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 Virginia? And how old is that when you put it into perspective of St. Augustine or American Independence in 1776?
Because even if your Virginia 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 Old Dominion according to their ‘date of foundation’:
- Falls Church (Photos)
- Petersburg (Photos)
- Christiansburg (Photos)
- Arlington (Photos)
- Franklin (Photos)
- Lexington (Photos)
- Fairfax (Photos)
- South Boston (Photos)
For being 319 years old, Falls Church doesn’t look a day over 40. And the newest city in Virginia? That would be Purcellville — a brand spanking 10 years old.
How We Determined When A City Was Founded In Virginia… 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 Virginia, 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 96 out of 189 in Virginia with over 5,000 people. That’s good for a 50.8% completion rate.
We then ranked them from oldest to newest with Falls Church turning out to be the matriarch of Virginia at the ripe old age of 319.
Here’s a look at the top ten and a snippet of their history from Wikipedia.
1. Falls Church
Population: 13,843Founded: 1699
The first known government in the area was the Iroquois Confederacy. After exploration by Captain John Smith, England began sending colonists to what they called Virginia. While no records has yet been found showing the earliest colony settlement in the area, a cottage demolished between 1908 and 1914, two blocks from the city center, bore a stone engraved with the date ‘1699’ set into one of its two large chimneys.
Population: 32,037Founded: 1748
Archaeological excavations at Pocahontas Island have found evidence of a prehistoric Native American settlement dated to 6500 BCE. This is in the early third of the Archaic Period (8000 to 1000 BCE). Varying cultures of indigenous peoples lived in the area for thousands of years.
Population: 21,892Founded: 1792
In 1671, the New River – one of the world’s oldest rivers – was discovered by early settlers of German, French, Scot-Irish and English descent. Along the river, there were several Native American encampments, and conflicts were common between those tribes and the early settlers. As settlers began moving into present-day Christiansburg, they discovered that area was also inhabited by Shawnee and other Native American tribes.
Population: 229,534Founded: 1801
The area that now constitutes Arlington County was originally part of Fairfax County in the Colony of Virginia. Land grants from the British monarch were awarded to prominent Englishmen in exchange for political favors and efforts at development. One of the grantees was Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, who lends his name to both Fairfax County and the City of Fairfax. The county’s name ‘Arlington’ comes via Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington, a Plantation along the Potomac River, and Arlington House, the family residence on that property. (Ultimately, the name is a variant of Harlington, London, seat of the first Baron of Arlington; it in turn derives from Hygerd, an Anglo-Saxon noble’s name.) George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of First Lady Martha Washington, acquired this land in 1802. The estate was eventually passed down to Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of General Robert E. Lee. The property later became Arlington National Cemetery during the American Civil War, and eventually lent its name to present-day Arlington County.
The area that now contains Arlington County was ceded to the new United States federal government by Virginia. With the passage of the Residence Act in 1790, Congress approved a new permanent capital to be located on the Potomac River, the exact area to be selected by U.S. President George Washington. The Residence Act originally only allowed the President to select a location within Maryland as far east as what is now the Anacostia River. However, President Washington shifted the federal territory’s borders to the southeast in order to include the pre-existing city of Alexandria at the District’s southern tip. In 1791, Congress amended the Residence Act to approve the new site, including the territory ceded by Virginia. However, this amendment to the Residence Act specifically prohibited the ‘erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the River Potomac.’ As permitted by the United States Constitution, the initial shape of the federal district was a square, measuring 10 miles (16 km) on each side, totaling 100 square miles (260 km2). During 1791–92, Andrew Ellicott and several assistants placed boundary stones at every mile point. Fourteen of these markers were in Virginia and many of the stones are still standing.
Population: 5,058Founded: 1860
Bluefield has not always borne the name Bluefield. The town originated around a small post office named ‘Pin Hook’ in the 1860s, named for a small creek that ran through the community. For a brief time it was known as the commununity of Harman, named after a Civil War hero from the area who had been shot during the Battle of Cloyd’s Mountain in Pulaski, County, Virginia. Later, after coal was discovered and a company was formed to build a railroad to the coalfields, the community’s name was changed again to ‘Graham’ to honor Col. Thomas Graham, a Philadelphia capitalist. The town was first chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia as the town of Graham in 1884 and operated under that name until a referendum that was held on June 10, 1924, after which time it became known as Bluefield, Virginia. The name change was celebrated in a mock marriage ceremony, which was held in the city park between Bluefield, Virginia, and Bluefield, West Virginia, to celebrate the renaming of the town of Graham to match its sister city across the West Virginia state line. Graham was a community whose borders are now roughly the same as the downtown area alongside the railroad. Bluefield, West Virginia beat Graham, Virginia out as the preferred community for the Norfolk and Western railroad to build its regional headquarters and main docking yards for the Pocahontas region. As a result, Bluefield, West Virginia grew at a much faster rate than its neighbor to the west.
Population: 8,334Founded: 1876
The city of Franklin had its beginnings in the 1830s as a railroad stop along the Blackwater River. During this era, the river was used to transport goods to and from Albemarle Sound in North Carolina.:1
Population: 7,113Founded: 1904
Lexington was named in 1778. It was one of the first of what would be many American places named after Lexington, Massachusetts, known for being the place at which the first shot was fired in the American Revolution.
Population: 23,580Founded: 1904
The city derives its name from Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, who was awarded 5,000,000 acres (20,000 km2) of land in northern Virginia by King Charles. The area that the city now encompasses was settled in the early 18th century by farmers from Virginia’s Tidewater region. The town of ‘Providence’ was established on the site by an act of the state legislature in 1805.
Population: 8,022 Founded: 1904
10. South Boston
Population: 7,887Founded: 1904
On December 8, 1796, the General Assembly authorized eight commissioners to establish at Boyd’s Ferry on the south side of the Dan River the town of South Boston, named for Boston, Massachusetts. Because this site proved vulnerable to flooding it was eventually abandoned in favor of a new settlement on the north side. By the 1850s the Richmond and Danville Railroad passed through South Boston, which eventually developed into an important market for brightleaf tobacco. In 1884 it was incorporated as a town; in 1960 it became an independent city; and in 1995 it again became a town and rejoined Halifax County.
Oh How Time Flies For The Oldest Towns And Cities In Virginia
So there you have it, a look at some of the oldest places to live in Virginia. 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 Virginia.
And now, let’s raise our glasses, to the next 100 years of existence for these cities and towns in the Old Dominion.
And for those wondering, here are the newest additions to Virginia:
- Purcellville (Founded in 2008)
- Reston (Founded in 2008)
- Chesapeake (Founded in 2008)
Detailed List Of The Oldest Cities In Virginia
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