The Oldest Historic Town in Every State
Consider this a history buff’s travel bucket list. Explore the rich heritage and culture of America through these notable towns across the country.
The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Known as “Alabama’s Williamsburg,” Mooresville actually became a town the year before Alabama even became a state. And it hasn’t grown much since its early days—according to Population.us, it has a population of just 65 people. Thinking of moving to an equally tiny town? Here’s what you need to know first.
Not only is Wrangell one of the most historic cities in Alaska, but it’s also the only one to have been governed by four different nations (Tlingit, Russia, England, and the United States). Once it became part of America in the late 19th century, it served as the hub for all of the state’s gold rushes after a man named Buck Choquette became the first to discover gold in Alaska just outside of the town.
Tucson isn’t just the oldest town in Arizona—it’s also one of the oldest continuously occupied places in the entire United States, as people have lived there for over 4,000 years. Today, current residents celebrate the city’s birthday every year at the vibrant La Fiesta de San Agustín. If you love the stunning sand-scape of Tucson, you’ll also love these incredible desert getaways.
Oddly enough, while Georgetown was started all the way back in 1789, prior to even the Louisiana Purchase, it wasn’t officially incorporated until 1986. And it’s always been the quintessential American small town—even during the city’s biggest boom during its days of timber and logging, the population was never more than 500.
California: San Diego
Hop on California’s Historic Missions Trail to explore some of the state’s 21 beautiful basilicas, starting with the Mission San Diego de Alcala. And being the city with the most missions isn’t San Diego’s only claim to fame—it also ranked on our list of the best family spring break destinations.
Colorado: San Luis
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There may not be as many people living in San Luis as there used to be, but the 168-year-old town is still rich with culture and history, from the original adobe architecture to the Plaza de San Luis de la Culebra. If you’re fascinated by the past, you might want to visit these 16 best American cities for history buffs.
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Just like every state has a special nickname, so does Wethersfield. Connecticut’s oldest town has long been dubbed “Oniontown,” thanks to its booming crop of red onions. Rumored to have once even smelled like onions, as recently as 2011, the Wethersfield Historical Society was still honoring its famous veggie by paying rent in red onions each year instead of money.
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The first town in the first state: that’s the motto of Lewes, where legend has it that notorious pirate Captain Kidd once buried a treasure chest full of gold in the dunes of Cape Henlopen. And that’s not the only hidden gem in the world—these other 15 treasures have yet to be found.
Florida: St. Augustine
If you’ve ever visited St. Augustine, congrats—you’ve also visited the first city in the entire United States. Founded in 1565, it’s home to the famous Fountain of Youth, a spring that’s thought to have magical age-defying powers.
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What used to be the state’s capital was also a Christmas present to Abraham Lincoln from one of the Union generals during the Civil War. And while it’s certainly a gorgeous place, draped with Spanish moss and full of antebellum architecture, it’s also America’s most haunted city, topping this list of the spookiest sites in the country.
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The people of Hilo are nothing if not resilient. Since it was first settled by the Polynesians as early as 1,100, the Hawaiian city has been hit by numerous tsunamis and earthquakes—yet its residents have maintained historic Front Street, boasting stunning Victorian homes and the restored Palace Theatre. Planning a vacation to the Aloha State? Read our ultimate Hawaii trip guide first.
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Built around a post office, Emmett was named after the postmaster’s son (it was originally Emmettsville but later dropped the “ville” because folks were confusing it with Emmettsville, Iowa). Now the county seat of Gem County, it’s the largest shipper of cherries in the state.
Here’s a fun fact: if Peoria didn’t exist, neither would penicillin. The moldy cantaloupe from which the antibiotic was able to be mass-produced came from Illinois’ oldest town, according to the Journal Star. Learn more about 10 accidental discoveries that ended up changing the world.
