Princeton officials remove settlement date from ‘Welcome to Princeton’ signs

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Princeton sign

Debate for when people settled in Princeton has been swirling for several years

The signs posted at the entrances to Princeton have proclaimed “Welcome to Princeton, Settled in 1683” for nearly a decade.

But last month, Princeton officials covered over the phrase “Settled in 1683” in an acknowledgment that Europeans did not “settle” Princeton. Its original inhabitants were Lenni Lenape Indians.

The tweak to the signage, which still shows the town’s brightly colored logo, was announced by Princeton Councilwoman Leticia Fraga at the Princeton Council’s July 24 meeting. The debate over the settlement date had been swirling for several years.

“Over the years, we have heard from several members of our community who questioned why the ‘Welcome to Princeton’ signage included the words ‘Settled in 1683’ – implying that the year was the first and only time that people inhabited this land,” Fraga said.

In response, the Princeton Council referred the question to the Princeton Civil Rights Commission and asked for recommendations on what – if any – changes could be made to the signs, she said. The commission recommended removing “Settled in 1683” from them.

“The removal of ‘Settled in 1683′ wording on the signs is an important step in recognizing and acknowledging the Indigenous peoples were the original caretakers and stewards of the land long before any settlers arrived,” Fraga said.

The date of 1683 refers to the first permanent structure that was built by European settlers in what subsequently became known as Princeton. Portions of the house are embedded in the Greenland-Brinson-Gulick House at 1082 Princeton-Kingston Road.

The historical accuracy of the phrase “Settled in 1683” was raised in 2019 by the late Daniel Harris, Princeton University former vice president and secretary Bob Durkee, the Princeton Civil Rights Commission and Not In Out Town, which is a multi-racial, multi-faith group that favors racial justice and an inclusive community.

The question was sparked by the movement to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The holiday is held on the second Monday in October and honors Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. The Princeton Council agreed to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019.

But there was no action on the signage issue until earlier this year, when it was brought up by the Princeton Civil Rights Commission at the Princeton Council’s April 10 meeting.

Nick DiDomizio, who chairs the Civil Rights Commission, told the Princeton Council that it believed the language on the “Welcome to Princeton” signs was not inclusive and ignored the history of the Indigenous people who lived on the land prior to the European settlers.

The Civil Rights Commission recommended removing the phrase “Settled in 1683” from the signs to the Princeton Council. It recommended new wording to acknowledge the Lenni Lenape Indians who lived on land in the present-day Princeton.

The Princeton Council supported the change to the signs.

Fraga said that acknowledging Indigenous land does not negate or dismiss the contributions of those who came afterwards and who helped to shape Princeton over the years.

“It is an opportunity to celebrate the resilience, perseverance and contributions of diverse cultures, recognizing the collective heritage we all share,” she said at the Princeton Council’s July 24 meeting.

“It is through unity and collaboration that we can build a more inclusive, equitable and thriving society for present and future generations,” Fraga said.

But there is more to the story of the Municipality of Princeton, which itself was created by the consolidation of the former Princeton Borough and former Princeton Township in 2013.

While the signs formerly said “Welcome to Princeton, Settled in 1683,” Princeton did not exist as a distinct community in the late 1600s.

In the late 1600s and through the early 1800s, the land in the present-day Municipality of Princeton was part of several early townships. North of Nassau Street, the land was part of Piscataway Township and then Montgomery Township, according to www.princetonnj.gov and www.vanharlingen.org.

On the south side of Nassau Street, the land was part of New Windsor Township, according to www.westwindsorhistory.com. New Windsor Township was the predecessor to West Windsor Township.

The name “Princeton” appeared in 1724 and referred to the small village, according to www.princetonnj.gov. It made up part of today’s Central Business District, and was said to have been named Prince-Town in honor of Prince William of Orange and Nassau. He became King William III.

Fast forward to 1838, when Princeton Township was established. Princeton Borough was created in 1813, but it was a subordinate governing unit within West Windsor Township and then Princeton Township. It became autonomous in 1894.

After several on-again, off-again proposals and referendums on consolidation, voters in Princeton Borough and Princeton Township approved consolidating the two towns into the Municipality of Princeton in 2013.