The Creation of Passaic County - an essay by Edward Smyk, County Historian
One of the Greek ancients is said to have remarked that "history deals with situations and figures not imaginary but real." Nonetheless, there are commonplace misconceptions about the nature of history, and what it takes to produce a satisfying historical narrative. Perhaps it could be said the dedicated historian develops an acute sense of the past, working in a solitary way to unravel the many tantalizing secrets found in documents and artifacts from a prior age. History, then, cannot be easily dismissed as a boring progression of facts and dates, but rather the record of men and women who made their mark on the pages of time. Often, it is a fascinating and absorbing pageant of people and events, and one can find them replete with the kind of puzzling contradictions that resist, tease, and confound the researcher's investigative skills. Indeed, whatever history is placed under the magnifying glass, there are subtle rewards awaiting those imbued with the spirit of diligent curiosity. If one takes the time and patience to ferret out the elusive sources that describe how Passaic County came into being, one can find in them an immediacy and vividness. In these yellowing, often brittle pages, the researcher can detect a lingering enthusiasm, as well a muted frustration and more obvious disappointment. In 1837, success crowned the dogged determination of local citizens, but the debate that gave birth to the new county proved to be a laborious process involving public meetings and futile legislative appeals. Finally, after nine years of political debate and wrangling, the quest became a reality. Local inhabitants, after a long wait, had put their pent up emotions on hold, but in the end, they appeared overjoyed at the prospect of finally having their own county identity. According to a notice published in the February 8th issue of the Paterson Intelligencer, then one of the city’s prominent newspapers, when the news arrived from Trenton that the bill establishing Passaic County had passed, a number of unnamed persons joyously fired off 16 guns, each explosion representing the total number of counties then existing in the entire state. The newspaper did not report if the celebrants might have fortified themselves with a shot or two of what is termed an "intoxicating beverage."
Sound and practical reasons were the motivating factors behind the creation of the new county. Years before local residents agitated for a new jurisdiction, people who lived in Paterson or the towns contiguous to Paterson found it frustrating to travel on county business to either Hackensack or Newark, the county seats of Bergen and Essex counties respectively. One of the primary functions of county government, from the 18th century to this day, is maintaining networks of county roads and bridges in order to facilitate travel and commerce. In those early times, it was often arduous and sometimes perilous to hitch up one’s horse and wagon, and depart a remote town or hamlet, particularly in forested locales like Ringwood and West Milford. The judiciary too was a county responsibility, and transporting jurors and witnesses along country roads was often an insurmountable task. One account dolefully concluded that "many criminals went unpunished because of the inaccessibility of jails." The clamor for creating a new county did not diminish but actually increased, much like the old adage of a stone that gathers moss with increasing velocity on its downward journey.
In 1963, Professor Harris Effross, who studied the organization of New Jersey’s counties, noted that there was "pressure for more than 20 years in favor of a county around the relatively new town of Paterson." In 1823, when a bill was introduced in the state legislature to erect what would be known as the "County of Paterson," the town was indeed young, having been formed in July of 1792 as a national experiment in industrial planning near that marvel of marvels, the Great Falls of the Passaic.
On February 14, 1828, a committee under the direction of General Abraham Godwin met at Munn’s Hotel in Paterson, with representatives of several townships, and passed a resolution that "a petition be sent to the Legislature, at its present session, the grant a new county from certain parts … of the present counties of Essex, Bergen and Morris." Six days later, the Paterson Intelligencer reported that, "This measure appears to be loudly called for by a dense and numerous population, suffering all the inconveniences of location far removed from their seat of justice …" Meetings in those days were held at a tavern, or as they were then quaintly called, a "public house," or elsewhere, at some obliging person's residence. A general meeting of citizens who were interested in forming the proposed Paterson County met at a Mrs. Weller’s house and claimed that Paterson, with its two banks, 30 shops and "other appendages of a thriving and improving town," was the fitting locality for a county seat.
The petitions and legislative bills that were introduced did not produce the desired result. In fact, they raised the hackles of legislators from the southern most counties. Two bills came from the pens of the northern representatives, calling for the division of Essex, Bergen and Morris Counties. One wanted to establish a Paterson County. Another, if enacted, would have created a Pompton County from the townships of Pompton, West Milford and part of Morris. Nonetheless, the bills languished and died. In the words of Prof. Effross, "The southern counties, fearful of additional representation in the legislature, defeated both of them."
Agitation ensued for years, with petitions sent to Trenton, bills introduced, and then, disappointment was repeated, and the hopes of the petitioners dashed. The legislator who apparently played a prominent role in repeatedly introducing bills to create the new county has now fallen into obscurity, but we owe Andrew Parsons, a member of the Whig Party, a debt of gratitude for his tenacity and responsiveness. The first time the name "County of Passaic" was used can be found in the bill Assemblyman Parsons presented to the legislature in March 1835. No doubt, designating a "County of Paterson," and all that it represented as a town with an emerging population, made southern legislators apprehensive. Perhaps this is the reason "Passaic" was substituted, a Lenape Indian name said to mean a split or divide, or as one authority believes, a valley. No matter what the nomenclature, Parson’s bill failed. The following year, one of the local newspapers angrily claimed that "by a miserable political juggle, the inhabitants of Paterson and its neighborhood, are to be disappointed in their just expectations of our new county, our petitions are to be rejected, our wants and wishes despised and justice to be denied to us from the delay …."
