Well more than two centuries after the thirteen original American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, Colonial America is still alive and kicking. From New England to the South, there are a surprising number of towns along the Eastern Seaboard where visitors can get a glimpse into that near-legendary time when America was still a work-in-progress. Historic districts of major cities aside, here are some of the best surviving colonial towns and neighborhoods in America:
Portsmouth, NH (founded 1630)
Strawbery Banke was one of the first settlements in America north of Massachusetts. It enjoyed an interesting if minor role in the history of the colonies. In the 17th century it was a haven for those fleeing religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Later renamed Portsmouth, it witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1713 and the ride of Paul Revere in 1774. It was also the site of one of the earliest abolitionist events in America when a group of slaves petitioned for their freedom in 1779.
When the city of Portsmouth expanded outward from the original settlement, the old houses of Strawbery Banke were left more or less untouched. By the time the neighborhood finally began to be restored in the 1950s, a surprising number of 18th century buildings were still in use, including at least eight which dated from before the American Revolution. Among the colonial-era highlights are the Pitt Tavern (1766), Stoodley’s Tavern (1761) and the Sherburne House (1703), the oldest building in Strawbery Banke.
Hartford, CT (founded 1634)
Wethersfield is one of the oldest communities in Connecticut, predating neighboring Hartford by a few years. It was one of the few places outside of Salem, Massachusetts to witness the atrocities of the witch trials, and between 1648 and 1651 three of Wethersfield’s citizens were executed as witches. George Washington and French general Rochambeau passed through Wethersfield in 1781 where, according to local legend, they planned the final campaigns of the American Revolution.
Close enough to Hartford to thrive as a suburb of the state capital, Wethersfield nevertheless retained much of its colonial-era charm, and many of its 17th and 18th century structures survived to the present day. According to the town’s historic properties inventory, there are nearly fifty homes and buildings in Wethersfield that date from before the American Revolution. The most famous is arguably the Webb House (1752) because of its association with George Washington.
Staten Island, NY (founded 1661)
Richmond Town was one of the first settlements on Staten Island, and for many years its county seat. Founded by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, it served primarily as an agricultural center for the island’s prosperous farms. In 1776 the British occupied the Staten Island and Richmond Town, and used it as a base for their campaigns in New York and New Jersey. It was later a staging point for their return to England. Staten Island’s subsequent history was relatively sedate compared to the other counties of New York, and it is perhaps for this reason that Richmond Town has remained so unchanged since the Colonial era.
Richmond Town is one of the best preserved, pre-Revolutionary sites not founded by the British. There are two-dozen historic buildings here, including seven from before the war, most of which are clustered along Arthur Kill Road. Among the more notable structures are the Britton Cottage (1670), the oldest building in Richmond Town, and the Voorlezer’s House (1695), which is the oldest intact schoolhouse in the United States.
Greenfield, MA (founded in 1673)
Deerfield was one of the earliest major inland settlements in New England. Located on the tenuous frontier between English, French and Native territory, for many years it marked the limit of the sovereignty of the Massachusetts Colony. Deerfield became infamous in 1704, when the town was largely destroyed by a marauding army under the direction of the French. The town was later rebuilt, just in time to see the colonial frontiers pushed out further north and west.
By the time of the American Revolution, Deerfield was already past its heyday, and by the 19th century had become a town that time forgot. But this turned out to be a great blessing, as virtually the entire town was left in nearly pristine, colonial-era condition. At the heart of the town are a dozen historic structures, including eight which date from before the American Revolution. Highlights of the town include the Hall Tavern (1760), which now houses the visitor center, and the Allen, Ashley and Williams houses, all of which were built in the 1730s.
Williamsburg, VA (founded in 1632)
Williamsburg, or Colonial Williamsburg as it is popularly called, was founded as the village of Middle Plantation in 1632. Located at the heart of the Virginia Peninsula, it supplanted Jamestown as the colonial capital in 1698. By the early 18th century Williamsburg was one of the largest and most prosperous towns in the colonies. It was the first town in America to be fully planned, and the second to boast a college. In 1775 Williamsburg was the site of the Gunpowder Incident, a minor standoff between English governor and the local militia. Williamsburg lost its status as state capital during the war due to its vulnerability to British naval attacks.
Thanks to its careful planning and location next to the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg has managed to retain its Colonial character better than any other town in the United States. There are over a hundred buildings on the site, many of which are pre-Revolution. The most famous and popular are the Governor’s Palace (1722) and the Capitol (1750). There are also taverns, shops, a church, a plantation, and dozens of homes. Colonial Williamsburg is generally considered to be the best living history museum in America.