Which City Is Really America's Oldest?

Dec 26, 2015

Historical marker for the Native American city of Coosa in Childersburg, Alabama.
Credit Nick Evans

It’s been a yearlong party in northeast Florida as St. Augustine celebrates its 450th anniversary.  The city bills itself as “America’s oldest,” but is it?

There’s no question St. Augustine is old.  Wandering down the narrow, twisting streets of old town you get the sense of the city’s age.  Sure—it’s got its share of cheesy tourist traps, but the history stares back at you everywhere.  And there’s no question that history runs deep.  Perhaps the city’s most recognizable site—the coquina citadel Castillo de San Marcos—a hulking barnacle of a fort looking out over Matanzas Bay was built between 1672 and 1695.  The city’s founding was more than a century earlier. 

“We have so much history, so much rigorous scholarship,” Mayor Nancy Shaver says.

“Yes, we probably haven’t told the story as well as we could have,” she goes on, “but we spent the last three to four years making sure that we tell that and we tell it well, and we will continue to do that.”

She’s overseen the city’s 450th anniversary and a years worth of events to the mark the occasion.  The moment is a big deal in part just because it’s a nice round number but it’s also a chance to reiterate the city’s claim to being the country’s oldest.

“Our chief goal was to have our city recognized as the oldest city in America,” Shaver says.  “The oldest continuously occupied European settlement.”

That’s where Childersburg, Alabama comes in. 

Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains just south of Birmingham, the city has it’s own historical claims.

On a Thursday nigh in early December, the city held its annual holiday parade downtown.

“Just a all-around good place,” Melissa Davis says of the city.  She’s visiting the parade with her daughter in tow.  “It really is, a community based place.”

“Very community oriented,” Candice Atkisson agrees.  “very close basis, very nice people in the area.”

Atkisson is watching the parade with her children as well, and she has no doubt about which city is oldest

“I say it’s Childersburg Alabama,” Atkisson says without hesitation, “but I hear we are in competition with St. Augustine.”

And she explains why the city believes it is older. 

“Because of De Soto staying here,” Atkisson says, “and then he left his men behind—that made, that qualified Childersburg as the oldest.”

Billy Atkinson says that Desoto visit is the key.  He’s the Talladega County probate judge and an amateur historian.  But that doesn’t quite do him justice.  Atkinson is more like an encyclopedia—with a southern drawl.

“The United States De Soto commission gave us what we call a certified birth certificate,” Atkinson says.  “What we call ourselves the continuous occupancy, and we don’t have any problem with our younger sibling, St. Augustine—about 25 years younger than we are.”

He admits the question of whether Childersburg is the site of Coosa—the Native American city Hernando De Soto visited in 1540—is an academic one.  For instance, some scholars believe Coosa was at the site of present day Rome, Georgia.  But Atkinson has no doubt Childersburg is it, and he says there’s a mountain of circumstantial evidence that agrees with him. 

First, there’s the actual mountains. 

After Desoto left, fellow conquistador Tristan de Luna came to Coosa.  Actually, researchers have just uncovered artifacts from his 1559 settlement in Pensacola, potentially complicating St. Augustine’s 1565 claim further.  When De Luna made his way north to Coosa this is how he described the view.

“He said we’re looking at a mountain range,” Atkinson says, “that begins in the east and runs to the west we don’t know where it begins or where it ends the valley is full of savannahs.”

Next, de Luna says the site is bound by two rivers. 

“So this is the site of old Coosa because you’ve got your Tassahatchee Creek there, and you’ve got down the Talladega Creek here.”

He also points to an account from a man named George Stiggins.  His mother was from the Natchez tribe and his father was a European.  As a boy in the early 1800s, older members of the tribe took Stiggins to a fortification where De Soto stayed.

“And when they told that legend story and showed him the actual fortification site where De Soto camped,” Atkinson says, “and told him and he says in his writings that there was a large caverns not far away.”

Just outside Childersburg are the Desoto Caverns, a cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites stretching 12 stories high.  There’s no evidence De Soto ever visited the caverns, but the owners thought the site might draw more visitors with his name. 

But even if all of Atkinson’s evidence does point to Childersburg, Shaver still doesn’t think it qualifies as the country’s oldest.

“It’s pretty clear to me that, assuming there’s archaeological evidence, that De Soto camped there for a month among the Indians which is what every explorer who came to this country did.  That doesn’t make a city.”

So it comes down to how you judge the argument.  Atkinson says De Soto’s expedition to Coosa left European settlers, and there has been a city that has grown, shrunk and shifted with the times up to the present day.  St. Augustine began 25 years later, but Shaver stresses when it began, it began as a colony. 

And that question: primacy or purpose is something historians and hometown partisans will likely be fighting over forever.