Compared to the long and expansive histories of Asia, Africa, or Europe, the story of America’s past can seem almost quaint. However, despite America’s relative youth, if you do a little digging, you can find a lot of great history all around you. Here are the five oldest cities in the United States and some important historical sites you can explore while you visit them.
1. St. Augustine, Florida
Founded on September 8, 1565, by Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez, St. Augustine is the first city founded by European settlers in North America and considered to be the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the United States (keep reading for more on that, however). After it was founded, St. Augustine served as the capital of Spanish Florida for 200 years until eventually it was ceded to the United States.
When you visit St. Augustine, make sure to include a visit to Castillo de San Marcos downtown. The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest and largest masonry fort in the United States, built in 1672 and constructed with a rare type of local sedimentary rock known as coquina.
2. Jamestown, Virginia
Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America and the founding city of the colony of Virginia. The city was officially founded on May 14, 1607, and was initially named James Fort after the reigning English monarch King James.
While the settlement almost fell into ruin around the end of the Civil War, there have been extensive reconstruction efforts put in over the last 100 years. The reconstruction efforts were so successful that Jamestown was able to host Queen Elizabeth II in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city.
3. Santa Fe, New Mexico
While Santa Fe, the oldest city west of the Mississippi, was founded a few short months after Jamestown in 1607, it has an even more impressive claim. The site of modern downtown Santa Fe was occupied by indigenous people when Santa Fe was founded. These people called the area home since 900 CE, making it one of the longest continuously-occupied sites in the United States—occupied longer than St. Augustine, though not officially recognized as a city for quite as long.
Santa Fe is both New Mexico’s oldest city and the oldest state capital in the country. It was under the control of Spain until Mexico declared its independence in 1810, and it became a part of the Texas Republic in 1836. The city joined the United States after the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1848.
Santa Fe is home to a stunning array of Spanish territorial architecture, which can be seen throughout the city. You can also visit the oldest standing church in America, the San Miguel Chapel, whose adobe walls were constructed in 1610.
4. Hampton, Virginia
At first known as Cape Comfort by its English founders, Hampton was founded in 1610. Due to its easy access to Chesapeake Bay and the James River, it became an important military outpost for the United States soon after it was taken over during the American Revolution.
Hampton also holds the distinction of being one of the few cities to remain a part of the Union despite being in the Confederacy’s capital state of Virginia. This was a result of the Union’s continuous occupation of Fort Monroe throughout the Civil War. Fort Monroe is still open to visitors today.
5. Kecoughtan, Virginia
Founded by citizens of nearby Jamestown, Kecoughtan was the place where the English settlers met the Native Americans who lived in the area. It was originally occupied by those Native Americans as a settlement known as Kikotan.
In 1609, English settlers built Fort Algernon near Kikotan and expelled the natives only months later, in July 1610. These actions were an unfortunate precursor to the tragic cycle of violence that would characterize the relationship between Native Americans and early American settlers. While the city was technically annexed in 1927 by nearby Newport News, the area is still around and available to visit.
Many other cities in America have long and exciting histories for you to discover. With a little bit of effort, you can explore amazing historical sites in places close to home.