The Oldest Town in Every US State
The towns that sprung up in St. Augustine’s wake have something to say about the fascinating story of the Americas, with even the town names – from Santa Fe to Cheyenne – speaking volumes about the part each one played in the making of a super-power.
We decided to delve deeper by creating our own illustrated list of the American towns that have been lived in the longest.
In the spirit of our guide to the oldest building in every state, we’ve put each state’s oldest town into a temporal context by animating the settlements in the order that they appeared. Are you ready to go on a journey through time?
1. St. Augustine, Florida (1565)
Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles established the States’ first permanent settlement when he landed on the Florida coast on September 8, 1565. He planted the Spanish flag and named the fledgling town after the patron saint of brewers – he probably needed a drink after that historic journey.
2. Santa Fe, New Mexico (1607)
Upon settling in the area that would become Santa Fe in 1607, Spanish soldiers and Franciscan missionaries set about converting and ruling over the local Pueblo Indians. The Pueblos revolted in 1670, burning every building except the Palace of the Governors, and held the area until 1692.
3. Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620)
The pilgrims, religious dissenters from England, set sail for America on September 16, 1620, on the promise of a private plantation in Virginia. Poor conditions at sea led them to wash up considerably north of their intended destination; only half the settlers survived the first winter, but come harvest time a year later they were upbeat enough to establish and celebrate the.
4. Kittery, Maine (1623)
Once known in the Algonquin dialect as– meaning “fishing point” – Kittery took its new name from the English family home of an early settler, Alexander Shapleigh. English and French colonists and Native Americans would later fight fierce battles over control of this and the surrounding land.
5. Dover, New Hampshire (1623)
Before becoming part of the United States, Dover was known as Northam and passed between various colonial authorities while settlers argued about how the colonies would be run (including the idea of a hereditary aristocracy). The town proved to be perfectly placed to weather the centuries, thriving by turns on water power, cotton, bricks and shoe manufacturing.
6. Albany, New York (1624)
Previously home to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Native Americans, the area that Albany now sits on was established as a settlement by Henry Hudson as he searched for a water route to the Far East. In addition to being New York’s capital and oldest city, Albany is the site of the first perforated toilet paper.
7. Lewes, Delaware (1631)
Lewes, the oldest town of America’s first state, is another area stumbled upon by Henry Hudson and colonized on behalf of his Dutch sponsors. Many older buildings have been preserved so visitors can still get the feel of the 17th century today.
8. Williamsburg, Virginia (1633)
The first settlement in Virginia and the whole of the States was, of course, Jamestown in 1607. But after a fire started by a condemned prisoner in 1698, the government moved to Middle Plantation, which they renamed Williamsburg after the king of England. Although it remained inhabited, Jamestown was no longer populous enough to be considered a town, and today it is a national park.
9. Windsor, Connecticut (1633)
Colonists bought this land from the resident Native Americans and established it as a trading post, originally where the Farmington and Connecticut Rivers meet. It was named after the town on the River Thames where Windsor Castle stands.
10. Green Bay, Wisconsin (1634)
French explorer Jean Nicolet named ‘La Baye Vert’ for the color of the water when he landed there in 1634. The name was anglicized when the British took control of the area after the French and Indian War of 1754–63.
11. Providence, Rhode Island (1636)
It was a ‘’ on the run from religious persecution in Massachusetts who founded Providence, naming it in gratitude for his safety. He bought the land from the Narragansett Indians, and it flourished due to the seaport’s position in relation to the burgeoning New World.
12. Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (1641)
Michigan’s oldest town traces its name to its establishment by French missionary Jacques Marquette in 1668; Europeans had been settled on that land for over a quarter of century by that point. The town would grow to be commonly known in English as “The Soo,” which is more or less how to pronounce the French word “Sault.”
13. Annapolis, Maryland (1649)
The “Athens of America,” Annapolis was a booming social and cultural hotspot from its beginnings as a settler capital. It even has a European-style street layout rather than a grid, in deference to the English Queen Anne for whom the city is named.
14. Jersey City, New Jersey (1660)
Delaware Indians have lived in this area for th century when Henry Hudson claimed it as ‘New Netherlands.’ Jersey City sprouted from the first village around Bergen Square., but Dutch, Swedish and Finnish colonists arrived in the 17
15. Charleston, South Carolina (1670)
Charleston is a veritable hotbed of American history, regardless of its being South Carolina’s oldest town: it’s where the first ‘official’ shot of the civil war was fired, the first successful submarine attack happened, she-crab soup was invented, and America’s first golf course, museum and playhouse were sited.
16. Peoria, Illinois (1680)
The Peoria Indians were one of five Illinois tribes who lived in this area long before the immigrants came. French colonists and Native Americans lived in settlements around the lake until 1812, when U.S. troops burned much of the village and moved the French to other areas.
17. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1681)
Philadelphia was a Quaker town, founded by William Penn when King Charles II gave him the province of Pennsylvania – the “brotherly love” reflecting Penn’s ideals. Religious tolerance and a democratic approach soon gave the city a good name, and numbers swelled to make it one of the most important cities in the land.
