Is Jamestown the Oldest European Capital in North America?

by the time Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson produced their map of Virginia, Jamestown was essentially farmland rather than an occupied town
by the time Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson produced their map of Virginia, Jamestown was essentially farmland rather than an occupied town
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia (by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1755)

The oldest continuously occupied European capital in North America is Sante Fe, New Mexico - not Jamestown.

In 1598, Spanish explorers settled in the Tewa town of Ohkay Owingeh, renaming it San Juan de los Caballeros. The Spanish established the first capital of New Mexico nine years before Jamestown. They moved along the Rio Grande to another town (Yunque), then finally settled at Sante Fe in 1610.

Quebec City could contest the claim of Sante Fe, since that location moved in 1610. Quebec City was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain, after discovering the river narrowed at that point.

Saint Augustine, Florida, settled in 1565, rightly claims to be the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America. Jamestown is famous now as the oldest successful English settlement in North America - but it is a latecomer compared to Spanish settlements, and today Jamestown is just an historic site rather than a settled town.

St. Augustine's status depends upon the qualifiers. Mexico City has been occupied longer than St. Augustine, if you include the original period of settlement that preceded the arrival of Europeans. The town of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic was started by European colonists before St. Augustine, but it is located on the island of Hispaniola rather than on the mainland of the North American continent.

Jamestown is not the oldest continually-occupied anything. References to Jamestown as the first permanent English settlement in North America require slipping fast over the adjective "permanent." Jamestown was populated for only a century, and lost most of its residents when the colonial capital moved to Williamsurg in 1699.

Despite Jamestown being "first," school children studying the history of the United States often focus on Plymouth Rock and the tale of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. The Separatists (as they were known at the time) arrived in 1620, which was 13 years after Jamestown was settled. The Puritans arrived even later.

The reason Plymouth Rock gets so much attention involves slavery and the American Civil War, which ended in 1865. During Reconstruction, new public schools were established in the old Confederate states to educate the freed slaves and poor whites. Many teachers for those schools came from the northern states, especially Massachusetts. After the horrors of the Civil War, those teachers and many historians preferred to highlight the heritage of the Mayflower Compact and free association in Massachusetts as the basis for American democracy.

The 1619 General Assembly had already met in Virginia before the first colonists arrived in Massachusetts. However, the Virginia form of democracy led to a slave-based economy. The Pilgrims and Puritans are "latecomers," not the first English colonists in North America - but the heritage of those who settled in Massachusetts has a closer link to the democratic ideals of the United States of America that survived the Civil War.

Spanish Exploration and Settlement in the Southeast

Spain and Jamestown

Jamestown - Why There?

Jamestown - The First English Capital

Was Virginia Destined To Be English?

after the capital moved to Williamsburg, the church fell into ruins
after the capital moved to Williamsburg, the church fell into ruins
Source: Virginia Historical Society, Ruins of Jamestown, Virginia (by John Gadsby Chapman, 1834)


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