You might think your town is old, but it probably isn’t the oldest in the country.
That is unless you live in St. Augustine, FL. Which looks pretty good for being 454 years old.
That’s older than America for those playing at home.
So that got us thinking, what is the oldest city in North Carolina? And how old is that when you put it into perspective of St. Augustine or American Independence in 1776?
Because even if your North Carolina city or town is old, it isn’t really all that old in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Pyramids in Egypt were built around 2600 BC, a cool 4100 years before St. Augustine.
And now that we have you thinking about how the time line of your existence is really kind of unimpressive on the timeline of history, let’s drop right into the analysis.
These are the 10 oldest cities and towns in the Tar Heel State according to their ‘date of foundation’:
- Harrisburg (Photos)
- Wilmington (Photos)
- Mount Airy (Photos)
- Winston-Salem (Photos)
- Charlotte (Photos)
- Greenville (Photos)
- Smithfield (Photos)
- Goldsboro (Photos)
- Raleigh (Photos)
- Concord (Photos)
For being 286 years old, Harrisburg doesn’t look a day over 40. And the newest city in North Carolina? That would be Garner — a brand spanking 13 years old.
How We Determined When A City Was Founded In North Carolina… Or Is It Settled?
Surprisingly, there’s not a definitive data set that contains the dates of incorporation or settlement for cities in America. Put differently, there’s no official data set from the Census that contains when every place in America was founded.
So what did we do instead?
Use the internet’s version of official government data — Wikipedia of course!
For the majority of cities in North Carolina, Wikipedia offers data on some kind of ‘date of foundation’ in the infobox. Unfortunately, because it’s Wikipedia and not a sprawling government bureaucracy, that can take the form of any of the following nomenclature (plus others):
And then even more stuff — for example Atlanta has a ‘Terminus’ date, whatever that is.
If no ‘date of foundation’ was found in the infobox, we looked to the general text in the History section of the city for ‘Founded in XXXX’.
All in all, we were able to collect data on 105 out of 147 in North Carolina with over 5,000 people. That’s good for a 71.4% completion rate.
We then ranked them from oldest to newest with Harrisburg turning out to be the matriarch of North Carolina at the ripe old age of 286.
Here’s a look at the top ten and a snippet of their history from Wikipedia.
The area along the river had been inhabited by various successive cultures of indigenous peoples for thousands of years. At the time of European encounter, historic Native Americans were members of tribes belonging to the Algonquian languages family.
The ethnic European and African history of Wilmington spans more than two and a half centuries. In the early 16th century, explorer Giovanni da Verrazano was reportedly the first European to see this area, including the city’s present site. The first permanent European settlement in the area started in the 1720s with English colonists. In September 1732, a community was founded on land owned by John Watson on the Cape Fear River, at the confluence of its northwest and northeast branches. The settlement, founded by the first royal governor, George Burrington, was called ‘New Carthage,’ and then ‘New Liverpool;’ it gradually took on the name ‘New Town’ or ‘Newton’. Governor Gabriel Johnston soon after established his government there for the North Carolina colony. In 1739 or 1740, the town was incorporated with a new name, Wilmington, in honor of Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington.
3. Mount Airy
Mount Airy was settled in the 1750s as a stagecoach stop on the road between Winston-Salem, North Carolina and Galax, Virginia. It was named for a nearby plantation. Mount Airy was incorporated in 1885.
The city of Winston-Salem is a product of the merging of the two neighboring towns of Winston and Salem in 1913.
The origin of the town of Salem dates to January 1753, when Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg, on behalf of the Moravian Church, selected a settlement site in the three forks of Muddy Creek. He called this area ‘die Wachau’ (Latin form: Wachovia) named after the ancestral estate of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf. The land, just short of 99,000 acres (400 km2), was subsequently purchased from John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville.
