“Old” is kind of a relative term. This both applies to children who refer to people in their 20s as “old” and to Americans who refer to anything built before World War II as “old.” Our country is pretty young, by global standards, but even though we may not have been around for millennia, every state has at least one city that’s been around for over 150 years.
That lends itself to some pretty fascinating history, so the folks at Netcredit did some digging and found the oldest city in each state. For these purposes, we mean oldest in terms of European settlement, as we know Native Americans have been living in these places for far longer. But all that, and a little bit about how each place was founded and developed, makes for an educational and entertaining look at some of the oldest cities in the United States.
Few people know this port city that joins the Mobile River to the Gulf of Mexico dates back nearly 75 years prior to the founding of the United States. But in its day, it was second only to New Orleans as a major regional port and was once home to the same cast of characters that make the Big Easy so interesting. Mobile even had its own dialect called Mobile Jargon, a sort of patios of French and Native American languages.
You think living on an island in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska is hard now? Try in the 18th century when stuff like “waterproof jackets” and “heat” weren’t really a thing. This was when Russian fur trappers established a settlement on the island of Kadiak (Inuit for “island’), which had seen Inuit habitation for nearly 8,000 years. It was the capital of Russian Alaska, then later was incorporated as a US city in 1940. Sea otter furs have been replaced by commercial fishing, and the city is now one of the most valuable fishing ports in America.
Though the city was officially established on August 20, 1775, Native American tribes had been living in the area for thousands of years before Spanish missionaries arrived, making Tucson one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in North America. In the 1600s, the Presidio San Agustin de Tucson and the Mission San Xavier del Bac were established, beginning European occupation. It became part of the United States in 1854 and was a Wild West outpost well into the 19th century.
The oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Arkansas traces its roots back to 1789, when Francis Francure arrived on the banks of the White River with a 1,361-acre land grant from the Spanish crown. It was known as Francure Township until 1909 when three men — all named George — bought and redeveloped the land. It resulted in a venerable population explosion and the newly named Georgetown now boasts 124 people.
California: San Diego
The native peoples known as the San Dieguito occupied this area as early ay 9000 BC, but it was in 1542 that Spanish explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo first set foot here. In the 1700s, Spain reluctantly colonized the area, using San Diego as a midpoint between the southern tip of Baja California and Monterey Bay. In 1769, Junipero Serra founded the first of his 21 missions here — San Diego de Alcala — but it wasn’t until 1847 that it became part of the United States after the Mexican-American war.
The oldest city in the first state was discovered by Henry Hudson on a voyage up the Delaware River in 1609. Nearly 22 years passed before the Dutch settled the area, and a year later the settlement was wiped out by a tribe of Lenni Lenape Indians in a dispute over a stolen coat of arms. The town roared back in 1658 then welcomed a Mennonite colony in 1663. That was destroyed by the English, who subsequently established the town of Whorekill. Knowing that name might someday have a slightly serial-killer-y connotation, the name was changed to Lewes in 1664, and the town still boasts buildings that date back to the seventeenth century.
Florida: St. Augustine
Anyone who’s played three weeks of bar trivia knows this city in northwest Florida is the oldest in the US. Unexpected, in a state best known for rampant condominiums, but a fun trivia question all the same. The settlement was originally founded by Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, and save for about 20 years of English rule, it was a Spanish holding until the US took over in 1821. It was heavily attacked for its strategic importance by the French, English, and native tribes, which is why it’s also home to the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the contiguous United States.
It wasn’t until the railroads came in that Atlanta saw its rise and became the most important city in Georgia. Before that, this port city along the Savannah River was king, settled by General James “Ogie” Oglethorpe and 120 others when they landed on a bluff over the river. It was the first city in the new colony of Georgia, and the first planned city in America with a meticulous system of grids and squares that exists to this day.
Those who haven’t ventured to the northeast side of the Big Island will be surprised to find a downtown full of buildings that date back over 100 years and homes from the 19th century. Polynesian natives have been here since about 1100, but the missionaries who arrived in 1822 were the first European settlers. They were followed by whaling and trade ships who used Hilo as the major port to the islands. And later by tourists who came to see the island’s active volcanoes, who still arrive by the boatload today.
