Before Dunellen was incorporated as a borough, it was part of Piscataway Township, but its history was not always one with the township’s. The region that is now Dunellen was at one time the personal property of William Dockwra, secretary and agent of the Board of Proprietors of East Jersey, “merchant of the parish of St. Andrew, Undershaft, London,” and one-time manager of the London Penny Post. All of East Jersey-that portion of New Jersey east of a line drawn from a point on the Delaware near Walpack Center to Little Egg Harbor-had been sold to the proprietors by Sir George Carteret, who had received it as his share of a grant from the Duke of York, brother to King Charles of England. The land was all originally bought from the Indians-none of whom actually lived for any lengh of time in the vicinity of Dunellen – and in the case of the Piscataway tract the Indians seem to have sold it three separate times; this unusual circumstance appears to have arisen through miscalculation of boundaries and misunderstandings resulting from their nomadic habits, rather than through deliberate attempts to cheat the white settlers.
As nearly as may be ascertained those who first lived in the section that was to become Dunellen were David Coriell and Peter Runyon, both French Huguenots; and Peter and John Marselis, Dutch settlers who reached Piscataway after a residence of some time in Bergen County. C. C. Vermeule, Jersey historian believes that it was the Marselises who arrived first, at some date prior to 1735; but there is in existence a deed dated March 7, 1737, in which Coriell’s property is listed as a boundary for land being transferred from Samuel York to his father- in-law, Lawrence Reuth; and the Coriell property is described as thta which he purchased from Thomas Johnson in 1726.
The Picataway Township books record Coriell’s cattle mark in that same month- March 1737. It was “three slits in the end of the right ear. One on the end of t he ear and the other on each side of yd mark.” There is no mention of Peter Marselis until 1781, when he became an overseer of the poor, and John Marselis is not mentioned at all.
Reune Runyon was a town clerk and judge of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas from 1749 to 1766; Ephraim Runyon succeeded him and served until 1776. A David Coriell was surveyor of highways in 1750 and a Cornelius Boyse was commissioner of highways in 1752. Runyons, Coriells, Boices and Dunns at times monopolized township offices, and Shouldered almost the whole responsibility of caring for the poor, mending and building roads and planning for the protections of domestic animals. In 1773 David Coriell was paid five pounds and twelve shillings for nursing Margaret Johnson, “a poor woman that fell sick at his house.” Overseers of the poor reaped a part of their funds from the 10 shillings forfeits extracted from any man or woman permitting a ram to run at large.
“When the Revolutionary War began, the section that was to become Dunellen played a part despite its meager population.”…”A number of important skirmishes were fought near the present Dunellen; homes were burned and livestock and property stolen. When Cornwallis’ army was driven back from Bound Brook in April 1777, much damage was done. During the following month the American army was entrenched near Bound Brook, and when Washington sought a place from which to observe the movement of the enemy he was led, by Edward Fitz-Randolph of Piscataway, to the rock that now bears his name. From this high point of the Watchung hills the general maintained a watch on the surrounding country during May and June. On June 24 he was in New Market and four days later from Washington Rock witnessed the defeat of Lord Sterling (Gen. William Alexander) by Cornwallis.”
As prosperity returned after the Revolution, the beginnings of industrial growth were becoming visible. “On January 1, 1839, the first train rumbled noisily over the single track iron-topped wooden rials that ran out of Elizabethtown as far as Plained; by 1843 they had been extended through Dunellen to Somerville.” The outbreak of the Civil War interfered with the continued development of the area and township citizens were slow to answer the Union’s call for volunteers. Many of the older men in the area sought substitutes to take their places;”the township hired a recruiting agent and sent a committee to the south to seek out substitutes for the reluctant recruits of its own district;”…”In an effort to fill the township quota more than $57,000 was paid out by Piscataway for bounties.”
In the year 1868, during the wave of post-war prosperity, the village of Dunellen came into existence. John Taylor Johnston, a prominent New York financier and president of the Jersey Central railroad was Dunellen’s sponsor of sorts. Under the suspices of the railroad it was his idea to transform the farm land along the railroad right-of-way between Elizabeth and Somerville into residential communities. “The locality of Dunellen- within commuting distance of New York a railroad terminus of growing importance-was considered a particular happy prospect.”
“On April 9, 1867, an act of legislature had incorporated the Central New Jersey Land Improvement Company, and on May 1, 1868, the newly purchased tract of nearly 300 acres was eeded to it by the railroad for $149,000. At the same time a map of the Town of Dunellen was filed with the county cler. The incorporators of the Improvement Company and its first directors were John Taylor Johnston, president of the railroad; John C. Green, Moses Taylor, Benjamin Williamson, Adam Norrie, Frederick T. Frelinghuysen, and William E. Dodge. The new village consisted of about one-third of the original thousand-acre grant to William Dockwra, Proprietor of East jersey and covered the site of the old colonial farms of David Coriell, Zachariah Pound (he had bought out John Marselis) and Peter Marselis.”
“The New Jersey Central Land Improvement Company did more than merely lay out the village and wait for it to develop of itself. It presented land for churches and schools as they were needed, and early in the village’s history set aside the two-acre plot for Washington Park. In the center of the residential district, bounded by Washington and Dunellen Avenues, First Street and Park Place, this park has been the scene of numerous village and borough festivities.”
“As early as the end of the nineteenth century there were nearly 300 dwellings in Dunellen. The shade trees were large enough to cast cool shadows on the walks, and new and attractive homes were being built every year. The earlier residences had been influenced by French architecture and were topped with ornate mansard roofs; at a slightly later period the Queen Anne style predominated, but gradually scroll-work and filigree gave way to simpler designs. Planned as a village of homes, Dunellen was fulfilling its purpose. Proudly Realtors referred to it as “The Emerald of the Plain.”
Information extracted from:
The Story of Dunellen, 1937
Download This is Dunellen (1954), published by The League of Women Voters of Dunellen, New Jersey, .pdf file from Dunellen Borough Official Website