Oldest cities in America
American history conjures up images of tricorn hats, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and cobblestone streets in quaint colonial towns. While the colonial era is certainly part of American history, however, it’s only one small part of it. Evidence of humans inhabiting North America dates solidly back 15,000 years, with some indication of human settlements stretching back as far as 40,000 years ago. Many millions of people have called the continent home over those centuries, with indigenous people, European explorers, merchant traders, and early settlers all leaving their marks throughout America's complicated history. In fact, a number of the towns, villages, and cities that early Americans created over the last 1,000 years still exist in some form today.
To find out which American towns can trace their roots back the furthest, Stacker scoured the internet for founding dates of some of the nation’s oldest cities. Then, Stacker eliminated any towns that aren’t in existence anymore and ranked the remaining 50 locations by the oldest. Though you’ll find some well-known historical locations on this list, you’ll also encounter surprises—many of which you’ve probably never heard of before. From Native American pueblos in the Southwest to storied colonial towns in the Northeast, these cities criss-cross nearly every part of the United States: Midwestern towns founded by French missionaries; oceanside locales founded by Spanish admirals; even large cities founded by Quaker leaders.
The variety of these cities and towns reveals the diversity of the United States—from sea to shining sea. Read through to find out what cities in your state or region made the cut and discover which state boasts a settlement dating back to the year 1000. Just be warned: You might be itching to take a cross-country road trip after reading about these fascinating historical locations.
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1682: Norfolk, VA
Norfolk, Va., is located on the Chesapeake Bay and has always been a port city—you can find the largest naval base in the world there. Back in the 1600s, the 50 acres of land that became the town of Norfolk was purchased for 10,000 pounds of tobacco.
1681: Philadelphia, PA
Though the City of Brotherly Love wasn’t founded until 1681, the Lenape had lived in the area since 8000 B.C. When Quaker and pacifist William Penn received the charter for the Pennsylvania colony in 1681, he signed a peace treaty with Lenape leader Tamanend. A few years later, in 1688, Philadelphians signed the Germantown Petition Against Slavery, which in the New World marked the first organized protest against slavery.
1680: South Orange, NJ
Farming families moved west from Newark into South Orange in the late 1600s, marking the beginning of this New Jersey town. South Orange remained a farming community until the 1850s, when attorney John Gorham Vose began to purchase large tracts of land and build huge, elaborate homes.
1674: Waterbury, CT
Though the first settlement in Waterbury, Conn., sprung up in 1674, it was known as Mattatuck—from the Algonquin word for “place without trees”—until 1686. The citizens decided to call the town Waterbury because all the streams flow into the Naugatuck River.
1673: Worcester, MA
First settled in 1673 as Quinsigamond, the town now known as Worcester was abandoned during King Philip’s War and not settled permanently again until 1713. It’s the first place in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where the Declaration of Independence was read, and also the place where the monkey wrench was created.
1670: Charleston, SC
Initially called Charles Towne and named after Charles II, this hub of Southern culture was founded by English colonists in 1670. Charleston was the first place settled in South Carolina and the commercial center for the indigo and rice trade.
1668: Sault Ste. Marie, MI
Long before any European settlers arrived in the area, Native Americans gathered at what would eventually become Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to fish in the river that connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron. In the 1600s, French missionaries and fur traders discovered the area and named the growing town Sault Ste. Marie in honor of the Virgin Mary.
1666: Newark, NJ
Although Newark, N.J., was originally founded by Puritans looking to create their own theocracy, it quickly morphed into an industrial city. In the 1800s, Newark became known for its breweries and leather factories, while today it is the second leading insurance seller in the country.
1660: Rye, NY
In 1660, three residents signed an agreement with the local Siwanoy tribe to purchase the land that would eventually be called Rye, N.Y.—though, at the time, they called it Hastings after the English town of the same name. The early economy focused on farming, carpentry, and other skilled trades, but today many residents commute to nearby New York City for work.
1659: El Paso, Texas
The establishment of Mission Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe by Franciscan monks in 1659 constitutes the founding of El Paso, Texas. However, it didn’t become a part of the United States until 1848, when the U.S. Army built a post there.