Interestingly, the oldest town in Idaho was thought to actually be part of Utah until 1872, when a land survey found it to be squarely within Gem State lines. The small settlement of Mormon pioneers along the Cub River was an agricultural community at the time, then later a launching point for carriages on their way to Yellowstone National Park. Visiting today, you can still find original stone buildings like Relic Hall, the ZCMI Stone, and the Hatch House. Its population at the last census was 643.
According to archeological finds, human habitation here dates back as far as 10,000 BC, and the Illini Indians had settlements as late as 1650. In 1763, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explored the area, and in 1680, Robert Cavalier Sieur de LaSalle and Henri de Tonti constructed Fort Crevecoeur on the east bank of the Illinois River. It was largely under French control until the War of 1812, when the village was burned by American forces and the French inhabitants were taken prisoner and moved. In 1845, Peoria was officially incorporated as an American city.
Originally founded as a military outpost to protect the French fur trade along the Wabash River, Vincennes was actually the original capital of the Indiana Territory when it was established in 1800. It is also the home of Indiana’s first Catholic church, newspaper, Masonic lodge, Presbyterian church, bank, and medical office.
One of the oldest settlements west of the Mississippi, Dubuque was originally settled by French-Canadian fur trader Julien Dubuque. He made a liaison with the local Mesquakie tribes, who showed him where massive lead deposits sat nearby. Together they mined the area known as the Mines of Spain until Dubuque died in 1810. The US government then opened the area to settlement, and it officially became the city of Dubuque in 1837.
Fort Leavenworth was established along the Missouri River in 1827 to protect the local fur trade and other commercial interests along the Santa Fe trail. It’s still the oldest Army post west of the Mississippi and has had an illustrious history as everything from the base of operations for wars against natives to the home of the black regiments who became known as “Buffalo Soldiers.”
This town near the Salt and Kentucky rivers isn’t just the oldest town in the Bluegrass State — it’s also the oldest English settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains. It was once a crucial conduit between settlements in the East and West and still maintains a downtown with buildings from the late 19th century.
This area was originally settled along the banks of the Red River by a native tribe of the same name. The French first colonized it for Europeans in 1714 as an outpost for watching its nearby holdings, but eventually the river changed course and the city now sits on what’s known as Cane River Lake. The 33-block downtown is still choc-full of historic homes, many of which have similar architecture to what you’d find in nearby New Orleans.
What began as a pastoral town for English settlers from Kingswear became one of the most important cities for the US Navy during its early years. Many warships used during the Revolutionary War were built here, and in 1800, it opened the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, the oldest continuously operating Navy yard in America. Many of the submarines used to win World War II were also built in Kittery, and it continues to produce nuclear subs today.
The recreational sailing capital of the world was originally founded in 1649 by Puritans who’d been kicked out of Virginia. It went through a series of names before landing on Annapolis to honor Queen Anne in 1694. The city was home to the Annapolis Convention, generally considered the precursor to the Constitutional Convention, in 1786, and was selected as the site for the US Naval Academy the following year.
If you know the story of Thanksgiving, you know all about Plymouth Rock and the pilgrims who first landed there. What many don’t know is they were originally aiming much further south to Virginia, where they’d acquired plantation land. Bad weather forced a landing in far-less-hospitable Massachusetts, and nearly half the already malnourished settlers didn’t survive the first winter. Today it’s a city of over 58,000, and you can visit the allegedly famous “rock” at Pilgrim Memorial State Park.
Michigan: Sault Ste. Marie
“The Soo,” as it’s known, was initially settled by natives along the St. Mary’s river, as the abundance of fish traveling between Lake Superior and Lake Huron made it prime fishing territory. In the 1600s, French explorers came to the area, and in 1668, missionary Jacques Marquette named it Sault Ste. Marie after the Virgin Mary. Over the next 150 years the British and French fought over the strategically crucial outpost until it was finally turned over to US control in 1820.
