A Brief History of Urbanism in North America: 1500s

Here is a selection of key settlements and cities established in North America during the 1500s. There were at least 30 cities of note founded during the century, mainly in Mexico, Cuba and Central America.

1498 Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic)

Alcazar de Colon, built in 1500 by Christopher Columbus' son

Alcazar de Colon, built in 1500 by Christopher Columbus' son, Diego. Wikimedia Commons

Known officially as Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the city is the capital and largest city in the Dominican Republic. Officially established on August 5, 1498, Santo Domingo is the oldest European city in America. Bartholomew Columbus founded the settlement and named it La Nueva Isabela, after the Queen of Spain. It was later renamed “Santo Domingo” in honor of Saint Dominic.

Santo Domingo was home to the first cathedral, hospital, customs house and university in the Americas. The colonial town was laid out on a grid pattern that became the model for almost all town planners in the New World. The original layout of the city and a large portion of its defensive remain visible today throughout the Colonial Zone, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990. This zone also contains several 16th century buildings, including houses and churches reflecting the architectural style of the late medieval period.

Throughout its first century, Santo Domingo was the launching pad for much of the exploration and conquest of the New World.


1508 Caparra (Puerto Rico)

Ruins of Juan Ponce de Leon's residence at Caparra in Puerto Rico

Ruins of Juan Ponce de Leon's residence at Caparra in Puerto Rico. Wikimedia Commons

The oldest known European community under United States authority. Caparra was founded by governor Juan Ponce de Leon as the first capital of Puerto Rico in 1508.  It was from here that the colonization of Puerto Rico started. At one stage it was home to both the Catholic Church and to the new seats of government.

The settlement was abandoned in 1521 due to its vulnerability to Indian attack. The capital was relocated to San Juan. All that remains of this ancient fortification today are the few ruins that are now known as the Caparra Ruins. Caparra was declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1994.


1519 Veracruz (Mexico)

Veracruz Coat of Arms

Veracruz Coat of Arms. Wikimedia Commons

Veracruz is Mexico’s oldest and largest port. Hernán Cortés arrived to Mexico here in 1519. The city was named “Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz,” due to the area’s gold and because the Cortés expedition landed on Good Friday.*

Veracruz was the first city on the American continent. It was also home to the first city council when Cortés and his soldiers elected a Justicia Mayor and a Capitán General. The city was the first on mainland America to receive a coat of arms in 1523. During the colonial period, Veracruz was the most important port in New Spain, with a large wealthy merchant class that was more prosperous than Mexico City. It was the site of numerous invasions, included two by the United States (1n 1847 and 1914).

Because of its importance as Mexico’s principal Caribbean and Atlantic sea port, Veracruz has always been a locus for the mingling of different cultures, particularly native Mexican, Spanish and African. During the colonial period, African slaves were brought to work in the fields and shipyards. Since Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, other groups of immigrants, such as Italians and Cubans, have made their homes in the city.


1559 Pensacola (Florida)

Pensacola in 1885. Wikimedia Commons

Pensacola in 1885. Wikimedia Commons

Pensacola is the first European settlement in the United States (excluding territories). At the time of European contact a Muskogean-speaking tribe known to the Spanish as the Pensacola lived in the region. Known as the “City of Five Flags,” it has been Spanish, French, British, Confederate, and American.

Pensacola Bay was visited by the expeditions of Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528 and Hernando de Soto in 1539. In 1559 Tristán de Luna y Arellano landed with over 1,400 people on 11 ships from Vera Cruz and founded a settlement.* The colony was decimated by a hurricane a few months later. The rebuilding of the settlement was abandoned in 1561 due to famine and attacks.

The area was not resulted until 1698 when the Spanish founded a new settlement to check the French expansion of Louisiana. The Spanish ceded Florida to the British in 1763 as a result of the French and Indian War, and Pensacola was made capital of the new British colony of West Florida. In 1821, with Andrew Jackson as provisional governor, Pensacola became part of the United States.


1583 St. John’s (Newfoundland)

 Plaque commemorating Gilbert's founding of the British Empire. Wikimedia Commons

Plaque commemorating Gilbert's founding of the British Empire. Wikimedia Commons

St. John’s is the oldest settlement in North America to hold city status, with year-round settlement beginning sometime before 1620. The earliest record of the location appears as São João on a Portuguese map by Pedro Reinel in 1519. On August 5, 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the area as England’s first overseas colony under Royal Charter of Queen Elizabeth I. The population grew slowly in the 17th century and St. John’s was the largest settlement in Newfoundland when English naval officers began to take censuses around 1675.

The architecture of St. John’s has a distinct style from that of the rest of Canada. Its major buildings are remnants of its history as one of the first British colonial capitals. The city’s architecture took a variety of styles according to the means available to build the structures.


1599 Tadoussac (Québec)

Tadoussac, Quebec

Tadoussac, Wikimedia Commons

Founded in 1600, Tadoussac was France’s first trading post on the mainland of New France and an important trading post in the seventeenth century. It is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in Quebec, and the oldest surviving French settlement in the Americas.

The area is mainly rural, with much of it remaining wilderness. It is home to several federal and provincial natural parks and preserves, including the first marine national park of Canada.


Next week, the 1600s.


If you have a hometown or favorite city that you would like included in this series, please let me know.  Also, as the series enters the 1700s in the next few weeks, it will expand to include key pieces of legislation, people and other milestones.  Please send me an email or leave a comment below if you have something to include.


Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.