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What Is the Oldest City in America? A Look at the Top 11

Sunset view of a bridge over a river and an old city in the distance
The skyline of the oldest city in the United States has a very European vibe. The Bridge of Lions, pictured here, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. John Coletti / Getty Images

Embarking on a journey through the United States' historical landscape to learn about the oldest city in America uncovers a rich mosaic of stories that trace back to a time before even the British arrived and settled on the land.

These cities are not just relics; they are vibrant museums alive with the stories of Indigenous cultures that flourished long before Europeans arrived. From the bustling city of New York to the tranquil shores of the Pacific Coast, let's take a virtual cross-country road trip to learn more about this nation's rich history.

Who Determines Which City Is the Oldest?

Before we take a historical walk down memory lane, it's important to note that America's complicated history contains layers of events and narratives from different communities, including Indigenous peoples, European settlers and countless others who have contributed to the nation's development.

In short: Determining which cities are the oldest involves more than just picking out dates.

What Defines a City?

In this quest, we also bump into the issue of what exactly makes a city a "city." There's no one-size-fits-all answer, making our task even trickier. So, as we explore these historical hubs, remember that history is often more nuanced than it appears at first glance.

11 Oldest Cities in America

11. Green Bay, Wisconsin (1634)

Established in 1634 by French explorer Jean Nicolet, Green Bay is one of America's oldest European settlements. Nicolet, dispatched by Samuel de Champlain, landed at Red Banks near modern Green Bay to foster peace with local Native American tribes and scout trade opportunities, initiating a European presence in the region.

After the French and Indian War in 1763, the city transitioned from French to British control. It ultimately became part of the United States after the Revolutionary War. Incorporated as a city in 1854, Green Bay's name likely stems from the seasonal green hues of its bay waters, attributed to algae and plant life.

Initially a hub for fur trading and missionary work, Green Bay became a significant port city at Lake Michigan's head, diversifying into manufacturing, paper production, and shipping. This propelled its development through the 19th and 20th centuries.

10. Boston, Massachusetts (1630)

The Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Company established the city of Boston on September 17, 1630. The colonial city swiftly grew from a fledgling outpost into a bustling trade center. Its strategic harbor facilitated its rise as a bustling center of maritime commerce during colonial times.

While the city was not a major textile production center, it played a crucial role in financing and organizing the broader New England textile industry, particularly in towns like Lowell and Lawrence, which became renowned for their mills in the 19th century.

The city's rich history, from its pivotal role in the American Revolution to its contributions during the Civil War, has left a legacy of historical locations that weave through the fabric of Boston's culture today.

9. Jersey City, New Jersey (1630)

On the western bank of the Hudson River in nearby New York City, this New Jersey town stands as one of the oldest cities in the U.S. Its story predates European colonization, with its roots in the Indigenous cultures that first inhabited the region.

The modern chapter of Jersey City's history began with the arrival of European settlers. In 1630, the Dutch West India Company purchased the land that now encompasses Jersey City from the Lenape tribe, marking the area's first significant European settlement. This early Dutch settlement was part of the larger colony of New Netherland, which included parts of modern-day New York and New Jersey.

The New Jersey town's strategic position along the Hudson River made it a pivotal location for trade and transportation from its earliest days.

As the United States grew and industrialized, Jersey City evolved in tandem, becoming a critical junction for rail and shipping networks. Its waterfront saw the construction of extensive rail yards, piers and terminals, including the famous Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, which served as a key entry point for immigrants after Ellis Island.

8. New York, New York (1624)

Back in the early 17th century, Dutch colonists founded what became an incredibly populous city.

Originally named New Amsterdam, the settlement was established on May 4, 1626, on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. The Dutch West India Company oversaw the development of the colony, which quickly grew into a bustling trading post and seaport due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Hudson.

In 1664, the English captured New Amsterdam from the early settlers and renamed it New York in honor of the Duke of York, who later became King James II of England. Under English rule, New York flourished as a center of commerce and cultural exchange, attracting immigrants from various European countries and beyond.

Throughout its history, New York City has played a central role in shaping U.S. culture, politics and economics. It has become one of the world's most influential and diverse cities.

7. Gloucester, Massachusetts (1623)

This coastal city on Cape Ann was established in the early summer of 1623, marking its inception as one of the first English settlements in what would later become the United States.

The historic town came into being when a group associated with the Dorchester Company — made up of fishermen and farmers — decided to settle there, based on the cod population in the local water. Gloucester's strategic location, with its accessible harbors and abundant fishing grounds, naturally predisposed it to become a central maritime and fishing center.

This early settlement played a pivotal role in developing the U.S. fishing industry and intertwined Gloucester's identity and culture with its maritime heritage. As a result, the city evolved into a quintessential fishing town, its community and economy deeply influenced by the sea.

6. Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620)

As you may have learned in grade school, Plymouth was founded by English colonists known as the Pilgrims in 1620. Seeking religious freedom, the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower and established Plymouth Colony, making it one of North America's earliest successful English settlements.

