Early Days and Colonial Period
Carved out of the interior of Middlesex County in 1688, Somerset County was originally home to a variety of Lenni Lenape tribes, called the Delawares by the early European settlers. It was settled in the south by second and third generation Dutch from the colony of New Amsterdam who came from across the Hudson River in search of land for their sons. The Scots and English who also came settled primarily in the northern hills of the county.
A prosperous agricultural heartland, no one knows exactly where the county got its name. Some say it was named after Somersetshire, England. Others maintain that it was named in honor of Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, or Henry Somerset, an overseer of American affairs.
The American Revolution
Because of its strategic location between New York and Philadelphia, contending armies crossed and recrossed Somerset County. George Washington twice encamped his army at Middlebrook (June - July 1777 and the winter of 1778-1779). Five houses used by Washington and his generals as their headquarters during the second Middlebrook Cantonment remain standing: the Wallace House in Somerville, Headquarters of the Commander in Chief; the Van Veghten house in Finderne, occupied by Quartermaster General Nathaniel Greene; the Jacobus Vanderveer House in Pluckemin occupied by Artillery Commander Henry Knox; the Abraham Staats House in South Bound Brook, occupied by the Baron von Steuben, and finally, the Van Horne House which was assigned to William Alexander, (Lord Stirling) Washington's second-in-command.
The 19th Century-New Modes of Transportation and the Growth of Industry
In the new nation's boom years, Somerset County profited from improved transportation. Two turnpikes were built across the county: the Georgetown-Franklin & the New Jersey Turnpike. The latter prospered because it served farmers with goods to
ship to the New York market.
The Delaware and Raritan Canal snaked its way down the Millstone and Raritan Valleys, allowing tonnage to be shipped through the heart of through the heart of New Jersey rather than going all the way around the bottom of the state. In its heyday, the D&R Canal carried more tonnage than the famous Erie Canal. The water power potential in Somerset County was also realized by a thriving woolen mill industry that continued into the 20th century.
Industrialization received another boost from the coal-carrying Central Railroad of New Jersey which was completed to the Lehigh Valley in 1855. The Jersey Central Railroad made commuting to New York City easy and gave rise to thegrowth of North
Plainfield, Bound Brook and Somerville as suburban communities.
Two other railroads fanning out from New York brought two different sorts of expansion in the north and south of the county. The Delaware Lackawanna and Western, famous for its "Millionaire Express," turned northern Somerset County into a playground for the rich and famous who built great estates, many of which still exist today. The Delaware and Bound Brook nurtured the growth of dairying as a principal farming industry.
The 20th Century and Beyond
For the most part, Somerset remained essentially rural and agricultural into the 20th century with the major industries across its mid-section. Calco, Johns Manville and Ruberoid, dominated the local economy. After World War II, automobiles and super highways opened up the county to a fresh wave of growth and development. Today, the county is home to many of the world's major pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi-Aventis, and Pfizer and other multinational companies such as Verizon, Lucent and Avaya. At the same time, it still appeals to the rich and famous for its scenic beauty and convenient location. It continues to rank as one of the nation's wealthiest counties.