Mostly inhabited by the Sioux prior to 1820, this town in the Mississippi River Valley began to explode with settlers in the mid-19th century. Farmers, lumberman, and river traders were among its earliest inhabitants, and later it became an important city for clamming. It retains much of its old river town charm and may have inspired the setting for Grumpy Old Men as the film’s writer had a grandfather who lived here.
The grand old plantation homes and thick southern charm of this city on the bluffs above the Mississippi are mostly from its heyday as a slave trade post in the 19th century. But the city itself was founded by the French over 100 years earlier, as Ft. Rosalie by Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. It was later renamed Natchez — after the local natives who sacked the fort in 1729 — and stood under English then Spanish control until the US made it the capital of the Mississippi Territory in 1798.
Missouri: St. Genevieve
The French originally settled this area to exploit the nearby salt springs in Saline Creek. As agricultural needs became larger, St. Genevieve became a rich growing area with deposits from the Mississippi River. The town moved locations in 1785 after massive flooding, now standing at a higher elevation than its original riverside locale. It was again threatened in the early 1990s, but during both the floods of 1993 and 1995, emergency levees saved the city’s historic structures.
Stevensville was once the big open lands of the Bitterroot Valley, where the Salish tribe lived for centuries and ultimately helped Lewis and Clark find trails to take them further west. The Salish learned of Jesuit missionaries who could teach them skills like farming and medicine, and invited them to come settle in the early 19th century. The Jesuits established a mission here in 1841, and as other settlers followed, the Salish abandoned the area. It fell into relative disrepair until after the Civil War, when it became the Fort Owen trading post, a hub of expansion during the era of western migration.
Named “beautiful view” for its clifftop vistas over the Missouri River, Bellevue was, like many Midwestern river cities, a fur trading post initially settled by the French. It later became the site of Ft. Crook thanks to the availability of large swaths of land, then later evolved into Offutt Air Force Base. The base is home to the Martin Bomber Plant, who most notably manufactured the Enola Gay and Bockscar. AKA the planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
As the Mormons moved west from New York in the middle part of the 19th century, a group of them opted to settle in the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, east of Lake Tahoe. The area became known as Mormon Station, and the Overland Emigrant Trail ran right through what is Main Street in downtown Genoa. Today, it’s a full-blown Old West theme town with buildings dating back to near its original founding.
New Hampshire: Dover
Dover isn’t just the oldest settlement in New Hampshire — it was initially its own separate colony called Northam until joining the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. The town between the Cocheco and Bellamy Rivers used the waters to fuel its economy, first by powering a sawmill in 1642, then developing a shipbuilding industry in the 18th century. Dover evolved into a brick-manufacturing town in the 1900s, and today, at just over 29,000 residents, it’s the fourth-largest city in the state.
New Jersey: Jersey City
Though most people wouldn’t associate the word “historical” with this city just across the Hudson from NYC, it was, in fact, the first European settlement in the area that is now New Jersey. Delaware Indians had been there for centuries, but Henry Hudson happened upon it in 1609, and Dutch fur trappers settled there in 1618. It grew to become a major center for both transportation and communications and now boasts some of the best views of the Manhattan skyline.
New Mexico: Santa Fe
Even trivia buffs are often unaware that the second-oldest city in America is the adobe-and-art gem of Santa Fe. Originally settled by Fanciscan missionaries, the town is home to the oldest church building in America at the San Miguel Churchf. Ultimately, the local Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spanish, burning nearly everything to the ground save for the still-standing Palace of the Governors. Once the capital of the vast Spanish empire in the Southwest, it’s still the state capital of New Mexico and a highly underrated spot for late-season skiing.
New York: Albany
Enjoy tearing off that toilet paper with a conveniently perforated edge? Thank the city of Albany, whose favorite son Seth Wheeler patented the toilet paper roll in 1871. That fun fact aside, the Empire State capital is also the oldest city in the state, founded as Henry Hudson looked for a waterway to the far East in 1609. Fur traders set up the first European settlement in 1614, and it became the state capital in 1797.
