A Garden State Journey in Genealogy

Most folks with connections to New Jersey know that our state nickname is “The Garden State”  Today, it can be seen on our license plates and has been used in catchy advertising campaigns, but the truth of the matter is that we got our name not without a little resistance, or to put it bluntly… for no good reason at all.

While out to brunch two weeks ago, my friends Lori of Legacy Roots  and Joan of NJ Heirs & Ancestors got to talking about our Garden State nickname, and Lori shared that she had read that it dates from the Revolutionary War period and was due to the soldiers receiving their food stuff from the “gardens of New Jersey”.  Hmmm, I thought to myself… is the land of The Sopranos and Jersey Shore really that into agriculture?

And, that answer is YES!  I am proud to report that New Jersey is home to over 9,000 farms encompassing 790,000 acres of farmland.[1]  That’s almost 17% of our state, folks!  We make the production charts for blueberries, cranberries, spinach, head lettuce, bell peppers, and peaches (watch out Georgia!).[2]  Really not too shabby for a state that’s also known for the question “What exit?”

What’s all this Garden stuff have to do with genealogy, you ask?

Kenn Stryker-Rodda once described New Jersey as a research quagmire.[3]  Wait, New Jersey research is a “a difficult, precarious, or entrapping position”?[4]  Or, did he mean to describe it as “soft miry land that shakes or yields under the foot.”

Research in New Jersey can yield unexpected results.  The Garden State is proud to be the 2nd oldest state that enacted a state-wide vital registration law in May 1848!![5]  Fellow NJ researchers, this is nothing to complain about for a Mid-Atlantic state.  I sure wish we would have kept up with our 1682 vital records law like our sister states in New England, but alas we have to take what we have – mid-19th century.[6]

I suppose that our colonial marriages records could be described as a quagmire.  In casual conversations with our State Archivist about the surviving Colonial Marriage Bonds, we tried to extrapolate what percentage they might represent of the actual marriages in the provinces of East and West Jersey.  Do we have any statisticians in the crowd?  Bet you didn’t think that statistics might be an important part of your genealogical journey, huh?

As we conversed, it became apparent that without a study of the provincial population over the decades 1660s-1780s, it is impossible to guesstimate the number of marriages that took place.  The earliest surviving marriage bond is dated 1711 and when creating the database – Colonial Marriages, 1665-1799 – the NJSA staff included early marriages recorded in colonial deeds books and other collections.[7]  One has to wonder, how many were issued by local officials but not returned to the government as required?  For a more detailed review of colonial marriage records, I encourage you to read William Nelson’s introduction in his compilation – New Jersey Marriage Records, 1665-1800.

Oh, yeah!! Before I forget, back to that no good reason…

According to the State of New Jersey’s webpage, The Garden State and Other New Jersey State Nicknames, “There is no definitive explanation for New Jersey’s nickname of ‘The Garden State.’” [8]  In the 1950s, the state legislature most likely with the backing of the Division of Motor Vehicles, drafted legislation to have our license plates imprinted with the words “Garden State.”  Governor Robert B. Meyner objected to the law and did veto A Bill No. 545 in August 1954.[9]  His official statement included “My investigation discloses that there is no official recognition of the slogan ‘Garden State’ as an identification of the State of New Jersey.”[10]  Notwithstanding his veto, the law did pass on 6 December 1954 and this state moniker was added to our license plates.[11]

Another version of this intriguing story is about a gentleman named Abraham Browning of Camden.  In Philadelphia on 24 August 1876, he gave the New Jersey Day address at the Centennial Exhibition (officially named International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine).[12]  He is quoted as calling New Jersey the “Garden State” and describing it as “an immense barrel, filled with good things to eat and open at both ends, with Pennsylvanians grabbing from one end and the New Yorkers from the other.”[13]  Someone pinch me, because that description sounds a lot like one given by Benjamin Franklin.  Because of this play on Franklin’s word, crediting Browning with the true creator of the “Garden State” is still up for debate some 136 years later.


[1] State & County QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce

(http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/34000.html:  accessed 30 January 2013).

[2] The Garden State, State of New Jersey (http://www.state.nj.us/about/garden: accessed 30 January 2013).

[3] Kenn Stryker-Rodda, “That Genealogical Quagmire: New Jersey”, (Virginia: National Genealogical Society Quarterly, 1960) 48:59-71.

[4] “quagmire” definition (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/quagmire: accessed 10 February 2013).

[5] New Jersey Vital Records (https://www.familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/New_Jersey_Vital_Records: accessed 10 February 2013).

[6] ibid.

[7] Searchable Databases, New Jersey State Archives (http://nj.gov/state/archives/searchdatabases.html: accessed 10 February 2013).

[8] The Garden State and Other New Jersey State Nicknames, State of New Jersey (http://www.state.nj.us/njfacts/garden.htm: accessed 30 January 2013).

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[12] Centennial Exposition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centennial_Exposition: accessed 9 February 2013).

[13] ibid.

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