighter-than-air base. Lakehurst NAS was the site where the Hindenburg — a huge, luxurious, German-built dirigible — crashed in a fiery blaze in 1937.
In 1950, Ocean County celebrated its centennial, and in 1954 the Garden State Parkway opened. By the 1970s, the county’s population mushroomed to 208,470. Since 1990, Ocean County has been one of New Jersey’s fastest-growing counties, representing more than 60 racial and ancestral ethnic groups. Ocean County was also the fastest growing county in New Jersey between 2000 and 2010 in terms of increase in the number of residents and second-highest in percentage growth