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The Oldest Cities In The US

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Ever wondered what the oldest US city is? While the United States as we know it was founded in 1776, there are many cities that existed long before – in some cases more than two centuries beforehand. This post compares some of the oldest cities in the country and details some of the history that can still be explored in these cities today. 

Existing cities…

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1682)

Philadelphia was famously founded by an English quaker named William Penn (after which Pennsylvania gets its name). Planned as a city from the offset, Philadelphia quickly grew into an important trading center and would become the US capital during the American revolution, before being replaced by Washington DC in 1800. 

Several buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th century can still be found in Philadelphia. Elfreth’s Alley is one of the oldest streets dating back to 1703 and contains many original 18th century houses and a fascinating museum filled with colonial exhibits. Other historic attractions worth visiting Philadelphia for include the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and Betsy Ross House. 

Annapolis, Maryland (1649)

Annapolis in Maryland is almost 40 years older than Philadelphia. It was nothing more than a village for much of the 1600s, but would become a prominent town in the 1700s and even briefly become the country’s capital during the American revolution. 

Much of the history of Annapolis has been preserved. You can find examples of original Georgian architecture throughout the city – most notably Maryland State House and William Paca House. The United States Naval Academy is another prominent historical building – although this was not built until the 1800s.

Williamsburg, Virginia (1632)

Williamsburg began its life as a fortified settlement called Middle Plantation in 1632. The establishment of the College of William & Mary would make it an important settlement in the 1700s.

Today, Williamsburg’s history is preserved in the form of the world’s largest living history museum, Colonial Williamsburg. Not only can you explore many original buildings dating back to the 1600s (the oldest being The Wren Building), but you can also go into restored shops and ride horse drawn carriages. Actors meanwhile re-enact the lives of various colonial characters, helping to further transport visitors back in time. 

Boston, Massachusetts (1630)

Boston was first inhabited by puritan settlers in 1630. This town would eventually grow into a major city and is known for its important role in the American Revolution – being the location of the Boston Massacre, The Boston Tea Party and The Battle of Bunker Hill.

James Blake House is considered to be the oldest surviving house in Boston, dating back to 1661. A few other houses dating back to this century can be found throughout the city. However, Boston’s most exciting historical attractions are those surrounding the American revolution including The Boston Tea Party Ships And Museum, the USS Constitution Museum, Bunker Hill Monument and The Freedom Trail. 

New York City, New York (1624)

New York City can be traced back as far as 1624. Dutch settlers would create a trading post on the southern tip of Manhattan called Fort Amsterdam. 

Many people assume that there is no original architecture left from this century in NYC. But actually there are many buildings from the 1600s that can still be found throughout Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens. The oldest existing building is Wyckoff House in Brooklyn, which is now a museum. There are so many other historical attractions to explore in New York ranging from Ellis Island to St Paul’s Chapel. And of course there is plenty of important 20th century history and other attractions to explore

Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620)

Plymouth in Massachusetts is the home of the US’s first pilgrim settlement. These pilgrims were English puritans who had broken away from the Church of England, famously arriving in a ship named the Mayflower. Many important historical events would take place in this town following their settlement. The first Thanksgiving feast was held here, and the town would become the world’s biggest manufacturer of rope in the 1800s. 

There are several historical attractions to explore in Plymouth dating back to the 1600s. Richard Sparrow House is believed to be the oldest surviving house and dates back to 1640. Cole Hill and Burial Hill are meanwhile two cemeteries dating back to the 1600s. Then, of course, there is Plymouth Rock – which is believed to mark the location where the first settlers landed in 1620 (the rock is even dated ‘1620’, although this date wasn’t actually added until the 1800s). Other notable historical attractions include National Monument To The Forefathers, Pilgrim Hall Museum and Plymouth Cordage Company Museum. 

Albany, New York (1614)

Albany lays claim to being the first Dutch settlement in the US. Like New York City, it was set up as a fur trading post, and was originally named Fort Nassau. It was a historically significant town in the formation of the United States – the first formal plan to unite the colonies was made here in 1754 involving Benjamin Franklin. Albany would also play an important part in the formation of the US’s railroad industry in the 1800s, and was home to the first successful steam railroad in the country.

