History of Holmdel, New Jersey
Cretaceous Period (65-145 million years ago)
More than 65 million years ago, what we know as Holmdel was under the sea. This news made the front page when it was discovered in 1941. At that time, architect Hart Tourison announced that workers discovered sand and seashells while digging a well on Peter Maher's 132-acre farm on Holmdel Road. Today, you can still find fossilized shark's teeth here in Holmdel by sifting through the riverbeds at Ramanessin Brook Greenway Nature Trail Park.
1500s-1600s - Native American Indians and European Explorers
Native American Indians
In the 1500s, Native Americans lived here in peace with nature. The Lenni Lenape Indians lived off the land. They fished from canoes built from tall trees and hunted with bow and arrows for deer and other animals. They used the deer meat for food, the antlers and bones for tools and the hides for clothing. These Native Americans buried their dead in a sacred burial ground, located near today's Holmdel Pool and Tennis Center. Today it is called Ackerson Cemetery in the Indian Hill section of town. The Lenape also used the highest point of land in Holmdel, now called Telegraph Hill Park, to send smoke signals. At about 280 feet above sea level, it has a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Indian tools, pieces of pottery and arrowheads can still be found on the Holmdel farmlands.
The first European explorer to visit this area was Giovanni Verrazano, an Italian navigator sailing under the French flag in 1524. Verrazano sailed up the coast of the New World and anchored at Sandy Hook. In 1609, Englishman Henry Hudson sailed for the Dutch in his wooden ship "Half Moon." Hudson went ashore and met with the Native Indians in Monmouth. He wrote in his logbook, "This is a very good land to fall in with and a pleasant land to see." Hudson's voyage established Dutch claims to the territory that included New York, New Jersey and Delaware. The Dutch called it New Amsterdam. They were mainly interested in the fur trade, but the English wanted to settle here.
About 50 years after Hudson's visit, the Dutch ceded the land to the English. In 1663, several Englishmen from Staten Island sailed over to Monmouth with the intent of buying land from the Indians. On January 25, 1664, they signed a deed for possession of the land. They gave the Indians wampum, 5 wool coats, 1 shirt, 1 cap, 1 gun, 12 pounds of tobacco and an anker (barrel) of wine.
To obtain sanction and confirmation of their purchases, the men petitioned Governor Richard Nicholls. Nicholls granted a Patent to the settlers, authorizing their purchases. John Bowne, Richard Stout and Obadiah Holmes were among the 12 original "Patentees" who were the first to settle in the Holmdel area. Bowne, a leader of this pioneer group, received 500 prime acres in Middletown. This historic document, dated April 8, 1665, is called the Monmouth Patent. The Patent also guaranteed "free liberty of conscious without any molestation or disturbance whatsoever in the way of worship." Copies of the original Monmouth Patent abound, but the location of the original document is unknown.
By 1693, Monmouth County was established and it consisted of three towns: Freehold, Shrewsbury and Middletown. The area we know as Holmdel today was the western part of Middletown.
1700s - Religious Freedom and the Revolutionary War
Religion Plays a Part
The Baptist and Quaker settlers came to America to escape prosecution and seek religious freedom. John Bray was an early settler in the village area of Holmdel that we know now as the corner of Main Street and Holmdel Road. Bray was a Baptist minister who opened his house for prayer meetings. Before 1700, this area became known as Bray's Meeting House. In 1709, Bray donated land to build the first Baptist Church in New Jersey, on Main Street. The church attracted more Baptist settlers and the area became known as Baptistown. Reverend Obadiah Holmes, one of the original signers to receive land under the Monmouth Patent, also helped organize the Baptist church. His two sons, Obadiah, Jr., and Jonathan settled in the Holmdel area. In 1667, Jonathan Holmes was an elected official in Middletown.
The Battle of Monmouth occurred on a Sunday, June 28, 1778. It was hot that day and several soldiers died of heat exhaustion. Sir Henry Clinton led the British soldiers on a march from Philadelphia to their ships anchored in Sandy Hook, passing right through Holmdel. Along their way the British soldiers plundered the farms and set them afire. During the Revolutionary War, the American Patriots fought for their lives and their liberty. They defended their land and their families.
A section of Middletown (now Holmdel) was known as the Hornet's Nest. Near today's Longbridge Road and Cross Farms, armed Patriots would hide in the woods waiting for British soldiers. Stings from the Patriots muskets often meant death to the British soldiers. They said it was like getting stung by a hornet. Today, as history repeats itself, Holmdel High School athletic teams call themselves the Holmdel Hornets, as they sting their opponents along their way to victory.