You can’t pass through Vincennes without a stop at Grouseland. The massive mansion, one of the 50 most historic houses in the country, was home to William Henry Harrison while he was the governor of Indiana prior to becoming the ninth President of the United States. Harrison was only in office for 31 days before he passed away suddenly, yet his estate remains preserved as a museum. Find out the most famous home in every state, including yours.
Dubuque may be in the rural Midwest, but that hasn’t stopped it from seeing some famous faces through the years. One of the most notable was that of legendary gangster Al Capone who, during the 1920s, is said to have hidden out in the Hotel Julien Dubuque to escape the streets of Chicago. Other celebrity guests included Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. And if old-fashioned accommodations are your thing, here are the most historic hotels in every state.
courtesy Library of Congress
There’s no shortage of historical attractions in Leavenworth, like Fort Leavenworth, which is what the town was built around and which is the longest continuously operating military post west of the Mississippi River. Other popular sites include the U.S. Federal Penitentiary, Stockton Hall (where Abraham Lincoln gave a campaign speech), and the Parker Amusement Plant (which used to produce merry-go-rounds for countries around the world).
Spend the night at the Beaumont Inn, the state’s oldest family-run bed and breakfast, before exploring Harrodsburg’s history, from the Shaker village to the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln’s parents were married. And if you don’t get spooked easily, you can take a pass through the oldest cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains where over 480 pioneers are buried.
The first French colony in Louisiana, Natchitoches was founded in 1774, prior to the Louisiana Purchase, and is ripe with heritage—as a stroll down Front Street will prove. You’ll find homes, buildings, and cultural influences in every style from Spanish to Victorian to French to Southern antebellum. P.S. Just like these most difficult-to-pronounce towns in every state, Natchitoches is a tongue-twister. It’s actually pronounced “Nakadish.”
Some call it Kittery, some call it the “Gateway to Maine.” That’s because the state’s oldest town is also the first one you pass through leaving New Hampshire. But before either of those names, it was called Amoskeag by Native Americans, which translates to “fishing point” as most of its early residents were fishermen and boat builders.
Maryland: St. Mary’s City
Sorry, Annapolis—St. Mary’s City was actually Maryland’s first capital. And that isn’t the town’s only “first.” It was also the first colony in America to have freedom of religion and where the first woman petitioned for the right to vote in 1648. Now converted into a living history museum, St. Mary’s is a popular destination for families, just like these 40 other affordable family vacations.
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You can’t think about Thanksgiving without thinking about the pilgrims. And you can’t think about the pilgrims without thinking about Plymouth Rock, the landmark that made this Massachusetts town famous when the Mayflower came across the Atlantic in 1620. Known as “America’s Hometown,” Plymouth is the site of one of the first-ever Thanksgiving feasts—something that’s celebrated today with cheesecake, according to this map of the most popular Thanksgiving food in every state.
Michigan: Sault Sainte-Marie
The Soo Locks are what have put Sault Sainte-Marie on the map. Built on the St. Mary’s River to allow people to travel by boat between the Great Lakes, the locks are now the busiest in the world and the largest in the Western hemisphere, with over 7,000 boats using the gravity-powered system each year.
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Love a slice or two of toast in the a.m. with your coffee? One of these 12 quick breakfast ideas, it’s a morning favorite—and we have Stillwater to thank for that. In 1921, Charles Strite invented the automatic pop-up bread toaster in Minnesota’s founding town when he was tired of eating burnt bread that was served in the cafeteria at the factory where he worked.
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Natchez was the place to be in early America with more millionaires than any other city in the United States prior to the Civil War. And later, the front door of Linden, one of Natchez’ bed and breakfasts (the town has been nicknamed the “Bed and Breakfast Capital of the South”), was used in the classic film Gone With the Wind. If B&Bs are your thing, book a stay at one of these most charming inns in every state.
Paris je t’aime? If the answer is yes, you might want to consider a trip to Genevieve, a Missouri town that’s held onto its original French roots. Not only can you wander through restored French-colonial homes in the unique “poteaux en terre” style but you can also attend the annual Jour de Fete or participate in Guiannee on New Year’s Eve (Genevieve is only one of two towns in the United States. that still celebrates the ancient French tradition of dressing up in costume and caroling on December 31).