North Carolina: Bath
Theoretically, a port city only 50 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and smack on the Pamlico River would be an ideal place for Protestant settlers relocating from Virginia. That is, of course, until one considers that the Tuscarora Indians, who occupied the area and outnumbered the settlers considerably, might not be so hot on the idea. And that pirates like the infamous Edward “Blackbeard” Teach roamed the ocean nearby. Thus was the fate of Bath, which never really got its feet off the ground as a major settlement and 314 years after its founding has only a population of 244.
North Dakota: Pembina
Pembina began as a community of “Metis,” mixed-race people that were the result of relations between French explorers and the local Chippewa. It wasn’t until 1797 when French trader Charles Baptiste Chaboillez established a post here that the population began to grow, and in 1803, the Hudson Bay Company opened its own post in Pembina. The town sits about two miles from the US-Canadian border, and in the 19th century, it was a fairly wide-open trading area between America and British-controlled Canada. Today, it has a population of about 550.
Ohio’s first city was also the first American settlement northwest of the Ohio River, initially settled by Rufus Putnam — an early investor in the Ohio Company. In its early years, Marietta was an agricultural trading center, collecting goods from nearby farms and sending them east. Later, it became known for shipbuilding, dispatching its creations down the Ohio River to the Mississippi. As other modes of transportation grew, Marietta shrank in importance and housed just over 15,000 people in the last census.
Oklahoma: Fort Gibson
Fort Gibson was initially established as a sort of refuge for European settlers, freed slaves, and Cherokees against the Osage Indians. Later, it served as a jumping-off point for military operations exploring the West and was the Union Army headquarters in Indian Territory during the Civil War. Though the fort itself was abandoned in the late 19th century, much of it was rebuilt by the WPA in the 1930s, and the town boasted over 4,000 residents during the last census.
Clatsop Indians occupied this peninsula near the mouth of the Columbia River for hundreds of years until Captain Robert Gary first sailed through in 1792. Fort Clatsop was established just south of the area and housed Lewis and Clark during the winter of 1805. A few years later, America’s first millionaire John Jacob Astor set up a fur trading post and gave the city its name. It regained fame in the 1980s, when the cult classic Goonies used Astoria as its locale.
You may have noticed most of the oldest cities in America are nowhere near the largest in their respective states. Not the case in Phillyhttps://matadornetwork.com/destinations/north-america/united-states/pennsylvania/, which was the most important city in America during the country’s early years. The city was founded by William Penn after King Charles II gifted him the province of Pennsylvania. It drew large numbers of new immigrants with its reputation for religious tolerance and “brotherly love,” and it grew into a major trading center with the West Indies. It was the largest city in America until overtaken by New York in 1790 and was the second-largest until Chicago passed it in 1890.
Rhode Island: Providence
It should come as no surprise that one of America’s best party cities was founded by a preacher who didn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Roger Williams was forced out of Massachusetts in 1636 and fled to Narragansett Indian land, which he then purchased and named “Providence” as a thanks to God for his protection. The city grew into a major supplier for the French and American armies during the revolution and still remains one of the most important seaports in New England.
South Carolina: Charleston
Nowhere in the south meant more to American history than Charleston. And though tourists flock there today for its southern hospitality and carriage rides, it has not always been so tranquil. Blackbeard the pirate blockaded the city in 1718 — it was the site of the Civil War’s beginning at Fort Sumter in 1861, and a few months later, a fire destroyed much of the city. Even so, it’s still the site of America’s first golf course at the Charleston Golf Club and the nation’s first museum at the Charleston Museum.
South Dakota: Fort Pierre
Before you read any further, please note “Pierre,” in this case, is pronounced like “pier.” Now that you’re saying it right in your head, you can appreciate the historical significance of this city across the Missouri River from the South Dakota state capitol. This Lakota land was first explored by French Verendrye explorers who stuck a metal plate in the hill claiming the land for France. It turned into a major trading center at the confluence of the Bad and Missouri Rivers, and in true South Dakota style grew as a diverse, mostly lawless place where people came to make a quick buck.