The Catawba Native Americans were the first to settle Mecklenburg County (in the Charlotte area) and were first recorded in European records around 1567. By 1759 half the Catawba tribe had been killed by smallpox. At the time of their largest population, Catawba people numbered 10,000, but by 1826 that number dropped to 110. The City of Charlotte as we know it, had it origins with the heavy influx of Scotch-Irish / Scots-Irish Presbyterians, or Ulster-Scot settlers, who dominated the culture of the Southern Piedmont Region and is the principle founding European population. The Germans settled in much smaller numbers but contributed greatly to the early foundations of the region. The Flag of Charlotte is the Saint Andrews Flag of Scotland or Saltire with a City Crest.
Mecklenburg County was initially part of Bath County (1696 to 1729) of New Hanover Precinct, which became New Hanover County in 1729. The western portion of New Hanover split into Bladen County in 1734, its western portion splitting into Anson County in 1750. Mecklenburg County formed from Anson County in 1762. Further apportionment was made in 1792, with Cabarrus County formed from Mecklenburg, and in 1842, with Union County formed from Mecklenburg’s southeastern portion and from a western portion of Anson County. These areas were all part of one of the original six judicial/military districts of North Carolina known as the Salisbury District.
Greenville was founded in 1771 as ‘Martinsborough’, after the Royal Governor Josiah Martin. In 1774 the town was moved to its present location on the south bank of the Tar River, three miles (4.8 km) west of its original site. In 1786, the name was changed to Greenesville in honor of General Nathanael Greene, the American Revolutionary War hero. It was later shortened to Greenville.
During Greenville’s early years, the Tar River was a navigable waterway; and by the 1860s there were several established steamboat lines transporting passengers and goods on the river. Cotton was the leading agricultural crop, and Greenville became a major cotton export center. Before the turn of the century, however, tobacco surpassed cotton and became the leading money crop. Greenville became one of the state’s leading tobacco marketing and warehouse centers.
Around 1787, when Wayne County was formed, a town named Waynesborough grew around the county’s courthouse. In 1787, William Whitfield III (son of William Whitfield II) and his son were appointed ‘Directors and Trustees’ for designing and building the town. Located on the east bank of the Neuse River, the town became the county seat. Population growth in Waynesborough continued through the 1830s. However, this changed once the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad was completed in the early 1840s. By then, a hotel had been built at the intersection of the railroad and New Bern Road, which grew into a community after the train started to transport passengers from there.
Bath, the oldest town in North Carolina, was the first nominal capital of the colony from 1705 until 1722, when Edenton took over the role. The colony had no permanent institutions of government until the new capital New Bern was established in 1743.
In December 1770, Joel Lane successfully petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly to create a new county. On January 5, 1771, the bill creating Wake County was passed in the General Assembly. The county was formed from portions of Cumberland, Orange, and Johnston counties. The county was named for Margaret Wake Tryon, the wife of Governor William Tryon. The first county seat was Bloomsbury.
Concord, located in today’s rapidly growing northeast quadrant of the Charlotte metropolitan area, was first settled about 1750 by German and Scots-Irish immigrants. The name Concord means with harmony. This name was chosen after a lengthy dispute over where the county seat should be located between the German Lutherans and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. By United States standards, Concord is considered an old town, as it was incorporated in 1806. Today, markers identifying the original town limits can be seen in the downtown area.
As county seat, Concord became a center of trade and retail for the cotton-producing region, especially on court days. The downtown would be crowded with farmers and townfolk, in addition to lawyers and their clients. During the antebellum era, wealth was built by planters through the cultivation of cotton as a commodity crop; the work was done by enslaved African Americans.
Oh How Time Flies For The Oldest Towns And Cities In North Carolina
So there you have it, a look at some of the oldest places to live in North Carolina. If we missed your city’s ‘date of foundation’, let us know in the comments. Or feel free to take a look at the table of the oldest places in North Carolina.
And now, let’s raise our glasses, to the next 100 years of existence for these cities and towns in the Tar Heel State.
And for those wondering, here are the newest additions to North Carolina:
- Garner (Founded in 2005)
- Wrightsboro (Founded in 2005)
- Angier (Founded in 2005)
Detailed List Of The Oldest Cities In North Carolina
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