What is the Oldest Town in the US?

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Jamestown, Virginia

Painting, village of Jamestown c. 1615 on James River, Virginia, by NPS artist Sydney King
A painting of the village of Jamestown on the James River, Virginia, as it may have been in 1615. Painting by National Park Service artist Sydney King. Photo by MPI/Archive Photos/Getty Images

The United States is a relatively young country, so the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, Virginia brought much fanfare and festivity in 2007. But there's a darker side to the birthday: No one can agree on what we mean when we use terms like oldest or first.

Established in 1607, Jamestown is sometimes called America's oldest town, but that isn't correct. Jamestown is America's oldest permanent English settlement.

Wait a minute—what about the Spanish settlement in St. Augustine, Florida?

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St. Augustine, Florida

The Gonzalez-Alvarez House in St. Augustine, Florida, is promoted as the Oldest House in the US
The Gonzalez-Alvarez House in St. Augustine, Florida, is promoted as the Oldest House in the US. Photo by Dennis K. Johnson/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images

Without a doubt, The Nation's Oldest City is the City of St. Augustine in Florida. This statement is "fact," according to the website of the City of St. Augustine.

Florida's Spanish Colonial St. Augustine began in 1565, making it the oldest continuing permanent European settlement. But the oldest house, the González-Alvarez House show here, dates back to only the 1700s. Why is that?

Compare St. Augustine to Jamestown, another of the oldest towns often mentioned. Jamestown is way up north in Virginia, where the climate, although not as harsh as what the Pilgrims went through in Massachusetts, is more severe than St. Augustine in sunny Florida. This means that many of the first homes in St. Augustine were made of wood and thatch—not insulated or heated, but easily combustible and light enough in weight to be blown away during hurricane season. In fact, even when sturdier wooden structures were made, like the old schoolhouse in St. Augustine, an anchor may have been placed nearby to secure the building.

The original houses of St. Augustine are just not there, because they were always being destroyed by the elements (wind and fire can do a lot of damage) and then rebuilt. The only proof that St. Augustine even existed in 1565 is from maps and documents, not from architecture.

But surely we can get older than this. What about the Anasazi Settlements in Chaco Canyon?

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The Anasazi Settlement in Chaco Canyon

Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Anasazi ruins in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photo by David Hiser/Stone/Getty Images

Many settlements and colonies throughout North America were established well before Jamestown and St. Augustine. No European settlement in the so-called New World can hold a candle to Indian communities like Jamestown's (now reconstructed) Powhatan Indian Village, built long before the British set sail to what we now call the United States.

In the American Southwest, archeologists have found remnants of the Hohokam and also the Anasazithe, ancestors of the Puebloan peoples—communities from the first millennium Anno Domini. The Anasazi settlements of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico date back to 650 AD.

The answer to the question What is the oldest town in the United States? has no ready response. It's like asking What is the tallest building? The answer depends on how you define the question.

What's the oldest town in the US? Starting when? Maybe settlements shouldn't even be included if they were built before the US became a country.

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Craven, Jackie. "What is the Oldest Town in the US?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/oldest-town-in-us-178504. Craven, Jackie. (2017, April 7). What is the Oldest Town in the US? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/oldest-town-in-us-178504 Craven, Jackie. "What is the Oldest Town in the US?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/oldest-town-in-us-178504 (accessed November 21, 2017).