There are many possible origins of the Jersey Devil legend. The earliest legends date back to Native American folklore. The Lenni Lenape tribes called the area around Pine Barrens "Popuessing", meaning "place of the dragon". Swedish explorers later named it "Drake Kill", "drake" being a word for dragon, and "kill" meaning channel or arm of the sea (river, stream, etc.) in Dutch.
The common accepted origin of the story, as far as New Jerseyans are concerned, however, started with Mother Leeds and is as follows:
"It was said that Mother Leeds had 12 children and, after finding she was pregnant for the 13th time, stated that this one would be the Devil. In 1735, Mother Leeds was in labor on a stormy night. Gathered around her were her friends. Mother Leeds was supposedly a witch and the child's father was the Devil himself. The child was born normal, but then changed form. It changed from a normal baby to a creature with hooves, a goat's head, bat wings and a forked tail. It growled and screamed, then killed the midwife before flying up the chimney. It circled the villages and headed toward the pines. In 1740 a clergy exorcised the demon for 100 years and it wasn't seen again until 1890."
There have been many sightings and occurrences allegedly involving the Jersey Devil. One of them even involved Napoleon Bonaparte's elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte! He allegedly said to have witnessed the Jersey Devil while hunting on his Borden town estate around 1820. In 1840, the devil was blamed for several livestock killings. Similar attacks were reported in 1841, accompanied by tracks and screams. He appeared again in 1909 and newspapers of the time published hundreds of claimed encounters with the Jersey Devil from all over the state of New Jersey. Among alleged encounters publicized that week were claims the creature "attacked" a trolley car in Haddon Heights and a social club in Camden. Police in Camden and Bristol, Pennsylvania supposedly fired on the creature to no effect. Other reports initially concerned unidentified footprints in the snow, but soon sightings of creatures resembling the Jersey Devil were being reported throughout South Jersey and as far away as Delaware. The widespread newspaper coverage led to a panic throughout the Delaware Valley prompting a number of schools to close and workers to stay home. During this period, it is rumored that the Philadelphia Zoo posted a $10,000 reward for the creature's dung. The offer prompted a variety of hoaxes, including a kangaroo with artificial wings.
Skeptics believe the Jersey Devil to be nothing more than a creative manifestation of the English settlers, Bogeyman stories created and told by bored Pine Barren residents as a form of children's entertainment, and rumors arising from negative perceptions of the local population ("pineys"). According to Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, folk tales of the Jersey Devil prior to 1909 calling it the "Leeds Devil" may have been created to discredit local politician Daniel Leeds who served as deputy to the colonial governor of New York and New Jersey in the 1700s. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand wrote that the spread of contemporary pop culture has overtaken traditional Jersey Devil legends. Jeff Brunner of the Humane Society of New Jersey thinks the Sandhill Crane is the basis of the Jersey Devil stories, adding, "There are no photographs, no bones, no hard evidence whatsoever, and worst of all, no explanation of its origins that doesn't require belief in the supernatural." Outdoorsman and author Tom Brown, Jr. spent several seasons living in the wilderness of the Pine Barrens. He recounts occasions when terrified hikers mistook him for the Jersey Devil, after he covered his whole body with mud to repel mosquitoes.