Places With a Past
The United States is full of history but it’s not always the oldest places that have the most or best stories to tell. In some cases, a tiny village, modest town or burgeoning city can put itself on the map by serving as the setting of a seismic political or cultural event. That’s something these historically significant towns across the country all have in common.
The Alabama capital has been the setting for numerous historically significant moments throughout history. The city was selected as the first capital of the Confederate States of America in 1861 and became one of the most important sites during the Civil Rights Movement a century later, serving as the setting of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56 and the Selma to Montgomery protest marches in 1965.
Little-known Wrangell is the third oldest community in Alaska and the only city to be ruled by four nations and under three flags—Tlingit, Russia, England, and the United States. The town has hosted a handful of famous names over the years, including Wyatt Earp, who served as a temporary marshall for 10 days, John Muir and outlaw Soapy Smith.
The former copper-mining community of Bisbee can be found about 90 miles southeast of Tucson in Arizona’s Mule Mountains, where visitors will encounter one of the best-preserved early-20th-century downtowns in America. The city was founded in 1880 but is still thriving 140 years later, with mining giving way to an impressive art and music scene.
A worthwhile stop for road trippers making the drive along I-30 between Memphis and Dallas, Washington is home to Historic Washington State Park. James Bowie, Sam Houston, and Davy Crockett were among the notable names to pass through and the city even served as the Confederate capital of Arkansas from 1863 to 1865. There’s also a strong case to be made for nearby Little Rock, which played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Columbia is home to the largest collection of existing gold-rush era structures in California. The scenic destination is worth the trip out to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range as travelers will be able to tour other historic towns, including Sonora and Jamestown.
The historic mining town of Silverton traces its roots all of the way back to the 1860s when Charles Baker and his group of prospectors discovered gold and silver along the Animas River. Today, Silverton is a National Historic Landmark District and a popular stop for tourists.
Connecticut certainly isn’t short on history but much of it can be found in the state capital of Hartford, which was founded nearly four centuries ago. The city is home to the oldest public art museum in the U.S. in the Wadsworth Atheneum as well as the country’s oldest continuously published newspaper in the Hartford Courant. What’s more, legendary authors Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe were once among Hartford’s residents.
Delaware: New Castle
Historic New Castle dates back 380 years and has become a popular tourist attraction for its well-preserved historic district featuring hundreds of buildings dating back centuries. The Amstel House and New Castle Court House are among the most popular sites.
Florida: St Augustine
The nation’s oldest city boasts more than 450 years of history, which is on display at nearly every turn. One of St. Augustine’s marquee attractions is the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
Georgia is home to a wealth of historic towns, including Macon and Dahlonega, but Athens stands out. Here is where you’ll find the University of Georgia, which became the first state-chartered public university in the U.S. in 1785. The city of Athens, named for the Greek capital, was incorporated just two decades later and would eventually be described by naturalist John Muir as “a remarkably beautiful and aristocratic town.”
Located on the island of Maui, Lahaina boasts a rich history. It was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom before later becoming a historic whaling village in the mid-19th century. Visitors can’t miss Front Street or the Lahaina Historic Trail, which includes a number of stops that will transport travelers back in time, including the Pioneer Inn and Maui’s oldest living banyan tree.
The historic gold rush town of Pierce became the first established town in Idaho in 1861. A year later, the Pierce Courthouse—Idaho’s oldest public building—was built. The discovery of gold here is considered to be one of the most important moments in the state’s history as it drew thousands of settlers to the region.
This village in southwestern Illinois was the homeplace of indigenous peoples such as the Illini before French colonists arrived. Kaskaskia later served as the capital of the Illinois Territory until it became a state in 1818. Since then, the town of just over a dozen has been hit hard by historic floods, changing locations in the Great Flood of 1844 and nearly becoming a ghost town after the Great Flood of 1993.
Clarksville sits along the Ohio River just across from Louisville, Kentucky and boasts the distinction of being the oldest American town in the former Northwest Territory. It’s also where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met at the Falls of Ohio in October 1803 to begin their famous expedition.
Iowa: Council Bluffs
Located just across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, Council Bluffs was previously known as Kanesville when it served as the starting point of the Mormon Trail in the mid-19th century. The town was renamed in 1852 and was later designated as the official starting point of the transcontinental railroad by President Abraham Lincoln.
