• Notes From The Frontier

America's Earliest Cities were Native American & Spanish



This horrific weekend, when a mass murder occurred in El Paso, then Dayton, Ohio, I wondered what on earth would be an appropriate and respectful post today for Notes from the Frontier. I thought I would try to honor El Paso in some way. (This was before the Dayton shooting was announced.) I looked up El Paso’s history. As with so many subjects I research, I was taken down many surprising paths. I found out, for example, that El Paso is one of America’s oldest cities, the area first “discovered” by Spanish Franciscan friars on April 20, 1598 when they offered a Thanksgiving Mass on the banks of the Rio Grande. El Paso would be officially founded as El Paso del Norte, a sister city north of Juarez, in 1659.


As I dug further, I found that the TWELVE oldest cities in what is now the United States were Native American and Spanish. Most likely, there were many more major Native American settlements that archeology has yet to reveal. The top dozen oldest recorded cities in the United States are:


  1. Oraibi, AZ –1100 by Hopi Native Americans

  2. Acoma Pueblo, NM 1144 by the Acoma Pueblo tribe

  3. Taos Pueblo, NM – 1450 by the Taos Pueblo tribe

  4. Caparra, PR – 1508 by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon

  5. San Juan, PR—1521 also by Ponce de Leon

  6. San Miquel de Gauldape –1526 -first European settlement founded by Spanish explorer Vazquez de Ayllon on coast of Georgia

  7. Zuni Pueblo, NM 1539 by the Zuni tribe

  8. Childersburg, AL 1540- this is a tricky one because Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto “discovered” an extensive Coosa Native American settlement of several villages at this location in 1540 and the explorer established a town there that began to be settled by the Spanish. European disease nearly wiped out the Coosa population, which was supplanted by Europeans.

  9. Pensacola, FL-1559

  10. St Augustine, FL - 1565 by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés,

  11. Santa Fe, NM – 1607 (same as Jamestown in 1607) founded by Spanish settlers

  12. El Paso del Norte – in 1598,Spanish Franciscan friars held a Mass of Thanksgiving on the Rio Grande down river from the El Paso location. The settlement would be officially founded in 1659)

Like most Americans, since I was a child, I thought of the first settlements as being on the East Coast, Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. But those settlements were very, very far from the first and, in fact, the first Thanksgiving that most Americans believe was held by Pilgrims in Plymouth colony in 1621, was NOT the first, or even the second!


The earliest known documented settlement in the United States is a Hopi village called Oraibi in Arizona, established about 1100A.D. The Hopi there still hold to their ancient customs today, making it what historians believe is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the United States. Oraibi is the seat of the Hopi Tribal Council and is located within the third Mesa of the Hopi Reservation. But the village, which still lives in the traditional Hopi way, does not appreciate tourists.

Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico was established only 44 years after that in 1144 A.D. About 60 miles west of Albuquerque, the Acoma Pueblo consists of four villages of the federally recognized Acoma Pueblo. They have lived continuously at that location for perhaps over a thousand years. Today, about 5,000 Acoma Pueblo live in that area, which is a National Historic Landmark.

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico was believed to be built between 1,000 and 1450 A.D. It is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. The site is funded by both UNESCO and the federal government because its ancient structures and the traditions of the tribe are considered endangered, both culturally and structurally. The village is open to the public, in part as a way to help fund its preservation and continue its ancient cultural traditions.

The first two European cities established in what is today part of the U.S. were, in fact, in Puerto Rico: Caparra in 1508 and San Juan in 1521. Christopher Columbus “discovered” Puerto Rico on his second voyage in 1493 and claimed the island for Spain, even though Indigenous people already lived there. The main culture was the Tainos but, as in most cases of European colonization, European diseases nearly wiped out the indigenous populations.

The explorer Ponce de Leon arrived in Puerto Rico in 1508 and built the first Spanish settlement on the island, including a magnificent fort and a cathedral. But the settlement was constantly under siege from neighboring indigenous tribes and it was eventually abandoned in 1521. The buried ruins of Caparra were discovered in 1917 when construction of Highway Route 2 unearthed the historic stone structure. The site has become a leading archeological site in Puerto Rico.

