The History of Raritan
The first people to settle the Raritan Valley were the Naraticongs, a peace-loving branch of the Lenape who were part of the Iroquois Nation. Numbering about 1,200 the Naraticongs lived mostly along the north side of the river. They roamed the forest to hunt, fished in the river, and planted corn in the fertile valley.
In 1683, when the Dutch and English arrived, the Naraticongs met them with friendly advances and a ready sale of land. The Dutch shortened and altered the name of the Naraticongs and named the area Raritan, or “forked river” Other versions of history state that Raritan translate to “where the stream overflows”.
The Dutch, English, and French Huguenots were drawn to the area for the same reasons the Lenape Found appealing-the rich, fertile soil and the navigable river. The Dutch also realized they could establish their own church, the Dutch Reformed Church, and live in freedom. These opportunities played a major role in the establishment of the town of Raritan. Raritan became a trading center for neighboring farmers.
George Middaugh, one of the first settlers of Raritan, began constructing a tavern in 1734. For many years, The Middaugh Tavern was the meeting place for the early governments of Raritan and neighboring Bridgewater, a gathering spot for colonists, and a stagecoach stop between New York and Philadelphia. The tavern remains one of the oldest buildings in town.
During the American Revolution, while George Washington wintered at the Wallace House in nearby Somerville, the Marquis de Lafayette enjoyed the hospitality of Andreas Coejeman. Considered the most opulent home in Raritan, the Coejeman House had hearths of fine Egyptian marble and mantels of carved mahogany.
After the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton visited Raritan with the idea of constructing a series of canals. The town fathers thought the idea was ludicrous, but the seed was planted, and a waterpower canal was dug from Bradley Gardens east to Raritan in 1840. This canal proved to be a boon to the town, and industries sprang up along the waterway, where they could harness the waterpower and also be close to the railroad.
One Night, in 1848, a fire broke out in the northwest corner of the small village. Unfortunately, the bucket brigade was ineffective and the village lost two houses and one store. As a result of that fire, a “gooseneck” fire engine was purchased, and Lafayette No. 1, the first organized fire company in Somerset County, was born. In later years, the company was reorganized and became Relief Hose Company No. 2.
By a special act of the New Jersey Legislature, the village officially became the town of Raritan in 1868. Joseph Frelinghuysen, a name long associated with Raritan, was elected president of the board of commissioners and set out to make Raritan attractive to new industry. After a slow start, Raritan saw much growth and development. With large numbers of immigrants coming to America and consequently to Raritan, the population increased.
In 1891, the first police department was established, and in 1892, the town purchased a lot for $475 from Mrs. A. H. Brokaw for the fire department’s new engine house.
The Raritan Woolen Mills, established in 1846, was the largest and most famous of Raritan’s early industries; the quality of its goods was known throughout the United States. In 1882, its name was changed to the Somerset Manufacturing Company. As many as 400 people were employed there at one time. Workers made uniforms and blankets for Union soldiers during the Civil War and uniforms for the U.S. Army during World War I.
During World War I, many patriotic men of Raritan enlisted to defend their homeland. Those who remained on the home front spent thousands of dollars buying war bonds. This determined war effort became widely known, and officials in Washington, D.C., commissioned the building of a ship to be called the SS Natirar (Raritan spelled backwards) in appreciation of the sacrifices made by the citizens of Raritan. Raritan dignitaries launched the SS Natirar at Wilmington, Delaware, in 1920.
U.S. President Warren G. Harding often visited his friend Sen. Joseph S. Frelinghuysen and his family and attended The Third Reform Church in Raritan.
It was not surprising that Harding and Frelinghuysen were playing a round of golf on July 2, 1921, when Sen. Hale Kellogg, a messenger from Washington D.C., arrived with an important document requiring the president’s signature. The Knox-Porter Resolution, also known as the Treaty of Raritan, was signed by President Harding in the library of the Frelinghuysen home in Raritan on that day. The resolution officially ended World War I.
Once again, in 1941, the United States went to war, and hundreds of Raritan’s sons and daughters enlisted or were drafted into the service of their country. One of these young men was Marine Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone. Basilone was the first enlisted man to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor during World War II for his heroic action on Guadalcanal from October 24 through 27, 1942. A Japanese regiment of nearly 3,000 men attacked Basilone and his platoon, and Basilone wiped out the entire regiment almost single-handedly. Rather than spend the rest of the war traveling throughout the United States encouraging people to buy war bonds, he elected to return to active duty. On February 19th, 1945, Basilone was killed in action in the assault on Iwo Jima. He was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously for his bravery during the battle. A grateful and proud town erected a statue in Basilone’s memory in 1948 and has honored him with a parade since 1981.
Although many years have passed since the first settlers set foot in this area, Raritan still retains its small town charm. Walking along Somerset Street, one can still see original Colonial homes, stores, and churches, and three of the four original homes are still in use today. For those of you who remember the Raritan of yesterday, enjoy this walk down memory lane. We all must treasure the images of the past and remember to capture the images of today. This is the way to preserve our heritage and culture for future generations.