Kansas: Dodge City
Established nearly 150 years ago as an important trade center for travelers and buffalo hunters on the Santa Fe Trail, Dodge City is synonymous with lawlessness, earning nicknames such as the “Cowboy Capital of The World” and the “Wicked Little City.” Old West legends like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday came through town at some point in time, building on Dodge City’s lore.
Named after King Louis XVI of France, Louisville was founded nearly 250 years ago and quickly developed into Kentucky’s largest city. Louisville became the site of the world’s largest distillery after prohibition and later became the world’s largest producer of synthetic rubber during the World War II era. The city was also the first in the U.S. to introduce the secret ballot.
Louisiana: New Orleans
Just two years removed from its tricentennial, New Orleans must be on every history buff’s bucket list. The Big Easy’s history is not only vast but among the most unique among consequential U.S. cities. Founded by the French and later ruled by the Spanish for decades, New Orleans was eventually sold to the U.S. by Napoleon as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
Home to the country’s oldest wooden fort in Fort Western, Augusta was initially settled by English settlers from the Plymouth Colony in the early 17th century. Augusta, which was named after the daughter of Henry Dearborn, was later incorporated as a town in 1797 before becoming the capital of Maine in 1827.
America’s largest independent city is home to Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that would become “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. The waterfront capital of Annapolis is another worthwhile stop for history buffs exploring the Old Line State.
America’s Hometown resides in Plymouth, a town steeped in history that’s famous for the namesake colony founded in 1620 by the Mayflower Pilgrims. Four centuries later, Plymouth, which also hosted the first Thanksgiving feast, is the oldest municipality in New England.
Named for the fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. John Marshall, this Michigan town had its sights set on becoming the state capital before coming up short to Lansing. Nonetheless, Marshall has been at the center of many important moments throughout history. Marshall was part of the Underground Railroad and where Isaac Crary and John Pierce developed a public school system that would become a model nationwide. What’s more, the country’s oldest railroad union was founded here in 1863.
Located 30 minutes east of Minneapolis along the St. Croix River, Stillwater is known as the Birthplace of Minnesota. One of the state’s oldest towns, the historic place held the first territorial convention that started the process of establishing Minnesota as a state. The lumber mills here were also the largest in the U.S. at the height of the log boom.
Much of Vicksburg’s history is tied to the Civil War. It’s where Jefferson Davis gave his first address as the first President of the Confederate States of America in 1861 and the Siege of Vicksburg two years later would serve as a key turning point in the war. Today, the Vicksburg National Military Park commemorates the area’s significance, which serves as the final resting place for some 17,000 Union soldiers.
Springfield has helped shape much of Missouri’s history, from the infamous Trail of Tears and pivotal Civil War battles to the Wild West era—the town square was the site of the nation’s first quick-draw shootout in 1865. Springfield would eventually go on to be recognized as the Birthplace of Route 66 and become a key locale for the country music industry in the mid-20th century.
Butte is Montana’s most historic city, emerging as a gold and silver mining camp during the 19th century before flourishing during the copper boom. The city’s thriving mining industry attracted people from all over, with Butte’s population peaking about 100 years ago. Today, Butte’s Historic Uptown District is one of the largest historic districts in the entire country.
The most well-known place in Nebraska is also one of the most historically significant. The frontier town turned industrial hub is a stop on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail and was the site of race riots in 1919 decades prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
Nevada: Virginia City
Virginia City owes its rich history to the discovery of the Comstock Lode in the mid-19th century. The silver and gold mining boom that followed turned it into the most important industrial cities in the country, helping fund the U.S. government during the Civil War and develop San Francisco to the west.
New Hampshire: Portsmouth
Visitors to New England will be kicking themselves if they leave without visiting Portsmouth, a charming port town with rich colonial history located about an hour north of Boston. The town was among the nation’s busiest ports and shipbuilding settings for years and even hosted Paul Revere in the lead-up to the American Revolution.
New Jersey: Freehold
New Jersey is full of historic towns, including Cape May, Asbury Park and Princeton but Freehold is another worth visiting as it hosted one of the largest and most important battles of the Revolutionary War in The Battle of Monmouth in June 1778. It’s also the hometown of music legend Bruce Springsteen.
New Mexico: Taos
Taos is famous for the Taos Pueblo, which is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the U.S. The UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back centuries prior to Spanish colonization and the namesake town’s founding more than 220 years ago.
New York: New York
The U.S. wouldn’t be the melting pot it is today without New York City, which has welcomed millions of immigrants since it emerged as the nation’s marquee trading destination in the 19th century. The most visited city in America was also one of the sites of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history in 2001, which changed the way we travel forever.