18. Mobile, Alabama (1702)
The first capital of French Louisiana, Mobile even had its own language for the first century or so – a trading language between the French and Native Americans, known as Mobile Jargon. Along the way, the town passed through French, English and Spanish control as a result of local and remote wars.
19. Bath, North Carolina (1705)
French Protestants settled here from Virginia, lured by access to the river and, by extension, the Atlantic just 50 miles away. However, this early promise soon turned sour as proximity to the sea meant trouble with pirates. Additionally, the Tuscarora Indians – who suffered enslavement and disease at the hands of their invaders – waged a four-year war with the Europeans, bringing terrible bloodshed to the town before Bath was even ten years old.
20. Natchitoches, Louisiana (1714)
Natchitoches was built just four years ahead of nearby New Orleans, so it is no surprise that parts of the respective towns closely resemble each other. It began as a mere outpost from which the French could keep an eye on challenges to their territory along the Red River.
21. Natchez, Mississippi (1716)
The oldest city on the Mississippi River was founded by the French in 1716 and later ceded to the Spanish. Sadly, the fortunes of Natchez are founded on its status us a slave-trading hub serving the nearby cotton and sugarcane empires.
22. Vincennes, Indiana (1732)
Vincennes was established by Francois Marie Bissot–Sieur de Vincennes to protect the thriving local fur trade from the British. Along the way, the town became home to Indiana’s first bank, first Presbyterian and Catholic churches, first newspaper and first Masonic Lodge.
23. Savannah, Georgia (1733)
Most of the towns that emerged before Savannah were informal developments of forts or chance settlements, but Georgia’s oldest town was purposely designed as a founding stone of the state. It became known as ‘America’s first planned city’ for its meticulous grid of streets, buildings, parks and meeting places.
24. Westminster, Vermont (1734)
So fundamental was Westminster to Vermont that it first appeared in records as ‘Township No. 1.’ However, the town has flipped between various counties over the years due to its position on Connecticut River and in Cumberland County.
25. St. Genevieve, Missouri (1735)
The original settlement of Sainte Genevieve was, with some foresight, named Le Vieux (“the Old”) Village, but its precise location shifted slightly after flooding in 1835. Floods again threatened the historic center in 1993 and 1995, but improvised levees were constructed and most of the older buildings were saved.
26. Fort Pierre, South Dakota (1743)
Fort Pierre became a thriving fur trade town soon after its establishment, with one 1880 visitoras “. . . a strange mixture of Americans, English, Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Russians, Poles, French, Canadians, half-breeds, Indians and what not… Protestants, Catholics, Spiritualists, Moralists, Liberals, Freelovers, Ingersolites, Nothing-arins, and how many others I do not know… Nearly all the people were in hot and eager pursuit after the almighty dollar!”
27. Shepherdstown, West Virginia (1762)
Thomas Shepherd took a land grant for a patch by the Potomac River in 1734 and, in the years leading to the town’s official establishment, the settlement there took wonderful Wild West names such as Pack Horse Ford and Swearingen’s Ferry. It later became Shepherd’s Town and, after the civil war, Shepherdstown.
28. San Diego, California (1769)
For thousands of years, this area belonged to San Dieguito and Diegueño Indians. Although the Spanish claimed the area in the mid-16th century, it wasn’t until two centuries later that missionaries arrived and the Old Town became the first Spanish settlement on the West Coast.
29. Harrodsburg, Kentucky (1774)
The explorer and soldier James Harrod took 30 men to the area near the Salt and Kentucky Rivers in 1774 and divided the land between them. Today, it has become a quaint little old town with a population of not much over 8,000 people; both the living areas and the preserved historical spots retain that frontier look.
30. Tucson, Arizona (1775)
‘El Presidio San Agustin del Tucson’ was founded as a walled fort by Hugo O’Conor in 1775, although Native Americans lived in the area for more than twelve millennia beforehand. Missionary work intended to convert and subdue the locals often led to rebellions by tribes such as the Pima Indians in 1751.
31. Jonesborough, Tennessee (1779)
Jonesborough was formed 17 years before Tennessee became a state – it was under the control of North Carolina at the time and briefly became the capital of the unofficial 14th ‘State of Franklin’ along the way. Today, many historical buildings are still in use, making it a town of ‘living’ history.
32. Nacogdoches, Texas (1779)
Time hasn’t stood still in Nacogdoches. Previously occupied by Caddo Indians, the area has passed beneath nine different flags since the Spanish missions arrived – three more than the rest of Texas: Spanish, French, Gutierrez-Magee Rebellion, Dr. James Long Expedition, Mexican, Fredonian Rebellion, Lone Star, Confederate Stars & Bars and the United States.
33. Marietta, Ohio (1788)
The “Adventure Galley” landed at the joining of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers on April 7, 1788, where General Rufus Putnam and 47 pioneers established the first permanent colony northwest of the Ohio River.
34. Georgetown, Arkansas (1789)
Just 126 people live in Georgetown today – keeping it alive as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in Arkansas. And no, they are not all called George. George was the surname of three men who bought and redeveloped the town some decades after it was founded.