Think you know you US capitals? Ok, smarty pants, what was the capital of the 14th state of Franklin? What, you’ve never heard of the area of western North Carolina that, in 1784, felt it wasn’t being effectively represented and formed its own state? Well, that happened, and though it was never officially recognized by congress Franklin — the unofficial 14th state — had its capital in Jonesborough. The land later became part of Tennessee when it was admitted as the 16th state and still has many of the buildings from its unofficial-capital era.
Oh, you’ve flown under six flags, Texas? That’s cute. But this city manages to out-Texas Texas, going even bigger and flying under a whopping NINE flags in its 240-year history. If you can name them all without Googling, stop wasting your time reading and go try out for Jeopardy! If you can’t, they are: Spanish, French, Gutierrez-Magee Rebellion, Dr. James Long Expedition, Mexican, Fredonian Rebellion, Lone Star, Confederate, and the United States.
Hard to imagine the heart of Mormon country being one of the great outlaw towns of the 19th century. But as Ogden was home to the junction of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, it turned into possibly the world’s first stopover town where people came to do whatever they pleased for a night. The bars, brothels, and gambling houses along 25th Street made it one of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. Much of those buildings still stand today, and Ogden has turned into a laid-back, historic ski alternative to crowded Park City.
When the Massachusetts Bay Company was establishing settlements in its massive holdings, the area that is now Westminster was “Township No. 1.” It was part of the New Hampshire Grants until 1762, when King George decreed the Connecticut River would separate New Hampshire and New York, and Westminster became part of the Empire State. Its county courthouse was the site of Vermont’s decision to be a free and separate republic in 1777, which it was until it ultimately became the 14th state in 1791. Westminster was also home of Vermont’s first state bank, established in 1807.
Some might be surprised to see that Williamsburg, not Jamestown, is the oldest city in Virginia. Those people would forget that while America’s first settlement was, in fact, in Jamestown, that city was destroyed by fire in 1698, and left too small to be anything resembling a town. Most of Virginia’s government and commerce moved to Middle Plantation, which was renamed Williamsburg. Jamestown is now a national park.
Before Seattle and Tacoma dominated Puget Sound, there was Steilacoom. This city in the south sound was named after the native tribe who inhabited the area, settled mostly by former British sailors. As the first settlement in the lumber-rich Washington Territory, Steilacoom’s founders sought to make it a new San Francisco and a major trading port with the rest of the West Coast. But the Civil War halted its growth, and by the end of the century, the railroad terminus in Tacoma and the gold rush in Seattle made those the major cities in the state.
West Virginia: Shepherdstown
The name Shepherdstown has absolutely nothing to do with sheep, but rather with Thomas Shepherd who began the city on 222 acres on the southern banks of the Potomac River. Its convenient location at the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley made it a popular stopping point for travelers and its early days saw it as a hotbed of taverns, bars, and inns. It was later a convalescing point for 5,000-8,000 casualties after the Battle of Antietam, and most of the town has today been designated on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wisconsin: Green Bay
Lost in the lore of Lambeau and America’s only publicly held pro sports team is the fact that Green Bay was at one time the world’s entrance to Wisconsin. The name comes from “La Baye Vert,” which even first-grade French students know translates to “Green Bay,” after the color of the waters explorer Jean Nicolet found upon his arrival. French fur traders and missionaries followed, calling the settlement simply “The Bay” since it was their main point of entry from the Great Lakes inland. They controlled the area until the British took it over in 1763, then 20 years later lost it to Americans after the Revolutionary War.
The youngest oldest city in America is cowboy-filled Cheyenne, founded as a supply depot for the Union Pacific Railroad in 1867. It gained the nickname “Magic City,” springing up out of nowhere like a 19th-century Dubai. Later, it was a major outfitting center for the Black Hills gold rush in Deadwood, and today, it has grown to the largest city in Wyoming.
If the fact that this list was alphabetized instead of in order of establishment frustrated you, good news: Netcredit also made this handy animation to visualize the cities popping up on the map as they were created.
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