What’s the first city in the United States?

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City Hall in Old San Juan

The year 2021 marked the 500th anniversary of the oldest city in the United States. What is it? “Find the firsts” answers the question: “What’s the first city in the United States?”

Key takeaways:

  • In this article, “the first city” refers to the first and still inhabited European-founded city in the United States and its territories.
  • St. Augustine in Florida is the oldest, European-settled, and continuously inhabited city in the contiguous United States.
  • Honorable mention goes to Oraibi, Arizona, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. The Hopi Native Americans founded Oraibi around 1000 AD.

Defining the term “the first city in the United States”

Before answering the question, we need to understand what we mean by “first city in the United States.” Are we talking about the first city ever constructed in the U.S., regardless is there are still inhabitants or not? Are we talking about the first city in the continental United States?

In this article, “the first city” refers to the first and still inhabited European-founded city in the United States and its territories.

Before we declare our “first city,” let’s take a look at the runner-up, the one that appears at the top of search engine results.

St. Augustine, a first city

Many consider St. Augustine in Florida the first city in the United States. Those individuals would be correct if we had identified the oldest, European-settled, and continuously inhabited city in the contiguous United States.

Hotel Ponce de Léon in St. Augustine
Hotel Ponce de Léon in St. Augustine (Image Source: The New York Times)

Spanish soldier Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine in September 1565, 55 years before the Pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock. His mission was to prevent the French from claiming Spanish territory and rid them of the land they were currently inhabiting. Menéndez wanted to attack the French at their settlement (near Jacksonville) but saw that reinforcements had already arrived. So, he retreated to St. Augustine and waited for the French to come to the Spanish.

Before the French fleet of ships could approach Menéndez and his men, a massive storm knocked the entire fleet off course and sank each boat. So, the Spaniards just entered the French fort and took it over without a single Spanish casualty.

The following weeks saw additional French defeat, and the Spanish decided to settle in St. Augustine to protect their interests. St. Augustine has remained an inhabited city to this day.

San Juan, the first city

Yes, San Juan in Puerto Rico is the first, oldest, and continuously inhabited city founded by Europeans in the United States, when including its territories.

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León arrived in San Juan Bautista (now Puerto Rico) in 1508. He established a settlement called Caparra and later became the island’s governor. However, he was away most of the time since he was still searching for the fountain of youth. Ponce de León later returned to Puerto Rico in 1515 to prevent any uprisings amongst the native people.

In 1521, the Spanish crown ordered that the settlement move from Caparra to a rocky islet nearly seven miles away (11 kilometers). The advantage of changing the location was receiving the Spanish ships entering the harbor and seeing potential sea attacks. So, 44 years before Menéndez founded St. Augustine in Florida, Spain founded San Juan in Puerto Rico.

Colorful streets of San Juan, the first city in the united states
Colorful homes of Old San Juan (Image Source: Discover Puerto Rico)

In 1521, the settlers built San Juan’s Cathedral, and then the Spanish placed the remains of Ponce de Leon in that cathedral after he died in Cuba. The residents rebuilt San Juan’s Cathedral in 1540 following a hurricane and performed additional construction in 1802. In 1532, the Spanish built the San José Church, which would later house the remains of governors from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Afterward, in 1539, the Spanish constructed “El Morro,” a six-story fortress to defend the island from naval attacks.

As a consequence of the Spanish-American war, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States on October 18, 1898.

From October 2021 through June 2022, Puerto Rico is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the founding of San Juan.

Honorable mention

Oraibi, Arizona, is the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the United States. The Hopi Native Americans founded Oraibi around 1000 AD.

Did you enjoy learning about the first city in the United States?

Did you enjoy this look at the first city in the United States? The “Find the Firsts” series digs throughout history, searching for that exciting first element.

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