1800s - Origin of Holmdel and the Civil War
The first official use of the name "Holmdel" was on January 21, 1830, when the Postmaster General established the Holmdel Post Office. The date it was first used is clear, but the origin of the word "Holmdel" is not certain.
The earliest explanation found so far is in The History of Monmouth County, New Jersey, published in 1885, where Franklin Ellis wrote that "Holmdel Township was so named for the Holmes family, several of whom were, now are and have been for generations, large land owners and influential men in this region." On the 1830 Census there were eleven Holmes families in Middletown which then included the village of Holmdel.
In 1899, Reverend Abram I. Martine edited the Bi-Centennial Celebration of the Reformed Church of the Navasink and its two branches. Rev. Martine wrote, "The name Holmdel was derived from the two Saxon words 'Holmd' and 'dell' by Richard Cooke, ... 'the meaning of which when put together made a very near equivalent to Pleasant Valley." Separately we can confirm that Dr. Robert Cooke did have a brother/doctor named Richard born 1806, but not much is known about him.
The discrepancy continued in 1916, when William Reiley of New Brunswick, New Jersey, wrote a Letter to the Editor of the Freehold Transcript saying that the name "Holmdel" was not named after the prominent Holmes family in the area. Reiley wrote that "a sister of Dr. Robert W. Cooke, a famous physician and surgeon of his day, suggested "Holmdel," a combination of two Dutch words, "holm" meaning pleasant, and "del" meaning a valley, hence Holmdel, the name for Pleasant Valley." Unfortunately, Reiley did not explain how he knew this.
As a retired attorney and former Middlesex County Surrogate, Reiley seemed to be a credible source. He was born in the Holmdel section of Middletown in 1845, fifteen years after the word was first used. His father, Reverend William Reiley, was a clergyman of the Dutch Reformed Church and in 1840, the Reiley family and the Cooke family were close neighbors.
At the time the Holmdel Post Office was established, there were many families of Dutch descent in the area. Some of them still spoke the Dutch language. Reiley wrote that because of this Dutch influence, Cook's suggestion "met with immediate popular approval."
Dr. Cooke did have three sisters, Hannah Maria Cook (1802-) who married John Boggs in 1828, Teresa Ann Cook (1804-1897), and Alethia Bates Cook (1810-1893).
A problem with Reiley's statement is that when translated from English, the words "pleasant" and "valley" in Dutch, are "prettige" and "vallei," not "Holm" and "del." According to a Dutch language expert, "holm" is not a word in the Dutch language.
Holmdel Township became a township on February 23, 1857. Holmdel was formed from part of Raritan Township.
Raritan Township became a township on February 25, 1848. Raritan was formed from part of Middletown Township. Raritan also gave parts to form Keansburg, Keyport, Union Beach, and the remainder eventually became Hazlet Township in 1967.
Middletown Township formed on October 31, 1693.
So tracing a Holmdel family or property can be tricky: on and before the 1840 US Census it was called Middletown; in 1850 it was called Raritan Township, and in 1860 to current it was called Holmdel.
During the Civil War, most of the farmers in newly formed Holmdel Township opposed freedom for slaves. New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery. The Holmdel farmers used slave labor to work the land, but a few families were against it. Quakers in the area were particularly intolerant of slavery.
Some Holmdel residents may have allowed slaves to stay in hidden rooms in their houses until it was safe for them to continue traveling to find freedom. With help from Abolitionists, some African Americans traveled north along the elusive Underground Railroad. Before slavery was abolished it was illegal to help slaves escape, which is one reason why those secret activities are difficult to document. Years after the Civil War ended, some Holmdel farmhouse owners have discovered hidden rooms behind hidden doors.
Farming continued to be the way of life and farmers continued to prosper. After WWII, property values began to climb. In the 1960s, farmers realized they could make large profits by selling their acreage to land developers. Builders began building houses and streets and created new neighborhoods, like Heather Hill, Blue Hills and later The Vineyard. Before its development, this area was part of McCampbell's Grape Farm - the largest grape farm in New Jersey.
One by one the farms disappeared but there are still a few farms left. Some are privately owned. The farms purchased and now owned by Holmdel Township are restricted to agricultural use. These purchases were made to preserve examples of the farming way of life, which was for so long a part of Holmdel's history. You can still buy Holmdel grown fruits and vegetables in Holmdel produce stores and farm markets.
Holmdel Township today is a rural suburban community. For the year 2000, the US Census Bureau reported a population of 15,781 residents, of which, 17.4% were of Asian background. This pleasant valley with its illustrious past continues to be a comfortable place to live and its school system is highly rated.
Holmdel Historical Society