12 Oldest Places in America
Just how far back in time does human achievement go in this country? We challenged ourselves to find out and in the process discovered everything from a prehistoric settlement near St. Louis to a pirate bar in New Orleans.
What constitutes "old" depends on where in the world you are—200 years sounds old, but not in comparison with 2,000 or 20,000. But just how far back does human achievement go in this country? We challenged ourselves to find out. We hit the road, spoke to historians, and dug deep in the history books to find the oldest of the old when it came to everything from cities to airports across America. And while not everything on this list is old in the European sense of the word, you'll find that it's some of the 19th and 20th century firsts (the airport, the skyscraper, for example) that established the United States as an important player in the world's history. Of course, there are churches, cities, and archaeological finds that well pre-date our own 1776 Independence, too, thanks to Spanish settlements, Pilgrims, and the Native Americans who have been here all along. Here are the top 12 places for exploring America's past.
Oldest City: Cahokia, c. 700–1400
UNESCO officially named Cahokia (15 minutes from modern-day St. Louis) the largest and earliest prehistoric settlement north of Mexico back in the 1980s. It was thought to be just a seasonal encampment, important but not that exciting. Then, in January 2012, reports were released showing that this was actually the first true North American city: 500 thatch-roofed rectangular houses were gridded around ceremonial plazas and stretched eight miles on either side of the Mississippi River; at its peak it had 20,000 inhabitants. Visit the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and get a sense of the scope from the top of Monks Mound, a 100-foot-tall monumental outlook that took an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth to make. 30 Ramey St., Collinsville, Ill., 618/346-5160, cahokiamounds.org. Suggested donation $4 per person.
Oldest Art: Chumash Cave Painting, c. 1000
Art, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Still, few can debate the impressiveness of these 500-plus-year-old rock paintings in Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Santa Barbara, Calif.. Colorful and abstract symbols, possibly representing mythic figures or natural phenomena (like a 1677 solar eclipse), were applied with crushed mineral pigment for unknown reasons. Is it art? Is it graffiti? Bring a flashlight and theorize away. The paintings are easily viewed behind a protective grate after a short, steep hike. Painted Cave Rd., Santa Barbara, Calif., 805/733-3713, parks.ca.gov.
Oldest Community: Acoma Pueblo, c. 1150
Seventy miles west of Albuquerque, N.M., the Acoma people have lived continuously for nearly 900 years atop a 367-foot sandstone bluff. Homes are multi-story, multi-family "apartment complexes" that can be reached only by exterior ladders, much like the cliff cities of Mesa Verde and Gila, where their first nation brethren the Anasazi and the Mogollon lived, respectively. Group tours depart daily from Sky City Cultural Center at the bottom of the mesa, while the Haak'u Museum screens culturo-historical videos, offers fantastic pottery for sale (with plenty more vendors outside), and fry bread with green chile stew in the café. Interstate 40 & Exit 102, 800/747-0181, sccc.acomaskycity.org. Guided tours $20 per person.
Oldest Timber Frame House: The Fairbanks House, c. 1637–1641
Thanks to the magic of dendrochronology (a.k.a. tree-ring dating), the Fairbanks House was declared North America's oldest timber-framed house. It's amazing that the wooden house is still standing, about 375 years after it was built. Eight generations of the Fairebanks family lived in this homestead, 25 minutes outside of Boston, first in the two-story, two-room core, and later, as fashions dictated and wealth allowed, throughout its "new" additions. No grand renovation ever unified the various sections, so much of the original handiwork and historical details and construction techniques have remained. The house now exists as a museum and contains furniture, paintings, and other artifacts from the Fairbanks family. 511 East St., Dedham, Mass, 781/326-1170, fairbankshouse.org. Open May 1 through October 31. $12 admission.
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