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Many of America’s historic towns date back further than the country itself. Founded by indigenous groups, Spanish conquistadors or English settlers, the country’s oldest towns provide a fascinating insight into America’s past.
Travel the length and breadth of the US, and in many towns and cities, the oldest building is hardly more than a century old. But the history of the land extends much further back, with towns that were established by Native American tribes a thousand years ago still in existence. The longest-surviving American towns can be visited today, and while most are only a portion of their original size, and some all but lost, others still maintain a significant role in modern-day America.
Located around eight miles (13km) from today’s St Louis, Missouri, and founded around CE 700, Cahokia, Illinois, was once the largest North American city north of Mexico. It was founded by Native American group the Mississippians, who once occupied the majority of southeastern North America. By around 1050, Cahokia is thought to have had a population equal to that of London’s at the time, and was similarly cosmopolitan, with archeological evidence showing that people from various Native American groups lived together in the area.
Today, the many buildings that once made up Cahokia no longer stand, as it was deserted by 1350 – the reason for which remains unknown. However, its people left an immense reminder of their impressive society behind: 80 earthen mounds. The largest mound, Monks Mound, measures 100 feet (30 meters) tall and 14 acres (six hectares) across and is still the biggest in North America. It was once topped by a building that acted as the center for meetings between Cahokia’s spiritual and political leaders.
While some believe Oraibi was founded in 1150, other evidence suggests it dates back to before 1100. Situated in Navajo Country, Arizona, Oraibi is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited town in America. Founded by the Hopi tribe, who still live here today, its population is understood to have grown significantly in the 13th century, and it soon became the most important of the Hopi tribe’s settlements. Indeed, by the end of the 19th century, around half of the Hopi population lived in Oraibi. The town can still be visited today, but its private community continues to practice a traditional Hopi way of life, making photography prohibited. Oraibi was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Native American Acoma people have occupied Acoma Pueblo for 2,000 years. Archeological evidence suggests that the town has been occupied since at least 1200, but oral tradition indicates that it is even older. The Acoma tribe’s land once covered around 5 million acres, and the Acoma Pueblo is situated approximately 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of present-day Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tens of thousands of tourists visit the pueblo (a term used to describe North American Indian settlements in southwest America) annually. It’s a National Historic Landmark, and there are still around 300 buildings here, many of which are made of adobe (the Spanish word for “mudbrick,” referring to materials created from earth and other organic matter).
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Taos Pueblo lies just a mile (0.6 kilometers) north of Taos, New Mexico, and is often dated back to 1450, although some estimates state that buildings in the area go back as far as 1000. The descendants of the Taos Native American tribe who settled in this area centuries ago claim that the adobe houses here have been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years. A striking, multi-storied, terracotta-colored adobe building complex, with blue-painted doors and windows, provides the focal point for the town and is spectacularly backed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. While the town is open to visitors, the Taos people, around 150 of whom permanently live in Taos Pueblo, are notoriously private.
Zuni Pueblo lies along the Trails of the Ancients Scenic Byway in New Mexico – a track that runs through the southwestern state, passing areas of archeological and geological interest. Populated by the Zuni people, who are native to the Zuni River valley, the pueblo came into contact with non-Native Americans in 1539 when Esteban (AKA Estevanico), a Spanish slave of Moroccan heritage, stumbled across Hawikku, one of its villages. Legend says that the Zuni people killed Esteban, but this has been disputed. Around 6,000 Zuni people live in the pueblo today, which is set in a beautiful valley, with mesas rising around its traditional adobe buildings.
Childersburg describes itself as “The Oldest Continually Occupied City in America,” and a large sign declaring its historic legacy hangs prominently off a railroad bridge on the way into town. Childersburg dates to 1540, when Spaniard Hernando de Soto came across Coosa, a village then occupied by the Native American Coosa Nation. But it’s likely to be much older, with various indigenous groups having lived in the area for millennia. Records suggest that a large population thrived here for centuries, and the Abihka people made up the largest population in the area in the 1700s. However, there is only a small Native American population living in the Alabama city today, having been settled by various explorers, traders and pioneers over the years.
Pensacola is thought to have been the first Spanish settlement in the contiguous United States. In 1539, Diego Maldonado anchored his ship in Pensacola Bay, and in 1559, Tristán de Luna y Arellano began a colony along its banks, bringing over 1,000 people with him. The village was abandoned soon after its founding, as storms and disease, including a hurricane, threatened the colonizers.
At the time that the Spanish arrived, the Pensacola people inhabited the area, along with most of what is now the western part of the Florida Panhandle. And while Native American villages remained in the region for a long time, by 1693, the Pensacola had been largely wiped out. Spaniards came back to the site and established a new community in 1698, and there has been a town here ever since, with the city’s population numbering around 50,000 today. Approximately half a million people live in the Pensacola Metropolitan Area, including famous musicians, sportspeople and politicians.
Although it wasn’t the first European settlement (that title was held by San Miguel de Gualdape, on the coast of Georgia, but it lasted just four months), St Augustine is the oldest continually inhabited city established by Europeans in the United States. Founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565, St Augustine was the capital of Spanish Florida for over 200 years, continuing as the capital when the English took over Florida in 1763. Thanks to its historic European-style architecture, the city is popular with visitors to Florida. Key sights include the 17th-century Castillo de San Marco and the 19th-century lighthouse and jail.
Just a year after the founding of St Augustine, the second-longest continually inhabited European settlement began on the banks of St Marys River in the modern-day state of Georgia. A number of 19th-century buildings dot the city today, such as the First Presbyterian Church, dating back to 1808, and the town’s oldest building, which was built around 1801 and bears the unwieldy name of Jackson-Clark-Bessent-MacDonell-Nesbitt House.
Intended as the capital for what was then called Nuevo México, San Juan de los Caballeros was established by the Spaniard Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. At the time, the descendants of the indigenous tribe known as the Anasazi inhabited the area, which was called Yunque-Yunque. Situated at the meeting point of the Chama River and the Rio Grande, the location was ideal for farming.
In 1880, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad was laid through the town, which drew English-speaking merchants and other settlers to the area. Around this time, it was renamed Española, and George and Frank Bond established the headquarters of what became a multi-million dollar wool empire within the town. The railroad closed in 1940, and many residents moved out. In the 1980s, numerous historic buildings were torn down, but some reminders of the city’s past are still visible today.
The first permanent English colony in America was Jamestown. The Virginia Company of London, which arrived at the James River in 1607, originally named the area James Fort. And although most of the original colonists died from disease, it became the English capital in the region between 1616 and 1699. It didn’t have a very positive trajectory, though, and was burnt down in 1676 after a rebellion, before being rebuilt and then abandoned in 1699 when the British capital was moved to Williamsburg. The town only exists as a historical site today, but visitors can tour the Historic Jamestowne archeological area, as well as Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum that reimagines what life would have been like in the Jamestown of old.
Santa Fe is still a major city in the US and the fourth-largest city in New Mexico. Established as Santa Fe de Nuevo México in 1610, it replaced Española as the capital of Nuevo México. It was renamed La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís soon after, and this is still its official full title.
The Santa Fe area has been settled for much longer, though, and villages along the Rio Grande built by the Tanoan people have been dated back to around CE 900. While the city is still an important location, the Santa Fe River, which has provided food and water to the people in the area for thousands of years, was named the most endangered river in the US in 2007.