North Carolina: Kitty Hawk
This North Carolina town also had a monumental impact on the way we travel. Kitty Hawk is renowned for hosting the Wright brothers, who made the first controlled powered airplane flights at nearby Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina’s Outer Banks in 1903.
North Dakota: Fargo
Located along the Red River, North Dakota’s most populous city began to flourish after its founding in the late 19th century with the development of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Fargo eventually came to be known as the “Gateway to the West.”
The “Shaker Curse” didn’t prevent Lebanon from becoming one of Ohio’s most historically significant towns. The town has hosted famous figures throughout history, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and multiple U.S. presidents and is home to The Golden Lamb, which is the state’s oldest continually operating hotel and restaurant. Ohio’s first and third capital, Chillicothe is another worthwhile visit for history buffs.
The “Oil Capital of the World” was also the site of “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history” during the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 when mobs of white residents destroyed dozens of blocks of Tulsa’s Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street, which was the wealthiest black community in the U.S. at the time.
What began as a gold rush town in the mid-19th century, Jacksonville is now a designated a National Historic Landmark. This charming and historic small town was also home to the first Chinatown in Oregon.
Pennsylvania’s largest city wasn’t always so large and its historical presence can’t be ignored. Philly played a pivotal role in the American Revolution, hosting America’s Founding Fathers when they signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Philadelphia is where the USA was born.
Rhode Island: Providence
Settled as far back as 1636, the Renaissance City offers big history in America’s smallest state. Providence played a key role in the American Revolution as the site of the Gaspee Affair in June 1772 and later became known as the “Jewelry Capital of the World.”
South Carolina: Charleston
Charleston is no stranger to awards and accolades, including being named the Best City for History by Lonely Planet. The city turned 350 years old in 2020 and has achieved a number of historical firsts over the year, hosting the first opera in the New World, opening the first golf club in America and introducing the first regularly scheduled rail passenger service in the U.S. and the country’s first historic district.
South Dakota: Deadwood
The Wild West town of Deadwood sparked the Black Hills Gold Rush in the late 19th century and is perhaps best known for the historic figures it hosted, including Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and “Wild Bill” Hickok. The town’s rich history is on display in attractions like the Adams Museum and the Days of ’76 Museum.
Founded nearly two decades before Tennessee even became a state, Jonesborough has hosted a plethora of notable visitors over the years, including Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson and Davy Crockett, among others. In 1820, The Emancipator published from Jonesborough became the first periodical dedicated exclusively to the issue of the abolition of slavery.
Site of the first battle in the Texas Revolution, Gonzales is located between San Antonio and Houston. The town that would come to be known as the “Lexington of Texas” was also the first Anglo-American settlement in Texas west of the Colorado River.
Utah: Salt Lake City
Utah’s capital was founded and formed by Mormon pioneers, none more famous than Brigham Young. More than 170 years later, Salt Lake City, where Young delivered the iconic line “This is the place,” serves as the world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bennington has been around for centuries and is home to the namesake Battle Monument—the tallest human-made structure in the state of Vermont. Recognized for its success in pottery, iron and textiles, the town overshadowed by Burlington is located just an hour northeast of Albany.
Today, Jamestown is a part of the Historic Triangle of Colonial Virginia along with Williamsburg and Yorktown. However, 413 years ago, it served as the first permanent English settlement in the Americas and operated as the colonial capital for more than eight decades prior to the start of the 18th century.
Located just an hour south of Seattle, Steilacoom became the oldest incorporated city or town in Washington state when it was established in 1854. The historic district and homes here predate the Civil War and are still complemented by the incredible views of the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains.
West Virginia: Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry boasts the rare combination of being one of the most scenic towns in the country as well as being among the most historically significant. This charming historic town in the Shenandoah Valley is less than 90 minutes from Washington, D.C. and is remembered always for being the site of abolitionist John Brown’s pivotal raid in October 1859.
The town of Aztalan in southern Wisconsin is where you’ll find the namesake State Park, a fascinating place that serves as the site of an ancient Mississippian culture more than 1,000 years ago. The indigenous people developed large pyramidal mounds and a barrier around the once-thriving village that can still be seen today.
It’s easy to overlook Sheridan given that it’s located halfway between a pair of iconic tourist attractions in Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore but to miss this still thriving town would be a mistake. As the destination’s official website puts it, “Sheridan’s historic heart beats with the stories of cowboys, Indians, historic battle sites, ranching legends and western outlaws.”
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