The State of New Jersey first officially marked its historic heritage by placing a granite monument at the reburial site of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, beside the Old School Baptist Meeting House in Hopewell in 1865. Between 1873 and 1921, the State authorized the placement of sixteen cemetery markers, battlefield tablets and monuments. In 1874, the Legislature incorporated the Washington Association of New Jersey and appropriated $5,000 annually towards maintenance and perpetuation of Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown. This historic site became the first National Historic Park in the United States when the State of New Jersey conveyed its title and interest therein to the Federal government on July 4, 1933.
The State of New Jersey began acquiring and operating historic sites at the initiative of Governor Franklin Murphy, a member of several patriotic societies, including the Sons of the American Revolution. On April 2, 1902, the Legislature empowered a State commission to purchase and maintain the Old Indian King Tavern at Haddonfield. The provincial Assembly met here in 1777 and ordered substitution of the word “state” for “colony” in all public documents, decisively rooting political sovereignty in the principle of popular self-government. The State of New Jersey took possession on June 15, 1903, undertaking renovations between 1908 and 1910. The purchase of the first 100 acres forming the core of Washington Crossing State Park, including the Ferry House, was made in 1912 and the State acquired its interest in the Old Barracks at Trenton in 1917. Another historic site, the Walt Whitman House in Camden, came under State jurisdiction in 1925.
Between celebrations of the Sesquicentennial of American Independence (1776-1926) and the Washington Bicentennial (1732-1932), the State of New Jersey authorized acquisition and preservation of four more historic sites, namely: the Steuben House at River Edge in 1926; the Dey Mansion at Preakness in 1929; the Hancock House at Lower Alloways Creek in 1931; and the Wallace House at Somerville in 1931. Acquisition of Princeton Battlefield was authorized in March 1927.
The need to administer an expanding historic-sites preservation and interpretive program led to the formation of the Historic Sites Commission in 1931. It was empowered “to acquire by gift or purchase, or by the exercise of the power of eminent domain, areas, properties, lands, or any estate or interest therein, situate within this state, of historic interest or other unusual features which ... should be acquired, preserved, and maintained for the use, education and pleasure of the people of New Jersey.” At the time of its formation, this Commission was vested with the care and control of six historic homes, four Revolutionary War battle monuments and one Revolutionary War site. The Atlantic County Historical Society acquired the Somers Mansion at Somers Point in 1934 and conveyed title to the Historic Sites Commission. The Commission’s functions and properties were transferred to the Division of Forestry, Geology, Parks and Historic Sites in 1945.
A Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation was re-established in the Department of Conservation and Economic Development on May 27, 1966, and was vested with the responsibility to interpret New Jersey’s heritage through its historic sites. Under state law (Source: 13:1B-101, 13:1B-105), the Office of Historic Sites and the Historic Preservation Office are identified as “administrative units” in the Division of Parks and Forestry and are the current successors in “authority to the former Historic Sites Commission.” Under current law and regulations (Source: 28:1-4248), “The historic sites and historic preservation unit, with the approval of the commissioner, shall adopt regulations for the proper disposition and administration of any monuments or historic sites owned or maintained by the State pursuant to this chapter, or any non-State-owned monuments or historic sites for which the State has “responsibility.” The Commissioner has “the authority to establish by regulation such additional or subordinate administrative units within the historic sites and historic preservation unit as may be appropriate for the efficient and effective administration of the department.” (Source: 13:1B-15.101, 244 13:1B-15.102, 245 13:1B-15.105246)
Under “Powers and duties” (Source: 13:1B-15.105, 28:1-6247) the offices of historic sites and historic preservation unit:
a. Have responsibility for the custody and care of all monuments, the title to which is vested in the state, whether erected within or without the state, and which are not in the control or custody of any other state commission or agency. The historic sites and historic preservation unit may make suitable arrangements for the care of any such monuments with county or municipal officers, or with local commissions or societies, if, in its judgment, such arrangements are proper and desirable.
b. Formulate comprehensive policies for the preservation, restoration and public presentation of all historic sites within the State.
c. Make the necessary research, prepare exhibits and furnish the services required for a proper and adequate interpretive program.
d. Prepare and disseminate informational materials to inform the public with respect to New Jersey's historic sites.
e. Consult and co-operate with groups and organizations in order to advance the purposes of the historic sites program.
On June 21, 1967, the Historic Sites Council was established within the Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation to consult with and advise the Department Commissioner and the Division Director. It was authorized to recommend programs and policies for: (1) the acquisition, development, use, improvement and extension of historic sites; (2) the development of a broad historic sites preservation program on a statewide and local basis; and (3) the identification, authentication, protection, preservation, conservation, restoration and management of all historic sites within the State. The Council consists of eleven members who are known for their competence and experience in connection with historic sites preservation and related areas, appointed to a four-year term by the Governor with advice and consent of the State Senate. As presently constituted, the Historic Sites Council does administer a broad historic preservation program through its administration of State and Federal historic preservation policies and laws. It has never been active in the acquisition, development, use, improvement or extension of historic sites. While its activities related to the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places involve the identification, authentication, protection, preservation, conservation, and restoration of privately and publicly owned historic properties, it has never been directly involved with the management of State Historic Sites.
The Division of Parks, Forestry and Recreation joined the new Department of Environmental Protection in April 1970 and was designated the Division of Parks and Forestry in 1971.