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Early History of Plainfield

1600s & Earlier

Prior to the arrival of White European settlers from Scotland and Holland in the late 1600s, the area now known as Plainfield was inhabited by the Lenni-Lenape people, who are now part of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. You can learn more about the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape here and about their archeological remains around Plainfield here. You may have heard that Front Street was originally an Indian trail that ran from the Hudson River through to the Delaware River. This same path became the stage coach line from New York to Philadelphia before becoming the main road we use today. Learn more about the early transportation of Plainfield here.

Before New Jersey became a state, it was the Province of New Jersey and was composed of East Jersey and West Jersey until 1702, when they united. In 1675, East Jersey was composed of four districts (counties): Essex, Bergen, Middlesex, and Monmouth. The capital was Perth Amboy. Plainfield was originally part of Westfield, which was in Essex County.

During the 1600s, colonists came to this area from the three pioneer settlements of Elizabethtown, Woodbridge, and (mostly) Piscataway. In 1684, Scottish colonists venturing inland from the port at Amboy towards the present-day site of Scotch Plains and Plainfield, designated this flat area as, "The Plains."  Mostly farmers, they were referred to as "Settlers on the plain under the Blew Hills," and part of the area became known as Scot's Plains, which became Scotch Plains. The level and expanding fields southward became simply, Plainfield. The name Plainfield is found in references as early as 1698, when a 720-acre plantation was sold to brothers John and William Laing. You can learn more about them and other “Pioneers of Plainfield" here.



In 1731, the Society of Friends obtained permission to build a Meeting House on land donated by John Laing; it was called the "Plainfield Meeting.” This was the immediate predecessor of the present Meeting House on Watchung Avenue, although not on the same property. For over fifty years, the original Plainfield Meeting House met the needs of the Friends, but by 1787 a larger building was required. The new house was first used in 1788. You can learn more about this and other houses of worship here.

The Quakers have been documented as being anti-slavery since 1686, and in 1716, members were specifically requested to not purchase (any more) slaves. Generally, they saw slavery as a great evil. However, they were not free from racial prejudice. For example, there are notes recording that rear benches were designated for Black attendees at a Meeting. Also, it was difficult for Black people to become members, although there was nothing that officially restricted Black membership. “In pre-civil war days when the abolition movement was at its height, disagreement among Friends as to their activity in this movement was very evident. While in Revolutionary days members were disowned for refusing to free their slaves, in Civil War days they were disowned for their abolition activities.”

In March 1871, The Constitutionalist newspaper printed an article (that was actually taken from an 1835 article in the Plainfield Herald) about the early history of Plainfield. The article stated that the first frame house in Plainfield was built in 1735, and the population here was only ten inhabitants! Before this, there were only log houses and wigwams. It was noted that the house was still standing in 1835 as part of a larger home owned by John Wilson. Between 1735 and 1835, the population grew from 10 to 1080 and the number of frame houses increased from 1 to 137. The first school house was built about 1760. There were numerous businesses including 10 hat makers, 4 dry goods and a grocer, 4 shoe makers, 1 wheelwright, 4 blacksmiths, 2 drug stores, 2 public houses, 1 printing office, 5 houses of worship, 3 physicians, and 1 lawyer, to name a few.

Among the several 18th-century buildings remaining today are the historic Friends Meeting House, the Martine house, and The Drake House, which was George Washington's headquarters during the Battle of Short Hills in June 1777. View the "Historic Tour of Plainfield" booklet here.


The city of Plainfield began as Plainfield township, and was created on April 5, 1847, from portions of Westfield township when the area was still part of Essex County (as noted above). On March 19, 1857, Plainfield township became part of the newly created Union County. In 1858, Plainfield village was formed within Plainfield township and Warren township (in Somerset County). Plainfield was incorporated as a city by an act of the New Jersey Legislature on April 21, 1869. The city and township coexisted until March 6, 1878, when Plainfield township was dissolved and parts were absorbed by Plainfield city, with the remainder becoming Fanwood Township, and later Scotch Plains.

[Image: Laing's Hotel was established in 1828. A large livery establishment was connected to the hotel. Located on West Front Street, it was later replaced in 1893 by the famous Babcock Building. Here, carriages are lined up alongside the hotel. Men are scattered and leaning on porch columns. Women are sitting or standing on the porch rooftop. Standing in a prominent position on the left of the roof is one Black woman in servant's attire. She has been identified at Dinah Cooper, a cook at Laing's.]

According to the 1850 Federal Census, there were 2447 people living in Plainfield: 2339 White and 107 Black, including one enslaved woman (age 57). We know her name: Hannah Vermeule. By 1860 there were 43 slaves listed in the regular New Jersey census (not the Slave Inhabitants Schedule), with one living in Plainfield - Dinah Bown, who is listed as a slave/servant. By 1870, the population doubled and included one Native American. By 1890, it doubled again, and included the first census record of (five) Chinese residents. In 1900, there were 15,369 residents: 1450 Black, 10 Chinese, 1 Japanese, 1 Native American, and the rest White.

The Queen City is Born
The "Queen City" nickname arose in the second half of the 19th century. Plainfield had been developing a reputation during this period as having a climate that was beneficial for respiratory and other ailments. Between the gentle mountain air, the natural springs, and the cool breezes coming in from the Atlantic Ocean, Plainfield became a summertime resort for city dwellers. At this time, Denver, Colorado, another environmentally healthful city, was known as the "Queen City of the Plains." In an effort to publicize the healthy climate of Plainfield, the publisher of the Plainfield Evening News, Thomas W. Morrison, began to use the slogan "Colorado of the East" in regard to Plainfield. The headline first appeared on March 22, 1886 (see image at top). The slogan for Plainfield became the "Queen City of New Jersey", which first appeared in an Evening News article from December 1, 1887. It was eventually abbreviated to simply, "The Queen City.”

Additional Resources:
Archival Collections

Black History of Plainfield

Early Plainfield Newspapers

Plainfield Mayors

Plainfield Reference Materials

Plainfield Reference Books

Online Exhibits

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