Florida was the first part of what is now the contiguous United States to be settled by European explorers. Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León first landed in the area in 1513, which marks the beginning of the American Frontier. Soon after de León’s arrival, Spain began to establish settlements around Florida. However, several of these early settlements failed until 1565, when St. Augustine was founded. The success of this settlement lead the Spanish to develop several more until Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821. This list highlights the seven oldest cities in Florida, which all still exist today.
Year Established: 1828
Founded By: developed after tobacco was introduced to Florida by William P. Duval
Current Population: 7,680 (2016 estimate)
Quincy was established sometime in 1828 after Gadsden County developed after the tobacco industry began to grow in Florida.The small city is best known for its “Coca-Cola millionaires” and at one point was the richest town per capita in the United States. During the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the town’s banker Pat Monroe invested in several shares of Coca-Cola at $19 apiece, which was relatively cheap.
Monroe convinced several townspeople to also invest and not sell the shares. Eventually, the price of the shares drastically increased and the dividends help the town get through the rest of the Great Depression. Reportedly, these dividends have saved the town during every recession since then.
Year Established: 1827
Founded By: Scott Beverege
Current Population: 9,052 (2016 estimate)
Marianna is a small city in Florida and the county seat of Jackson county. It was founded in 1827 by Scottish entrepreneur Scott Beverege and named for his wife and the wife of his business partner. The city is notable for many of its historic sites, especially ones from the Civil War. Before it was established as a colonial town, the Spanish established the mission of San Nicolas de Tolentino in 1674, which only lasted for a year.
Although Marianna was and still is a small city, in the past it was politically powerful. During the Civil War, it served as the military headquarters for Confederate troops defending Northwest Florida. Today, Marianna is known as the “The City of Southern Charm.”
Year Established: 1824
Founded By: John Lee Williams and William Simmons
Current Population: 190,894 (2016 estimate)
Tallahassee has been the capital of Florida since the city was officially established in 1824 by the state legislature. Before the first Spanish missionaries were sent to the area in the 17th century, Tallahassee was occupied by the Apalachee. They successfully cultivated the land, which drew the attention of the Spanish who established mission sites in the area to procure food and labor for Spain’s main colony in St. Augustine.
After Florida was ceded to the U.S. by Spain, the territorial government decided to look for a new place to establish the capital. John Lee Williams and William Simmons selected the former Indian settlement of Tallahassee because it was midway between St. Augustine and Pensacola, the territory’s two largest cities at the time.
4. Key West
Year Established: informally settled in the 16th century; officially claimed by the U.S. in 1822
Founded By: Matthew C. Perry
Current Population: 26,990 (2016 estimate)
Prior to European colonization, Key West was inhabited by the Calusa people. Like nearly all of the early settlements in Florida, Key West was first visited by the Spainish after Juan Ponce de León came to the island in 1521. Other than the Calusa, the island was not permanently settled by any Europeans until it was claimed by the United States, who mostly stopped by to gather resources such as fresh water, fish, and lumber.
Historical ownership of the island has been disputed, but it was claimed for the U.S. in 1822 by Lt. Commander Matthew C. Perry. This claim went unchallenged and Key West became U.S. property. Key West was officially incorporated as part of the Territory of Florida in 1828.
3. Fernandina Beach
Year Established: 1562
Founded By: Jean Ribault
Current Population: 12,459 (2016 estimate)
Fernandina Beach is known as the “Isle of 8 Flags” as the city has been occupied by eight different nations since 1562. The city is on what is know called Amelia Island and before the first Europeans arrived, it was settled by Native Americans who called the area Napoyca. The first European to arrive on the island was French explorer Jean Ribault who claimed it for his country and named it Isle de Mai.
Three years later, the Spanish killed Ribault and hundreds of other French colonists and established their own colony. Ownership of the territory would then go briefly to the British, back to Spain, the Patriots of Amelia Island, the Green Cross of Florida, Mexico, the Confederate States of America, and finally the United States.
Year Established: 1698
Founded By: Spainish Conquistadors
Current Population: 53,779 (2016 estimate)
Although the modern city of Pensacola was founded in 1698, it was first settled by the Spanish in 1559. This early settlement was founded by Spanish explorer Tristán de Luna, but only lasted for two years. Even though it was short-lived this settlement is considered to be the first multi-year European settlement in what is now the contiguous United States – the welcome sign in downtown Pensacola even cites the city as “America’s 1st Settlement.”
After de Luna’s failed attempt to establish a viable colony, the Spanish decided that area was too dangerous to settle. They eventually returned in 1698 and established outpost that eventually grew into the modern city.
1. St. Augustine
Year Established: September 8, 1565
Founded By: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés
County: St. Johns
Current Population: 14,820 (2016 estimate)
Not only is St. Augustine the oldest city in Florida, it is also the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the United States. The city was originally founded as a Spanish colony in 1565 by admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who became the first colonial governor of Florida. Under Spain’s rule, St. Augustine served as the base for Spain to continue its colonial expansion and it was eventually designated as the capital of Spanish Florida.
When Spain turned the territory over to the U.S. in 1819, St. Augustine remained the capital city until 1824, when the government moved the capital to Tallahassee. Several historical buildings and monuments are still standing today, which has made the city a popular tourist destination.