7 Oldest Cities in the U.S.

Written by Megan Martin
Updated: August 28, 2023
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There are over 108,000 cities in all of the United States and its territory. However, with the United States being founded in the late 1700s and the latest territories being added in 1947, the cities found here vary in age. You’ll find the oldest cities in the U.S. are widely distributed around the country and have a rich history.  

Ready to learn more? Here are the seven oldest cities in the U.S.!

1. St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States when considering European-established settlements that have been inhabited since their founding. 

This city in Florida was founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral and the first governor of Florida, on September 8, 1565. Initially, he had named the land San Agustínbecauset his ship had spotted land on the day known as the feast day of St. Augustine.

Like the rest of Florida, St. Augustine has a back-and-forth history with many European countries. Originally, St. Augustine was the capital of Spanish Florida up until the 1700s. Then, a British colony was formed in 1763, where St. Augustine was the capital city of British Florida. Only twenty years later, in 1783, Florida was returned to Spain, only to become a part of the newly-formed United States in 1819.

As a territory of the United States, Florida continued to claim St. Augustine, the oldest city, as its capital. It wasn’t until 1824 that St. Augustine lost this title when Tallahassee became the capital city. 

As the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine has hundreds of areas of interest. These sites and monuments help display the nearly five-hundred-year-old history that the city is known for. Many notable people come from St. Augustine, including Zora Neale Hurston and Ray Charles. 

St. Augustine in Florida is the oldest city in the US

St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest city in the United States.

©Kevin Ruck/Shutterstock.com

2. Annapolis, Maryland

Annapolis is the capital city of Maryland. A settlement had been established in this area in 1649 under the name of “Providence.” It didn’t receive its current name until almost fifty years later, in 1694, when it was named after the then Princess Anne of Denmark and Norway.

Located on the Chesapeake Bay, at the mouth of the Severn River specifically, Annapolis has a long history as a port town. First settled by Puritan exiles coming from the southern colonies, such as Virginia, this harbor provided safety and access to seas for transportation and mercantilism. Throughout time, Annapolis quickly became home to fishing, oyster packing, boat building, and sail making, which were considered its primary occupations and industries. 

One of the most interesting facts about Annapolis, Maryland, is that it actually served as a temporary capital for the entirety of the United States! This was after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783. During this same year in Annapolis, George Washington resigned from the Continental Army.

The original Constitution was supposed to be drafted and signed in Annapolis in September 1786. However, instead, the meeting that did end up taking place here was used to set up the Philadelphia convention, where the Constitution was created.  

Chesapeake Bay, Annapolis in Maryland

Annapolis is the capital city of Maryland and is located on Chesapeake Bay.

©Nicole Glass Photography/Shutterstock.com

3. Boston, Massachusetts

Not only is Boston one of the largest cities in the country, but it is also one of the oldest!

Boston was first founded in 1630 in an area known as the Shawmut Peninsula. The original name for the area comes from the Algonquian word Mashauwomuk. There’s not much known about the meaning of the word, only that it was first used to describe the area of future Boston around the same time as the city’s colonial origin. Boston was founded by Puritans, with this name being derived from the English town in which the Puritans lived. 

As one of the oldest cities in the United States, Boston is known for its role in the American Revolutionary War. The city acted as the seat for many notable historical events during this time period, including the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the Siege of Boston.

Not only is Boston the location of many notable events before the formation of the United States, but many of the historical “firsts” of the budding country can be traced back to this city as well. Many technological and socioeconomic advances can be linked to Boston, from the first public park in 1634 to the first subway system in 1897. 

However, this is only Boston’s history as one of the oldest cities in the United States. When you look at the Native Nations that inhabited the land first, you’ll find thousands of years of history embedded in the Shawmut Peninsula. In fact, one of the oldest fishing weirs in the United States, the Boylston Street Fishweir, can be found here. 

Boston, Massachusetts is one of the oldest cities in the US

Boston, Massachusetts, is one of the oldest cities in the U.S. and is known for its role in the American Revolutionary War.

©Richard Cavalleri/Shutterstock.com

4. Charleston, South Carolina

Not only is Charleston one of the oldest cities in the U.S., but it is also the largest city in South Carolina, where it was once the capital. You can trace this old city’s roots back to 1670. When it was first founded, it was known as Charles Town. This was in honor of King Charles II, the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland at the time.

At first, Charleston was located in an entirely different area. Its original location could be found at Albemarle Point. This is on the west bank of the Ashley River, where today you can find Charles Towne Landing. Charleston remained here for around ten years. In 1680, it was moved to its modern-day location. 

It was a good thing it moved, too! Within ten years, Charleston became the fifth-largest city in the United States at the time. 

While it only took the city around a decade to move from Albemarle Point to its current location, it took much longer for its modern-day name to come about. Charles Town didn’t turn into Charleston until around 1783 when it became incorporated into an official city. Although it continued to be a successful and flourishing city, the title of capital was relocated to Columbia in 1788.