For a peek at where Montana all began, take a tour of the St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville. Built in 1841 by Jesuit missionaries, it was the first church in the Pacific Northwest and represents an important union of the Native Americans and the European settlers. Want to experience more blasts from the pasts? Check out these most historical landmarks in every state.
There are two notable landmarks every visitor to Bellevue should put on their must-see list. The first is the Omaha and Southern Railroad Depot, which, while no longer running, is the oldest train station in Nebraska. And the second is the Bellevue Log Cabin, which is the state’s longest-standing structure and still contains some of the original possessions of its final owner.
courtesy Library of Congress
Other places may have famous fairs and festivals (like these top ones in every state), but Genoa has something a little more unique: the Candy Dance. Dating back to 1919, the annual affair started as a way to raise money for streetlights by selling homemade candy. Today, the tradition continues as a citywide celebration—complete with tons of sweets, of course!
New Hampshire: Dover
Dover’s nickname is Garrison City (and it’s not because of the town’s popular brewery, where you can pour a pint that’s just as good as these 50 best craft beers in America). It’s because New Hampshire’s first settlement is full of actual garrisons, which are fortified log houses built by its early residents.
New Jersey: Burlington
Burlington is full of famous firsts: It’s home to the state’s first library and pharmacy (that are still operating today) along with being the spot where the first porcelain dentures in the United States were invented. And on a darker note, it held the first witch trial in the state’s history and was also the site of New Jersey’s first recorded murder.
New Mexico: Taos
While Taos, which means “red willow,” was first settled in 1540 by Spanish conquistadors, it’s been inhabited for much longer than that—ever since about 1000 A.D. to be exact. Making the New Mexico city one of the longest-inhabited communities in the United States, that’s when the indigenous people built the iconic Taos Pueblo, a multi-story adobe network of houses and structures.
New York: Albany
Three very important things came from Albany: modern toilet paper, Santa Claus (the first reports of the European St. Nicholas were in an Albany newspaper), and Theodore Roosevelt. The former president of the United States, who was also the state’s governor, allegedly used to run the 77 steps of the city’s Capitol building every morning as his daily exercise.
North Carolina: Bath
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Pirates of the Caribbean? More like Pirates of Bath. North Carolina’s oldest town is said to have been the stomping ground of notorious pirate Blackbeard, whose crew was made up primarily of Bath residents. These days, the coastal town is known more as a relaxing getaway, just like these other best beach vacation spots across the country.
North Dakota: Pembina
Named after the colorful cranberry bushes lining the Pembina River, this North Dakota town, whose population has never exceeded 1,000 people, was a key fur trading post between Canadians and Americans. Now, it still serves as a point of entry to our neighbors up north—and if you’re planning your own trip to Canada, be sure to include one of these popular (and breathtaking!) destinations.
Ohio: Martins Ferry
If there’s one event you don’t want to miss in Ohio’s oldest settlement, it’s Betty Zane Days. The annual patriotic celebration pays tribute to the Revolutionary War heroine who bravely stepped in to save Fort Henry from being taken over by the British. For more ways to honor the red, white, and blue, check out this list of the best Fourth of July festivities in each state.
It may not be big but Vinita has always had a lot of power—literally, as it was the first city in Oklahoma to have electricity. And even more than that, it’s now home to one of the nation’s largest McDonald’s, a 29,000 square foot monstrosity which spans a major highway and can seat over 300 customers. If you’re one of them, try ordering one of these eight delicious things off the secret menu.
Astoria may not be one of the 15 places that travel experts say you need to go in 2019, but the coastal town is more famous than you’d think. That’s because many Hollywood blockbusters, including Free Willy, The Ring, and Into The Wild, were filmed there. In fact, more movies have been shot in Astoria than in nearby Portland.
