Similar to other areas near rivers and the bay, this area was inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. At the time of European contact, Lenni-Lenape Native Americans lived in the area, following a seasonal pattern of cultivation and hunting and fishing. The state-recognized Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey maintain a cultural center here, serving a community of 12,000 in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.
The first recorded European settlement in what is now Bridgeton was made by 1686 when Richard Hancock established a sawmill here. Settlers established a pioneer iron-works in 1814. Bridgeton was incorporated as a township by an act of the New Jersey Legislature on March 3, 1845, from portions of Deerfield Township. Bridgeton city was incorporated on March 1, 1865, replacing both Bridgeton Township and Cohansey Township. The city was named for its location at a bridge on the Cohansey River and is said to be a corruption of "bridge town".
After the American Civil War, Bridgeton's industrial base and commercial centrality in this area of high agricultural production, along with its high profile as an educational center (it was home to the South Jersey Institute, the West Jersey Academy, and two notable academies for women), made it the most prosperous town in the state. Bridgeton was home to glass factories, sewing factories, metal and machine works and other manufacturers, most notably, the Ferracute Machine Works, which was founded and operated by Oberlin Smith, an inventive genius and philanthropist credited with inventing the first device for magnetic recording, and now in the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame.
Bridgeton Historic District covers a quarter of the city and includes more than 2,000 properties. These range from the early Federal architecture to the 1920s, including many structures eligible for individual listing and some documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) during the 1930s. The district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and is the largest such district of any municipality in New Jersey.
Although it is visually dominated by large Victorian homes and a downtown area constructed from the 1880s to the 1920s, the district, besides many neighborhoods of gingerbreaded "doubles" that were essentially working-class housing, includes several notable structures dating from the 18th century and early Federal period. One of these is Potter's Tavern, said to have been built in the 1750s, but restored to its appearance in 1776 when it was home to The Plain Dealer, considered New Jersey's first newspaper.