The History of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Capital of the Dominican Republic

Sunset over Santo Domingo
Urs Blickenstorfer / Getty Images

Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in the Americas, having been founded in 1498 by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher.

The city has a long and fascinating history, having been victimized by pirates, taken over by the French, re-named by a dictator, and more. It is a city where history comes to life, and the Dominican people are justly proud of their status as the oldest European city in the Americas.

Foundation of Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo de Guzmán was actually the third settlement on Hispaniola. The first, Navidad, consisted of some 40 sailors who were left behind by Columbus on his first voyage when one of his ships sank. Navidad was wiped out by angry Native people between the first and second voyages. When Columbus returned on his second voyage, he founded Isabela, near present-day Luperón to the northwest of Santo Domingo. Conditions at Isabela were not optimal, so Bartholomew Columbus moved the settlers to present-day Santo Domingo in 1496, officially dedicating the city in 1498.

Early Years and Importance

The first colonial governor, Nicolás de Ovando, arrived in Santo Domingo in 1502 and the city was officially the headquarters for the exploration and conquest of the New World. Spanish courts and bureaucratic offices were set up, and thousands of colonists passed through on their way to Spain’s newly discovered lands. Many of the important events of the early colonial era, such as the conquests of Cuba and Mexico, were planned in Santo Domingo.


The city soon fell on hard times. With the conquest of the Aztecs and Inca complete, many of the new settlers preferred to go to Mexico or South America and the city stagnated. In January of 1586, notorious pirate Sir Francis Drake was able to easily capture the city with less than 700 men. Most of the inhabitants of the city had fled when they heard Drake was coming. Drake stayed for a month until he had received a ransom of 25,000 ducats for the city, and when he left, he and his men carried off everything they could, including the church bells. Santo Domingo was a smoldering ruin by the time he left.

The French and Haiti

Hispaniola and Santo Domingo took a long time to recover from the pirate raid, and in the mid-1600s, France, taking advantage of the still-weakened Spanish defenses and looking for American colonies of its own, attacked and captured the western half of the island. They renamed it Haiti and brought in thousands of enslaved African people. The Spanish were powerless to stop them and retreated to the eastern half of the island. In 1795 the Spanish were forced to cede the rest of the island, including Santo Domingo, to the French as a result of wars between France and Spain after the French Revolution.

Haitian Domination and Independence

The French did not own Santo Domingo for very long. In 1791, enslaved African people in Haiti revolted, and by 1804 had thrown the French out of the western half of Hispaniola. In 1822, Haitian forces attacked the eastern half of the island, including Santo Domingo, and captured it. It wasn’t until 1844 that a determined group of Dominican people were able to drive the Haitians back, and the Dominican Republic was free for the first time since Columbus first set foot there.

Civil Wars and Skirmishes

The Dominican Republic had growing pains as a nation. It constantly fought with Haiti, was reoccupied by the Spanish for four years (1861-1865), and went through a series of presidents. During this time, colonial-era structures, such as defensive walls, churches, and the Diego Columbus house, were neglected and fell into ruin.

American involvement in the Dominican Republic increased greatly after the construction of the Panama Canal: it was feared that European powers could seize the canal using Hispaniola as a base. The United States occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924.

The Trujillo Era

From 1930 to 1961 the Dominican Republic was ruled by a dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo was famous for self-aggrandizement, and renamed several places in the Dominican Republic after himself, including Santo Domingo. The name was changed back after his assassination in 1961.

Santo Domingo Today

Present day Santo Domingo has rediscovered its roots. The city has undergone a tourism boom, and many colonial-era churches, fortifications, and buildings have been renovated. The colonial quarter offers visitors a chance to view old architecture, see some sights, and have a meal or a cold drink.

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Minster, Christopher. "The History of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). The History of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The History of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).