The necessary ingredient for any successful political process, then and now, involves compromise, and such was the case for the establishment of Passaic County. Sentiment for creating the new county did not shrivel and die. During 1836, the newspapers reported continuing meetings and discussions. Among those who pushed for the new jurisdiction was Andrew Mead, Paterson’s town clerk. He took up residence about 1834 and engaged in the coal and grocery business. Mead became influential when he bought the Paterson Courier, one of the town’s newspapers, and changed its name to the Paterson Guardian. He was editor from May 1836 until he sold the paper ten years later. After the county came into existence, Mead was appointed the first Clerk of the Board.
By January 1837, there is new warmth in newspaper reporting when the proposed county was mentioned. Proponents were called "friends of the new county," but behind the scenes, maneuvering among legislators brought about the necessary compromise. The issue of representation was the real obstacle. What occurred was something akin to a political "horse trade." In order to maintain the balance between northern and southern interests, the Atlantic County was created at the same time Passaic County came into existence. On February 1, 1837, a newspaper account notes that Assemblyman Andrew Parsons "called up the engrossed bill." In a few days, the Council, or Assembly as it is now known, and then the Senate, had passed the legislation.
The new county was comprised of five townships. The first members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Passaic held their initial meeting, "agreeable to law" on May 11, 1837, at Jacob Rutan’s tavern, which had been previously owned by the late Barney Speer of Manchester. The tavern stood at the northeast corner of North Main and Temple Streets, and here, on that long ago day, the freeholders transacted the first county business. The names of the first ten freeholders, and the townships they represented, are worth reciting. Cornelius G. Van Riper and Peter G. Speer represented Acquackanonk; Pompton had Peter M. Ryerson and Nathaniel Board; Paterson, David Reid and Joseph Jackson; Manchester, Cornelius I. Westervelt, who was selected by his colleagues to be the board’s first ever Director, and Peter A. Hopper. Peter S. Demarest and Horace Laroe represented West Milford. Andrew Mead, the board’s first officer, took and maintained custody of the minutes.
A word or two should be said about the title of Freeholder, which has attained a unique status as far as elected officials of county government are concerned. The name dates back centuries to pre-Colonial England, to be exact, the year 1467, and was used to designate men who owned property "free and clear," and thus eligible to hold office. The title "chosen freeholder," implanted by statute, meant that the individual had been elected to office. In 2020, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring the title of "chosen freeholder" to be changed to "county commissioner."
“We have an obligation to ensure that governance in New Jersey is inclusive and representative of the tremendous diversity of our great state,” said Governor Murphy. “Amid a national reckoning to reexamine vestiges rooted in structural racism, this action will eliminate the use of the term ‘Freeholder’ in county government— a title that is an outgrowth of a time when people of color and women were excluded from public office.”
To this day, county leaders continue to grapple with the demands made upon county government. Problems and issues have changed with the passing centuries. For example, in the 18th century, a vexing difficulty confronting the Bergen County Freeholders was the elusive foxes and frightening panthers that bedeviled various neighborhoods. The freeholders tried to control them, mostly by offering a cash reward. Although a fox bounty offered by freeholders persisted well into the 20th century, at the first Passaic County Freeholder meeting, there was a more staid resolution introduced, and that was to raise $5,000 to meet county expenses for the ensuing year. The original minutes still exist in their large, leather-bound folio volume, and tell of interesting doings. One month after their initial meeting, the freeholders instituted a procedure whereby members had to rise and address the director when they spoke. They needed the director’s permission to speak more than three times on any subject, an odd custom long past abolished.
Since 1837, the functions of county government have experienced profound change. At one point, the board was comprised of 28 freeholders, but not long after the turn of the twentieth century, voters adopted a state law that permitted a seven-member board, elected at large, which remains to this day. The Board of Chosen Freeholders was a male bastion for 110 years, that is, until 1947, when Mattie S. Doremus, a Paterson public school teacher, was elected the county’s first woman freeholder. Miss Doremus served three terms, concerning herself with improving the county’s social service programs, until her retirement from the board.
In resurrecting some of the personalities and events that represent the long continuum of county government, we can see, in many instances, where the activities of days of yore have relevance. They endure as traditions to be recounted and valued. In a recent New York Times essay, columnist David Brooks aptly said that, "Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act. Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux." What we do, in celebrating the 175th anniversary of establishing Passaic County, is to underscore our traditions of democratic government, and to extract good from them, with the anticipation of a brighter, robust future.