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With a motto like “Welcome Friend,” who wouldn’t want to visit Bristol? And as you stroll down the riverfront on Radcliffe Street, lined with historic homes, you’ll be walking down the same path that war heroes, pioneers, and even Native Americans once traveled.
Rhode Island: Providence
If you’ve ever sung “Yankee Doodle Dandy” or “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” you’ve partaken in a little bit of Providence history. The author of those two popular patriotic tunes, George M. Cohan, was born in the Rhode Island town—along with costume jewelry, the first enclosed mall, and the first Baptist church in the United States.
South Carolina: Charleston
The Charleston we all know today is a true Southern gem, from being one of the nicest places in America to one of the cities with the most beautiful main streets. And that’s not that much different from the Charleston of days past—it was not only the wealthiest city during the colonial era but it also later became home to the first public college, museum and golf club.
South Dakota: Sioux Falls
Move over, Ford—the first four-door automobile was actually invented in Sioux Falls. The “Fawick Flyer,” created in 1908 by 19-year-old Thomas Fawick, even took President Theodore Roosevelt for a ride in one of the city’s parades.
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Unbeknownst to many, there was a 14th state that never made it into the final 50: “The Lost State of Franklin.” And Jonesborough was briefly its capital. Later, the town would return to Tennessee and become a favorite of U.S. President Andrew Jackson, who spent a lot of time at his friend’s log home in downtown Jonesborough. Psst: It’s not the only one, here are 11 more “almost” states.
The legend of this Texas town’s creation is fascinating, to say the least. According to Native American legends, a Caddo Indian chief had two twin sons, one with light hair and light skin and one with dark hair and dark skin. The light-haired son was sent three days to the west and the dark-haired son was sent three days to the east, thus creating Nacogdoches (the blond twin) in Texas and Natchitoches (the dark twin) in Louisiana.
It may be founded on Mormon values but Ogden wasn’t always a church-going town. In fact, thanks to rampant prostitution, gambling, and drinking, it’s rumored that legendary gangster Al Capone once said that Utah’s oldest town was even too wild for him. Fortunately, it’s since calmed down, making Utah one of the happiest states in the entire country.
courtesy Library of Congress
Fun fact: For about 14 years, from 1777 to 1791, Vermont was actually its very own independent republic, thanks to a decision made in the Westminster courthouse. While it later became the 14th state in America, it’s a little-known nugget that definitely deserves a spot on this list of 50 unusual facts about each of the 50 states.
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What does quaint Dumfries have in common with bustling New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston? They were all major importers of tobacco during colonial America, despite the much smaller size of the Virginia town, which got its name from founder John Graham’s birthplace of Dumfries, Scotland. Speaking of names, here’s how each state got its moniker.
Interestingly enough, Steilacoom was actually established by a sea captain all the way from Maine. During its boom, after a railroad was built between Tacoma and the town, Steilacoom became “the Hamptons” of Washington state: a place where wealthy businessmen from the big city came to spend their summers on the Pacific coast.
West Virginia: Shepherdstown
West Virginia Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Walk through Shepherdstown and you’ll feel the ghosts of its past—and it’s not just because you’re surrounded by historic homes. It’s because the West Virginia town has been dubbed the most haunted town in America, perhaps due to the fact that it hosted one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. For more spooks and scares, visit one of these most haunted hotels in every state.
Wisconsin: Green Bay
One of the most interesting things about Green Bay (besides the fact that it’s known as the “Toilet Paper Capital of the World“) is how it got its name. The part of Lake Michigan where the town is located is covered in green algae, originally earning it the name of Baie des Puants, which literally means “Bay of Stinkers.”
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When it comes to the Wild West, Cheyenne was basically the center of it all. From saloons on every corner to frequent shootouts to racy burlesque performances, it was nothing if not rowdy. Even today, it still captures the spirit of the frontier with its action-packed rodeo circuits and cowboy culture. Psst: Like seeing a real-life rodeo, here are the things to put on your bucket list based on the state you live in.