No architecture from the 1600s has survived in Albany, although several buildings have been dated back to the 1700s. 48 Hudson Avenue holds the title of being the oldest surviving building in Albany – constructed in 1759. Other historical attractions worth visiting in Albany include the NYS Capitol Building and Historic Cherry Hill. 

Santa Fe, New Mexico (1607)

Before the first English and Dutch settlements were founded, the Spanish were already settling throughout various parts of the US. Santa Fe is the most notable settlement to have survived in New Mexico from the early 1600s. One could argue that Santa Fe’s history goes back even further – before the Spanish arrived, this area was already settled by the indigenous Tewa people and contained a cluster of homes. Native Americans would try to reclaim the town during the Pueblo revolt in 1680, and although they were successful at driving the Spanish out, the settlement was reconquered shortly after. For a brief time, Santa Fe was part of Mexico, before being claimed by the United States in the Mexican-American War. 

Many of Santa Fe’s original buildings have been well preserved. San Miguel Chapel is the oldest church in the US and was originally built around 1610. Santa Fe Plaza and The Palace of the Governors date back to the same year. Other historical attractions worth visiting in Santa Fe include the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi and Pecos National Historical Park. 

St Augustine, Florida (1565)

St Augustine was founded in 1565 and is the oldest lasting European settlement in the US mainland. It was founded by Spanish admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles who would become Florida’s first governor. The city has a long and eventful history having been raided by Sir Francis Drake in the late 1500s and later by pirates in the 1600s. It would fall under British rule in the 1760s and later Spanish rule again in the 1780s before finally being claimed by the United States in 1821. 

Frequent raids have resulted in much of St Augustine’s original architecture being destroyed. The fortress of Castillo de San Marcos is technically the oldest building in St Augustine, although much of its original structure has been destroyed and rebuilt. The oldest surviving house is now thought to be Gonzalez-Alvarez House built in 1723. The United States’ oldest wooden schoolhouse, also dating back to the early 1700s, can also be found in St Augustine. You can explore more of the town’s history through its various museums including St Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum, Spanish Military Hospital Museum, St Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum and Lightner Museum. 

San Juan, Puerto Rico (1521)

Many people forget that Puerto Rico is an American territory. Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, is even older than St Augustine, having been founded in 1521 by Spanish colonials. Before 1521, San Juan was inhabited by the Taino people and traces of an indigenous fishing village have been found in Puerto de Tierra – suggestion the coty’s roots could be even older.

The city’s most historic buildings can be found in Old San Juan, which feels much like a European city due to its well preserved history. La Casa Blanca is the oldest building and was constructed in 1521. San Jose Church was meanwhile built in 1532, while La Fortaleza was built in 1533. Traveling to Puerto Rico does not require a passport, making it well worth a trip to soak up this history.

Lost cities…

Jamestown, Virginia (1607)

The first English colony to settle in the US did so in Jamestown in Virginia. This was once the colonial capital, but this title was later moved to Williamsburg in 1699.

Jamestown was abandoned shortly after and now all that remains is an archaeological site. Original buildings such as Jamestown Church have since been restored and you can visit the site today and learn all about the history through a living museum. 

Cahokia (600 CE)

Many Native American settlements existed before Europeans arrived. Most of these are believed to have been very small. An exception is Cahokia in modern day Missouri, which would have been a very large city up until the 14th century.

Remains of Cahokia can still be found today, including several mighty mounds that are similar in shape to Central American pyramids. The museum at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site outside St Louis is well worth visiting to learn more about this lost city and the people that inhabited the region. 

Heather Brummett

I am Heather Brummett . I'm just a real mom, sharing my real life experiences with the world. Thank you for being a part of my world. Here you will find recipes, crafts, fun ideas for the kids, how to work at home, encouragement, inspiration, and the latest news in and around Houston. To be featured or for information on freelance work contact me at [email protected].

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