History of West Orange

The Township of West Orange as we know it today first began in 1862 as the smaller town of Fairmount. The name West Orange wasn't actually used to 1863. However, almost 200 years of history encompassing the time before the American Revolution would lead to the eventual founding of our hometown. A chronological series of events would impact upon its future destiny to become the community of today. It could be argued, and rightfully so, that this is how any place came to be. But this is not just any place... this is West Orange and this is it's story.

Today West Orange is a diverse community which can trace the lineage of its founding back nearly two centuries. In 1666 a group of Puritans lead by Robert Treat left Milford, Connecticut in search of religious freedom. They sailed into the Long Island Sound and down the East River past the English and Dutch settlements of New York. They continued west through the Kill von Kull that opened onto the waters of a great bay. Robert Treat directed them north past the swaying marsh grasses to where the bay narrowed into a river known as the Passaic. Almost four miles up the river from the bay Treat guided the boats ashore on a level bluff near a sharp bend in the river. Tradition has it that it was May 18, 1666 and that the first person to come ashore was seventeen year old Miss Elizabeth Swaine aided by her future husband Josiah Ward. The following year on July 11, 1667 a formal treaty was signed between Robert Treat and the Hackensacks Indians for the purchase of a tract of land on the banks of the Passaic River. The boundaries of this purchase are best understood in terms of their present day names. The tract extended east to west from Newark Bay to the base of the first mountain. The precise location of that western boundary can be a bit vague but was more or less was Main Street in present day West Orange. It extended north to south from Clifton to Hillside. The tract included all the lands of present day Montclair, Bloomfield, Nutley, Belleville, Glen Ridge, Irvington, and parts of Orange, Maplewood, and Short Hills. Present day Essex County as we know it today had begun to take form.

The development of the Newark settlement as it was known quickly moved forward. Within ten years they built houses that comfortably domiciled themselves and their pastor, established courts, installed a schoolmaster and laid out and planned highways. In March of 1678 a second purchase of land was made from the Winacksop and Shenacktos Indians who were owners of the great Mountain known as Watchung. It extended the western boundary of the Newark settlement to the top of the Orange Mountains. This second purchase of land raised Newark's holdings to more then 60 square miles. It basically included all the land of present day Essex County. Seemly enough for what had grown to approximately 90 families by 1680 or about 500 people. Surveyors were soon appointed in 1681 to lay out highways as far as the mountains in what is current day West Orange today. In 1683 Essex County was formed and it all the land was known as the Newark Settlement.

With roads to the mountains a migration had slowly began from the town formed on the banks of the Passaic River to the western fertile lands on the mountain. It may be hard to image by today's standards but the land was mostly an unsettled wilderness. Because of the relatively rugged character of the terrain in the western part of the territory the settlers became known as the Mountain Society. Until 1782 the only name by which the settlements along the mountain in and around current day West Orange was known as the Mountain Society. There were several small hamlets within the territory now known as Orange but were designated by the names of the principle families living there such as Freemantown, Williamstown, and Pecktown. As the population grew it became increasingly important for the area to have a name in order for it to experience any real prosperity in terms of a business boom. The name Orangefield began to be used in honor of Prince William of Orange who was a familiar English name in the American Colonies. It had been suggested that since the terrain was both mountain and valley that Orangedale would be more appropriate. In 1782 the name Orangedale was first used to designate the place of a church meeting. By 1790 the name was being used in Newark town records. But somehow and without any real explanation by 1796 it was simply being referred to as Orange. On November 27, 1806 Orange was established as a separate township under an act of the New Jersey State Legislature. It was no longer part of the original Newark settlement and this would eventually pave the way for the birth of West Orange.

On March 11,1862 West Orange as we know it today began to take shape. On that date the Township of Fairmount was formed by an act of the New Jersey State Legislature. It was formed by taking a parcel of land from Orange that was once part of the Newark Settlement. A dispute had developed over education by those living on top of the first mountain. The state of New Jersey decided to form a new town with a new school district. The boundary line between the new Township of Fairmount and Orange was Perry Lane now present day Prospect Avenue in West Orange. On April 10, 1863 another act of the New Jersey State Legislature created the town of West Orange. It took Fairmount Township's existing population of 102 and combined it with another parcel of land taken from Orange forming the current day West Orange with present day boundaries. Since parts of West Orange today can trace it beginnings back to Fairmount Township in 1862 that year has always been recognized as the founding of West Orange. The name of West Orange however didn't exist until the following year of 1863. In 2012 West Orange will celebrate it's 150th Sesquicentennial Anniversary.

It's worth noting that although the town may only be 150 years old the earliest settler arrived here nearly one hundred years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. West Orange was then only a pristine wilderness nestled in the abundant natural beauty of the rural and rugged Orange Mountains. Historians generally agree that the first permanent settler in West Orange was Anthony Olef in 1678. He lived within the present day boundaries of what today is Llewellyn Park. He was just a common man with uncommon ambition and lived mostly a secluded but long life. He passed away in 1723 at age 87 and was the first person interned at the old burying ground on the corner of Main Street and Scotland Road in Orange. His grave is believed to be the oldest in Essex County. A modern town that Olef would not recognize has emerged from his spirit of perseverance. Osborne Place in West Orange was originally named in his honor. However the name was changed and today no street bears his name and no monument marks his existence. He is the original West Orange resident or mountaineer the name currently and appropriately used as mascot for today's West Orange High School.

Although West Orange is the home of renowned inventor Thomas Edison there is so much more waiting to be discovered. The residents of West Orange today make up a diverse population with a proud community heritage. Many towns shamefully disregard or don't understand their history. However, West Orange is proud of its past and committed to preserving its history through awareness. Knowing and understanding history empowers us to see and understand who we are, what we were, and who we can be. History is not the exclusive property of historians but rather it belongs to all who are aware of it. The long silenced voices of the past still speak volumes if we are not so deaf to listen, learn, and dare to discover because every tomorrow includes a little piece of yesterday. Discover West Orange.... our home town.

Written by Joseph Fagan - local author and historian.
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