They landed on December 21, 1620, at a site they named Plymouth Rock, which has since become an iconic symbol of American history.

Their arrival marked the beginning of a challenging period, as the settlers were ill-equipped for the harsh conditions of the New World. Facing cold weather and famine, nearly half of the 102 settlers perished.

However, their fortunes changed when the Wampanoag, a local Indigenous tribe, extended their assistance to the struggling Pilgrims. With the help of the Wampanoag, the Plymouth colony overcame its early hardships and laid the foundation for what would become one of the earliest successful English settlements in North America.

Today, the famous pilgrim settlement is a historic town known for its rich colonial heritage and preservation of landmarks such as Plymouth Rock, Pilgrim Hall Museum and Plimoth Plantation, which offer insights into the lives of the early settlers and their interactions with Indigenous American tribes.

5. Albany, New York (1614)

Dutch colonists founded Albany, New York, in 1614. Established initially as Fort Nassau by the Dutch West India Company, it served as a trading post for the fur trade along the Hudson River. In 1624, the settlement was relocated slightly north and renamed Fort Orange, which later became the nucleus for the city of Albany.

The city's location along the river made it a vital transportation and trade center during colonial-era New York. It grew rapidly as a center for commerce, attracting settlers from various European countries and Indigenous tribes.

Throughout its history, Albany played significant roles in various events, including the American Revolution and the growth of the Erie Canal, which further solidified its position as an important inland port city. Today, Albany is the capital of New York state.

4. Hampton, Virginia (1610)

Hampton, Virginia, was founded on July 9, 1610, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited English-speaking settlements in the United States.

Established by colonists under the leadership of Captain John Smith, Hampton's strategic location on the Virginia Peninsula facilitated trade and navigation along the Chesapeake Bay. The settlement thrived as a hub for shipping, trade and commerce during the colonial period, attracting settlers seeking economic opportunities in the New World.

Throughout its history, Hampton has been witness to significant events, including the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America in 1619 and the burning of the town by British forces during the War of 1812.

Hampton is intrinsically linked to the legacy of Booker T. Washington, a prominent Black American educator and Civil Rights leader. Washington began his education at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), where he later returned as a teacher.

Today, Hampton is known for historic sites such as Fort Monroe, and its role in shaping American history. It is also home to NASA's Langley Research Center, which contributes to advancements in aerospace technology and exploration.

3. Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610)

Santa Fe was founded in 1610 by Spanish colonists led by Don Pedro de Peralta. It is widely believed to be the third oldest city in the United States. The southwestern city's origins trace back to the colonial era when it was established as the capital of the Spanish colony of Nuevo México.

Situated in New Mexico, its founding marked a significant moment in the history of North America, as it became the oldest continuously inhabited state capital (not just city) in the United States. Santa Fe's strategic location along the historic Camino Real de Tierra Adentro facilitated trade and cultural exchange between Spanish settlers, Indigenous peoples and other traders.

The city's early economy focused on trade, missionary work and agriculture. Over the centuries, present-day Santa Fe has evolved into a vibrant cultural hub renowned for its adobe architecture, rich history and diverse artistic heritage.

It is widely celebrated for its art, Indigenous crafts and the Santa Fe Fiesta. Figures like Georgia O'Keeffe, synonymous with New Mexican art, mark Santa Fe's rich artistic legacy.

2. Jamestown, Virginia (1607)

With the authority of the Virginia Company of London and King James I, English settlers established Jamestown in Virginia on May 14, 1607. Widely recognized as the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, the colonial capital quickly became a cornerstone of English America.

However, the town's early years were marked by severe hardships, with European settlers grappling with disease, famine and conflicts with Indigenous peoples.

The colony's turnaround was spearheaded by the introduction of tobacco by John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas, a young Algonquin woman and figure of enduring legend, in 1614. This economic pivot laid the groundwork for English expansion in the New World and the complex societal structures that would follow, including the grim legacy of slavery.

Jamestown played a crucial role in the early colonial history of North America and served as a foothold for English expansion into the New World. Its establishment marked the beginning of English colonization in what would later become the United States of America.

1. St. Augustine, Florida (1565)

Established by admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés as a Spanish town in 1565, St. Augustine has a storied past that weaves through eras of colonization, pirate incursions and significant civil rights battles.

From its founding, the city has been a site of contention and struggle, including conflicts between European powers, battles for control during the colonial period and later, pivotal moments in the fight for civil rights. It's widely believed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the U.S.

St. Augustine's history is deeply intertwined with Spanish Florida, a vast colonial territory established by Spain in the early 16th century.

The Spanish town encompassed much of the southeastern United States, including present-day Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. It served as a crucial outpost for Spain's colonial ambitions in the New World, providing a strategic foothold for defending Spanish interests and facilitating trade routes.

Throughout Spanish Florida's history, European nations vied for control of the region. It was also a melting pot of cultures, with Spanish, Indigenous, African and other European influences shaping its identity.

The area has since evolved into a charming beach getaway town, blending its historical legacy with Florida's coastal beauty.

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: What Is the Oldest City in America? A Look at the Top 11

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