Bergen County is the most populous county of the state of New Jersey, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, its population was 905,116, an increase of 20,998 (2.4%) from the 884,118 enumerated in the 2000 Census, retaining its position as the state's most populous county. The county is part of the New York City Metropolitan Area. Its county seat is Hackensack. The Bureau of Economic Analysis ranked the county as having the 20th-highest per capita income of all 3,113 counties in the United States (and the fourth highest in New Jersey) as of 2009. The county hosts a park system totaling nearly .
At the time of first European contact, Bergen County was inhabited by Native American people, particularly the Lenape nation, whose sub-groups included the Tappan, Hackensack and Rumachenanck (later called the Haverstraw), as named by the Dutch colonists. Some of their descendants are included among the Ramapough Mountain Indians, recognized as a tribe by the state in 1980. Their ancestors had moved into the mountains to escape encroachment by Dutch and English colonists. They reside mostly in the northwest of the county, in nearby Passaic County and in Rockland County, New York. They trace their Lenape ancestry to speakers of the Munsee language, one of three major dialects of their language. Over the years, they absorbed other ethnicities by intermarriage.
In the 17th century, the Dutch considered the area comprising today's Bergen and Hudson counties as part of New Netherland, their colonial province of the Dutch Republic. The Dutch claimed it after Henry Hudson (sailing for the Dutch East India Company) explored Newark Bay and anchored his ship at Weehawken Cove in 1609. From an early date, the Dutch began to import African slaves to fill their labor needs. Bergen County eventually was the largest slaveholding county in the state. The Africans were used for labor at the ports to support shipping, as well as for domestic servants, trades, and farm labor.
Early settlement attempts by the Dutch included Pavonia (1633), Vriessendael (1640) and Achter Col (1642) but the Native Americans repelled these settlements in Kieft's War (1643–1645) and the Peach Tree War (1655–1660). European settlers returned to the western shores of the Hudson in the 1660 formation of Bergen Township, which would become the first permanent European settlement in the territory of present-day New Jersey.
During the Second Anglo-Dutch War, on August 27, 1664, New Amsterdam's governor Peter Stuyvesant surrendered to the English Navy. The English organized the Province of New Jersey in 1665, later splitting the territory into East Jersey and West Jersey in 1674. On November 30, 1675, the settlement Bergen and surrounding plantations and settlements were called Bergen County in an act passed by the province's General Assembly. In 1683, Bergen (along with the three other original counties of East Jersey) was officially recognized as an independent county by the Provincial Assembly.
The origin of the name of Bergen County is a matter of debate. It is believed that the county is named for one of the earliest settlements, Bergen, in modern-day Hudson County. However, the origin of the township's name is debated. Several sources attribute the name to Bergen, Norway, while others attribute it to Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands. Still others attribute it to the Dutch word meaning "hill" or "place of safety". Some sources say that the name is derived from one of the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam (now New York City), Hans Hansen Bergen, a native of Norway, who arrived in New Netherlands in 1633.
Initially, Bergen County consisted of only the land between the Hudson and the Hackensack Rivers, extending north to the border between East Jersey and New York. In January 1709, the boundaries were extended to include all of the current territory of Hudson County (formed in 1840) and portions of the current territory of Passaic County (formed in 1837). The 1709 borders were described as follows:
Bergen was the location of several battles and troop movements during the American Revolutionary War. Fort Lee's location on the bluffs of the New Jersey Palisades, opposite Fort Washington in Manhattan, made it a strategic position during the war. In November, 1776 the Battle of Fort Lee took place as part of the Continental Army's attempts to keep British forces from sailing up the Hudson River. After abandoning the defenses, the Continental forces staged a retreat through present-day Englewood and Teaneck, and across the Hackensack River at New Bridge Landing, one of the few sites where the river was crossed by a bridge. The retreat allowed American forces to escape capture and regroup for subsequent successes against the British elsewhere in New Jersey later that winter. The Baylor Massacre took place in 1778 in River Vale, resulting in severe losses for the Continentals.
In 1837, Passaic County was formed from parts of Bergen and Essex counties. In 1840, Hudson County was formed from Bergen. These two divisions took roughly 13,000 residents (nearly half of the previous population) from the county's rolls.
In 1852, the Erie Railroad began operating major rail services from Jersey City on the Hudson River to points north and west via leased right-of-way in the county. This became known as the Erie Main Line, and is still in use for passenger service today.
In 1894, state law was changed to allow easy formation of municipalities with the Borough form of government. This led to the Boroughitis phenomenon where many new municipalities were created in a span of a few years.
On January 11, 1917, the Kingsland Explosion took place at a munitions factory in what is today Lyndhurst. The explosion is believed to have been an act of sabotage by German agents, as the munitions in question were destined for Russia, part of the U.S.'s effort to supply allies before entrance into World War I. After the U.S. entry into the war in April 1917, Camp Merritt was created in eastern Bergen County for troop staging. Beginning operations in August 1917, it housed 50,000 soldiers at a time, staging them for deployment to Europe via Hoboken. Camp Merritt was decommissioned in November, 1919.
In 1931, the George Washington Bridge was completed, linking Fort Lee to Manhattan. This connection spurred rapid development in the post-World War II era, developing much of the county to suburban levels. Two lanes were added to the upper level in 1946 and a second deck of traffic on the bridge was completed in 1962, expanding its capacity to 14 lanes.
In 1955, the United States Army created a Nike Missile station at Campgaw Mountain (in the west of the county) for the defense of the New York Metropolitan Area from strategic bombers. In 1959, the site was upgraded to house Nike-Hercules Missiles with increased range, speed and payload characteristics. The missile site closed in June 1971.
In 2005, Bergen had the fourth-highest median property tax of any county in the nation at $6,846, the second highest in New Jersey behind Hunterdon. In 2006, Bergen County homeowners paid a median of $7,237, a 5.7% increase over the previous year. However, the county dropped a position in the rankings, with only the fifth highest median property tax bill in the country, and third highest in New Jersey behind top-ranked Hunterdon county at $7,999 and #4 Somerset County at $7,318. The prospect of property tax relief prompted County Executive Dennis McNerney to call for municipalities with populations less than 10,000 in Bergen County to merge, saying "The surest way to significantly lower homeowners' property taxes is to merge small towns and reduce administrative overhead." Thirty-five of Bergen County's municipalities have less than 10,000 residents each.