Prior to all this, however, in the late 1600s, Charleston was a hot spot for pirates. Because the city remained unincorporated for so long, it was viewed as weak, which allowed for increased crime. This, paired with the location on the water, made it an easy target for raids. 

Charleston is now the largest city in South Carolina.

Charleston has roots tracing back to 1670 and is now the largest city in South Carolina.

©iStock.com/Sean Pavone

5. Detroit, Michigan

The city of Detroit is known for many things. First, it’s the largest city in Michigan. It also happens to be the largest U.S. city on the United States – Canada border. As of 2020, it had a population of 639,111 — making it the 27th-most populous city. Out of tens of thousands of cities across the entirety of the United States, these are some pretty impressive ranks!

Detroit is also one of the oldest cities in the United States, adding another title to its claim to fame. It hasn’t always been a city, however. Before the Detroit we know was Detroit, it was the Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit. This fort was founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and Alphonse de Tonty. 

At this time, however, Detroit wasn’t considered a part of the United States or the British Colonies. It didn’t become a part of the colonies until the French and Indian War. During this, it was surrendered to the British in 1760. 

During the Industrial Revolution, Detroit experienced a major population boom as more people migrated from rural farms into cities for manufacturing jobs. In 1920, Detroit was the fourth largest city in all of the United States. The only cities larger at this time were New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Much of this is thanks to the auto manufacturing industry that arose after the invention of cars. Thanks to its position on the Detroit River, it also became a major port, allowing businesses to continue to grow in the city. 

Today, the population has begun to decrease. It also became the largest city to file for bankruptcy in 2013, although it has since recovered. 

Detroit is the largest city in Michigan

Detroit is the largest city in Michigan and is the largest American city on the U.S.–Canada border.

©iStock.com/f11photo

6. Honolulu, Hawaii

Honolulu is the capital city, as well as the largest city on the islands of Hawaii. It is found along the southeast coast of the island of Oʻahu, making it both the westernmost and southernmost city in all of the United States. 

This city has a rich history that goes even beyond the United States. It first became the capital of the islands during the time of the independent Hawaiian Kingdom in 1845. Honolulu continued to be the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom until Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown in 1893. However, once the United States gained the territory, Honolulu remained the capital city of the new state, which was annexed into the country in 1898. 

Honolulu was the site of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Honolulu city, Oahu, Hawaii has a rich history

Honolulu is the westernmost and southernmost city in the United States. 

©iStock.com/maximkabb

7. Jersey City, New Jersey

Before Jersey City was the city we know today, the land belonged to the Lenape. We can first trace European interactions in the area to 1609, when English explorer Henry Hudson landed in the area. Seeking a new route to reach East Asia, Hudson had anchored his ship, the Halve Maen, along different points in the North River. 

Only a few years later, in 1621, the Dutch West India Company set out to manage this territory. In the summer of 1623, the area became known as New Netherland. Then, in 1630, Michael Reyniersz Pauw received a land grant stipulating the creation of a settlement. He purchased the land from the Lenape and did just that, creating a settlement that is now Hoboken and Jersey City.

Due to mismanagement, the settlement and its relationship with the Lenape deteriorated throughout the years. 

Then, in 1804, Alexander Hamilton established the Associates of the Jersey Company. The Treaty of 1834 gave New Jersey the rights to Jersey City, created by Hamilton’s Associates, and the Jersey Company applied to have the City of Jersey incorporated. It received its modern-day name on February 22, 1838, and it became part of Hudson County exactly two years later. 

In the 19th century, Jersey City was an escape haven for slaves who traveled through the Underground Railroad. It later became one of the first stops for immigrants as well. As they made their way inland from Ellis Islands, tens of thousands of people passed through Jersey City’s train stations. 

Jersey City, New Jersey

The Treaty of 1834 gave New Jersey the rights to Jersey City.

©FotosForTheFuture/Shutterstock.com

Summary of the 7 Oldest Cities in the U.S.

RankCity/StateFun Fact
1St. Augustine, FloridaIn the 19th century, Jersey City was an escape haven for slaves who traveled through the Underground Railroad
2Annapolis, MarylandOnce served as a temporary capital for the entirety of the United States
3Boston, MassachusettsThe Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the Battle of Bunker Hill took place in Boston
4Charleston, South CarolinaOriginally known as Charles Town – in honor of King Charles II of England
5Detroit, MichiganWas originally the French Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit
6Honolulu, HawaiiWas the site of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941
7Jersey City, New JerseyIn the 19th century, Jersey City was an escape haven for slaves who traveled through the Underground Railroad

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/felixmizioznikov


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About the Author

Megan is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is birds, felines, and sharks. She has been researching and writing about animals for four years, and she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in biology and professional and technical writing from Wingate University, which she earned in 2022. A resident of North Carolina, Megan is an avid birdwatcher that enjoys spending time with her cats and exploring local zoological parks with her husband.

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Sources
  1. JSTOR, Available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4255292
  2. New Jersey City University, Available here: https://njcu.libguides.com/underground