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New Jersey's first counties were created following the 1676 division of the colony into the Provinces of East and West Jersey after Lord John Berkeley sold his half of the colony to a group of Quakers led by John Fenwick. The Quaker-owned western section comprised what was then known as Burlington and Salem counties; East Jersey was divided into Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties. In later years, after the two provinces were again united, the original six counties were divided over time to form fifteen new counties, eventually making up the twenty-one counties of the current state.
Even after re-unification into a single colony, the counties of the former West Jersey retained some heritage of their period under Quaker governance, such as the use of large townships as the most frequent municipal plan of government and providing county government with greater responsibilities than was typical in the East Jersey counties, which were more oriented to home rule traditions recognizing the autonomy of boroughs, villages and towns.
The most frequent source for the names of New Jersey counties are place names in England (Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Essex, Gloucester, Sussex, Monmouth, Middlesex, Salem, Somerset, Sussex, Warren). Other counties derived names from prominent explorers (Hudson, Cape May); geographic features (Atlantic, Ocean); colonial governors (Morris, named after Royal Governor Lewis Morris); and revolutionary leaders (Mercer, named after General Hugh Mercer, mortally wounded in the Battle of Princeton). Passaic County is adapted from the Lenni Lenape word "pahsayèk," usually translated as "valley." The name of Union County, formerly part of Essex and the last county to be established in 1857, reflects an affirmation of the national union in the years of dissension leading to the Civil War. The origin of Bergen County's name is in some dispute, with most believing it comes from the Netherlands, the origin of many of its first settlers, but others contending it refers to a Norwegian town or early settler to Nieuw Amsterdam.
The term "freeholder" still used for those elected to the governing bodies of counties also dates to colonial times and is unique to New Jersey. It refers to qualifications for voters and office holders which required that they had property worth fifty pounds and had resided in the county for 12 months preceding the election. Thus, the "board of chosen freeholders," the description still used for some county governing bodies, means the entity comprised of representatives elected by the county's voters.
--Population and Demography
Counties with the largest populations in the 2010 US Census were Bergen (905,116); Middlesex (809,858); Essex (783,969); and Hudson (634,266). The smallest populations were reported in Salem (66,083); Cape May (97,265); Hunterdon (128,349); and Sussex (149,265). Gloucester County had the highest rate of population growth in New Jersey from 2000 to 2010; its 13.2% increase was substantially greater than the 4.5% growth recorded statewide. The population of nine other New Jersey counties grew faster than the state during the 2000-2010 period: Ocean (12.8%), Somerset (8.7%), Atlantic (8.7%), Middlesex (8.0%), Cumberland (7.1%), Warren (6.1%), Burlington (6.0%), Hunterdon (5.2%) and Morris (4.7%). Ocean County had the largest net population increase (+65,651) in the state from 2000 to 2010, followed by Middlesex (+59,696), Gloucester (+33,615), Somerset (+25,954), Burlington (+25,340), and Hudson (+25,291) counties. Together, these six counties accounted for more than 62% of the state’s total population growth.
According to US Census Bureau estimates for 2014, Cape May residents are the oldest, with a median age of 48.4 years and 23.7% of its population aged 65 years or older; Hudson is the youngest at a median age of 34.6 years and 10.7% of its population 65 or older.
Based on the 2014 US Census Bureau estimates, counties with the highest estimated racial percentages of their total population classified as white were Sussex (93.5%); Ocean (91.8%); Hunterdon (91.2%); Cape May (90.4%); and Warren (90.2%). The highest African American percentages were in Essex (40.6%); Union (21.2%); Camden (20.2%); and Mercer (19.9%). Hispanics (which can be of any race) were highest as a proportion of total population in Hudson (42.9%); Passaic (38.9%); Union (28.9%); and Cumberland (28.6%). Asians had their highest percentages in Middlesex (22.9%); Somerset (15.9%); Bergen (15.8%); and Hudson (14.6%).
Of the twenty counties in the nation with the highest median household income according to the 2013 survey by the US Census Bureau, four were in New Jersey: #4 Hunterdon ($105,950); #7 Somerset ($95,825); #10 Morris ($98,401); and #20 Sussex ($87,342). The lowest household incomes were in Cape May ($40,506); Cumberland ($48,694); Essex ($52,762); and Atlantic ($54,235).
* New Jersey State and County Quick Facts, US Census Bureau