35. Kodiak, Alaska (1792)
The first capital of Russian Alaska, Kodiak was established by Russian fur hunters and traders keen to exploit the North Sea otter. Today, the city is one of the largest fishing ports in the US.
36. Pembina, North Dakota (1797)
Pembina was first inhabited by Chippewa Indians. When the French began to arrive in the late 18th century they intermarried with the Native Americans, forming a Métis (mixed-blood) community. But it wasn’t until 1797 that Charles Baptiste Chaboillez established a trading post here and the settlement began to grow.
37. Astoria, Oregon (1811)
Astoria is named after America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor, who founded the town as a fur trading post. Of course, today it is most celebrated as the shooting location of 1980s classic The Goonies.
38. Hilo, Hawaii (1822)
Polynesians first arrived in Hilo nearly a thousand years ago, but it wasn’t until 1822 that Christian missionaries and European whalers and traders would appear.
39. Bellevue, Nebraska (1822)
Bellevue – “beautiful view” – was relocated to cliffs over the Missouri River in 1835, where it thrived as a fur trading point between colonists and the local Omaha, Otoe, Missouri and Pawnee tribes.
40. Fort Gibson, Oklahoma (1824)
Original 19th century buildings still dot Fort Gibson, which grew from the settlement of military families, local Native Americans, and freed slaves. The fort had originally been established to protect both European and migrating Cherokee settlers from indigenous tribes such as the Osage Nation.
41. Wabasha, Minnesota (1826)
Before 1826, the area that became Wabasha was occupied by the Sioux. The nephew of Chief Wa-pa-shaw set up a trading place, and the town took his uncle’s name – becoming officially established in 1830, four years later.
42. Leavenworth, Kansas (1827)
Fort Leavenworth was established to protect the fur and other trades in 1827, but the settlement’s position meant that a great deal of traffic would come through on its way west. As such, the city of Leavenworth was established in 1854 and quickly boomed – despite regional uprisings by local and forcibly relocated Native Americans whose land treaties were trashed as whites expanded into the area.
43. Dubuque, Iowa (1837)
Julien Dubuque, a French-Canadian fur trader, arrived in the region in 1785, and formed close friendships with the local Mesquakie Indians, who revealed to him the location of valuable lead deposits nearby. After Dubuque’s death, the government opened up the area for settlement. The city named Dubuque was established in 1837 as immigrants from the east coast rushed to take advantage of the land’s resources.
44. Stevensville, Montana (1841)
Jesuit missionaries formed St. Mary’s Mission at the site that would become Stevensville, on the request of representatives of the Salish tribe – who wished to learn about European methods of agriculture and medicine and the Jesuit’s unique religious ways. White settlers would drive the Salish out of the area within half a century.
45. San Luis, Colorado (1851)
San Luis was established in 1851 by Hispano farmers on land that had previously been inhabited for thousands of years. With its Spanish town layout and adobe architecture, this small town of just a few hundred people retains its eclectic historical atmosphere today.
46. Genoa, Nevada (1851)
Separated from much of America by hostile traveling conditions – including bandits on the trail to Salt Lake City – Genoa developed almost in isolation after being established by Mormons. They formed a “squatter’s government,” divided the land and were bolstered by the occasional visitor who might choose to stay on a while. Today the town feels like a step back through time.
47. Ogden, Utah (1851)
The Great Salt Lake Fremont Indians occupied the area of Ogden for almost a thousand years from around 400 A.D., with the Northern Shoshone and Goshute tribes following in their wake. Established as a quiet Mormon town in the late 1840s, it would soon become a ‘junction city’ with the arrival of both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific rails, and as the population swelled so did its reputation as a wild frontier town of chancers, gamblers, gunslingers and crooks.
48. Steilacoom, Washington (1854)
Having originally been settled by British sailors, for a brief period in the 1850s-60s the waterfront colony glistened with promise as a timber town serving San Francisco – and aspiring to rival it. The civil war and the superior ports of Seattle and Tacoma arrested the town’s development, and today it is a quiet residential community.
49. Franklin, Idaho (1860)
This Mormon town, named after an Apostle for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was for some time believed to be in Utah, where it would not have been the oldest town. Thankfully, an 1872 survey revealed that Franklin was actually a mile within Idaho state lines.
50. Cheyenne, Wyoming (1867)
Nicknamed the “Magic City of the Plains” for the speed at which it flourished following the arrival of the Union Pacific Railroad, Cheyenne took its proper name from an Algonquian tribe that had previously lived in the area.
The animation and images we’ve created help tell the tale of European settlers and the towns they founded. By watching the animation or reviewing the dates in the map below you can see how the routes that the settlers took influenced where the oldest towns are found.
Our researcher was tasked with finding the oldest known settlements in each state. We were looking for towns that still exist today and defined “town” to mean the oldest continually inhabited, independent area in each state.
We looked for towns that were chartered, founded, established, or incorporated, but we based our choices on when people arrived and created settlements rather than the date a town was officially designated.
In some cases, there is debate around which areas were settled first. In those cases, we conducted additional research and made a decision based on the most trusted sources that we could find.
For the full research behind this visualization visit http://bit.ly/OldestTowns