Almost every preschooler in the U.S. hears the story of how the Pilgrims sailed to America on the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and started the European colonization of the New World. It’s a great story … if only it were true. One part of the Pilgrim story that conveniently gets left out is that one of the Indians greeted them in English — and reportedly later asked for a beer — a sure sign the Pilgrims weren’t the first European settlers in the New World. By the time the Pilgrims set up shop, some English, French, Dutch and Spanish settlements had been around for many years. Although most of those settlements were later abandoned, a few are still thriving today. Here’s a look at five settlements, towns or cities that predate Plymouth Rock, all rich in history and worth a visit.
5. Albany, New York
The French established a fort on Albany’s Castle Island in 1540, but it was abandoned a year later after flooding. Dutch fur traders reestablished the fort in 1614, predating the Pilgrims by six years. And while the Pilgrims are known for holding the first Thanksgiving, Albany city fathers notched a notable first of their own — the Dongan Charter, legally establishing Albany as a city in 1686, is the oldest city charter still in effect in the United States. Today, only a few remnants of this early Dutch influence remain, although Albany’s downtown historic district features a well-preserved look at the city’s later history. Many buildings remain from the 19th century, including Albany City Hall, which opened in 1883 and is widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings in America, and the New York State Capitol building (1899). The oldest structure in town, the Van Ostrande-Radliff House, reportedly dates to 1728.
4. Santa Fe, New Mexico
You don’t have to care a bit about history to enjoy Santa Fe. There are plenty of chic shops, art galleries and restaurants to satisfy those who enjoy that sort of thing. But history buffs are in for a treat in this city in Northwest New Mexico. The first Spanish settlers arrived in Santa Fe in 1607, and in 1610 the city became established as the capitol of “The Kingdom of Mexico.” There are plenty of remnants from that era, including the original capitol building, the Palace of the Governors, which dates to 1610 and is regarded as the oldest continuously occupied building in the U.S. Built that same year, the San Miguel Mission is considered the oldest existing religious structure in the U.S. On the residential side, the De Vargas Street House supposedly dates to 1646, making it one of the oldest buildings in America. Everywhere you turn, the exotic influences of Santa Fe’s Native American and Spanish heritage are present, earning the city the nickname, “The City Different.”
3. Jamestown, Virginia
Most everyone has heard the story of Capt. John Smith and the group of woefully unprepared settlers who founded Jamestown colony in 1607, marking the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Most of the first settlers died within the first year, and the settlement struggled for years against starvation, hostile Native Americans and other setbacks before it began to prosper. Jamestown served as capitol of Virginia until 1699 before being abandoned. The original James Fort remained buried for almost 400 years before being uncovered by archaeologists in the 1990s, and the area remains an active archaeological site. Some people find a visit to the old Jamestown site itself somewhat underwhelming, but it is part of the U.S. National Park Service’s Colonial National Historical Park, which includes nearby historic Williamsburg and Yorktown, so check out all three for the full early Virginia colonial experience.
2. St. Augustine, Florida
Visit St. Augustine, Florida, and it’s easy to become jaded by all the historical superlatives. Here we have the oldest wooden schoolhouse in America; there we have a house once believed to be the oldest in America; over there we have the oldest fort in the U.S., Castillo de San Marcos, built in 1672. Founded by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine is often erroneously referred to as the first city started by European settlers in America; it’s more historically accurate to say it’s the oldest European city that has been continuously occupied. Other than the fort, nothing remains from St. Augustine’s pre-18th century history — the British burned the city to the ground in 1702 — but there’s history around every corner. The historic district features trolley tours, ghost tours and plenty of interesting shops. Elsewhere there are nods to modern tourist kitsch (a Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.) The St. Augustine area in general features enough golf courses, beaches and other attractions to keep the family occupied for a few days. St. Augustine is only a few miles from I-95, access is easy and parking is usually abundant, so if you’re on your way to Disney World or one of Central Florida’s other tourist draws, at least stop for a quick tour of Castillo de San Marcos. You’ll definitely come away impressed.
1. Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
Real estate experts stress “Location, location, location,” and the Native Americans who founded Acoma Pueblo certainly found a commanding spot, building their community of adobe structures atop a 370-foot-tall sandstone bluff 60 miles west of present-day Albuquerque. They got stunning views of the surrounding landscape, but more importantly, defense against attacks from Apache and Navajo invaders. Acoma is regarded as the oldest continuously occupied community in the United States and today, almost 900 years later, a handful of Acoma still live on the site, better known as Sky City to the tens of thousands of tourists who visit each year. To help enhance the tourist experience, the tribe built the Sky City Cultural Center in 2008, featuring the Haak’u Museum, which highlights the Acoma’s and Sky City’s unique history. The center coordinates hour-long guided tours of Sky City, but some visitors leave disappointed. The weather, especially in the summer, can be blazing hot, the tour is not very child-friendly, and there are restrictions on photography and even what clothing you may wear on the tour. Still, it’s a rare chance to see a 900-year-old settlement in the U.S., surrounded by stunning scenery (even the drive from I-40 is regarded as one of the best scenic drives in America). While the historic Sky City dwellings do not have electricity or running water, modern civilization beckons at the nearby Sky City Casino Hotel.
The author has spent the past 20 years traveling to every corner of the United States in search of historic, geographic and cultural points of interest.