With the demise of Caparra, San Juan was established in its stead in 1521, on a port not far from the Caparra site. Heavy fortifications were built that made the city defensible. It soon became a prosperous shipping port where transports of gold and silver mined from the New World were sent back to Spain.

It is likely that the very first European settlement on MAINLAND United States is a place most Americans have never heard of. It was not on the East Coast or even Florida, but on the coast of Georgia! It was called San Miguel de Gauldape, founded by Spanish explorer Vazques de Ayllon in 1526. But that wasn’t the first time Ayllon landed on the coast of the New World. He did that in 1521 on a slaving ship to the Bahamas. While on the coast of what is now South Carolina, he kidnapped 60 Native Americans that he took back to his plantation on Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). He returned later to establish the settlement of San Miguel de Gauldape on the coast of Alabama. He also brought African slaves with him, which made the settlement the first instance of black slavery in North America. It also resulted in the first slave rebellion. The settlement itself was consumed by disease, hunger and hostile Indians. Of the 600 in the settlement, only about 150 survived when they returned home.

Another Spanish settlement established about 14 years later, in northern Alabama, came to be called Childersburg. The Spanish explorer Hernando do Soto “discovered” an extensive Coosa native American settlement of villages in 1540 and the explorer established a town for Spanish settlers. Again, European disease nearly wiped out the Coosa population. Today, there remain immense Coosa Indian mounds from that civilization. (The contemporary Cherokee name for all Creek Indians is “ani- kusa.)

Spanish exploration increased and the areas that are today Florida and Texas and the coastal area in between saw much settlement. St. Augustine (on the upper eastern coast of Florida), established in 1565, is often called the oldest European city in the United States. But there is evidence that, apart from the settlements already mentioned above, Pensacola (on the extreme west coast next to Alabama) was also established before St. Augustine. Spanish explorer Tristan de Luna founded the village in 1559, six years before St. Augustine. That settlement was abandoned after two years, but the site was eventually resettled and today is present-day Pensacola.

St. Augustine is often called the oldest in the United States, but that moniker is challenged by the aforementioned settlements. St. Augustine was founded on September 8, 1565, by Spanish explorer and admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Florida's first governor. When the expedition landed they held a Mass of Thanksgiving, the first Thanksgiving to be held in what is now the United States, 56 years before the Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony. Castillo de San Marcos fort was built in 1672 and it is the oldest masonry fort in the nation.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, however, claims the oldest church in the United States. The area was occupied by Pueblo Indian villages when the Conquistador Don Francisco Vasques de Coronado showed up in 1540 and claimed the land for Spain. But Santa Fe would not be founded until 1607, the same year Jamestown was founded. Very quickly a mission was built by the Spanish and Puebloan Indians between 1610 and 1626. (Whether or not Puebloan participation was willing is questionable.) San Miguel is the oldest known church in the continental United States. But, in 1680, a Pueblo Revolt, led by a Pueblo chief named Popé, resulted in the death of 400 Spanish and drove the remaining 2,000 settlers from the province.

We end with El Paso. The city was not officially founded until 1659 as El Paso del Norte, the sister city just north of Juarez. But its roots go back to 1598, when Spanish Franciscan friars held a Mass of Thanksgiving—the second Thanksgiving ceremony in the United States after the first one in St. Augustine in 1565--on the Rio Grande just down river from where El Paso is today.

The Ysleta Mission is the oldest active mission in the state of Texas, built by Native Puebloan peoples and Spanish colonists in 1682. (Again, whether or not Puebloan participation was willing is a point of conjecture.)

El Paso is probably best known for Mount Christo Rey, a magnificent shrine with a 29-foot statue of Christ on the cross built in 1940. The shrine has been visited by millions of pilgrims from all over the world.

After this research adventure, started first by the tragedy in El Paso, I learned something important: that the influence of indigenous and Spanish cultures were the first building blocks in the creation of our nation and our earliest cities, some predating Anglo-Saxon settlement on the East Coast by hundreds of years. But most Americans don’t realize it.

The statue at Mount Cristo Rey is not technically a crucifix because Christ’s hands are spread downward. The sculptor chose that pose to convey blessing upon the people. And that’s what we wish for the people of El Paso. And for Dayton, Ohio.

See related post:

-The Dark Secrets of Jamestown


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Posted August 5, 2019

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