Nfld. & Labrador

Is St. John's the oldest city in North America? No, says local historian

The idea that St. John's is the oldest city in North America says more about the city's reaction to Confederation than it does about its history says Jeff Webb, a historian at MUN.

Trying to pin down oldest city is a 'foolish game,' says Jeff Webb

Is St. John's the oldest city in North America? Absolutely not, says MUN historian. (Submitted by Vanessa Mooney )

"Go east and then keep going. You'll eventually eventually find the oldest city in North America."

That was the text of a tweet sent by Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism last week. The idea that St. John's is the oldest city in North America is an established part of the province's tourism pitch and it's easy to come across the idea elsewhere. For instance, the late author Paul O'Neill's book about the city is called The Oldest City: The Story of St. John's Newfoundland (even though O'Neill disliked the title, and pointed out it was chosen by his publisher).

But Jeff Webb, a professor specializing in Newfoundland and Labrador history at Memorial University, says there's a problem with the claim.

"It's not true," he said.

But he does believe the idea and its prevalence says something about a different part of the city's past.

So what's the oldest city?

Webb said trying to pin anything down as the "oldest" or the "first" is "a foolish game." The trouble comes from the meaning of the words. Not everybody means the same thing when they say "city" or "settlement," he said.

St. John's is unique because although European fishermen have been using the city since the 1500s, it was seasonal, he said. People didn't really settle in Newfoundland or in St. John's until the beginning of the 17th century, he said, pointing to Cupids which was settled in 1610.

"Then you start having people that are staying in a permanent way."

King's Road in St. John's, NL. (Wendy Rose)

Meanwhile, St. Augustine, Fla., was settled by the Spanish in 1565, he said.

"So, they have a far stronger claim to be the first European city in North America."

If "city" entails a good-sized urban population, labour diversification or some kind of local government, Webb says St. John's may not qualify as a city "until probably the 19th century."

And focusing on European-settled cities or places erases Indigenous histories in North America, Webb said, pointing out that Tenochtitlan was founded by the Aztecs in the 1300s in the centre of what is now Mexico City.

"It was as big a city as Paris or London was at the time," he said. "I would put money on Mexico City being the oldest city if I had to."

Where did the idea come from?

The earliest instance Webb's found of the "oldest city in North America" claim is from the 1950s, he said, used to promote tourism.

He suggests it's no coincidence that it showed up shortly after Confederation, which was opposed by the majority of people in St. John's at the time.

"Maybe, psychologically, what's happening ... is people who have experienced a kind of loss of the way that they've seen themselves for a long time are imagining a past — they're inventing a past where Newfoundland is the oldest British colony and St. John's is the oldest British city," he said.

"Why do people here think of themselves as part of the oldest colony? That tells you more about how we imagine ourselves than it tells you about history, than it tells you about the past."

The Newfoundland and Labrador flag flaps outside Confederation Building in St. John's. (CBC)

Other things to celebrate about St. John's

But St. John's is certainly not without historic, tourist-friendly truths, Webb said.

"Water Street is very possibly the oldest continuously used commercial street in North America. In the late 16th century and early 17th century, merchants were setting up storehouses and shops and that sort of thing on the waterfront. And the waterfront of St. John's of the 16th century and the late 17th century is approximately where the sidewalk on Water Street is right now."

Water Street just may be the oldest continuously used commercial street in North America, says Webb. (Twitter/@old_stjohns)

But whether the province or city celebrates a myth or a fact, Webb said he'd love to see them put their money where their mouth is.

"So many other cities would devote a lot more money to archeological excavation, to architectural preservation, to making this city livable," he said. "Talk is cheap."

Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism was unable to provide a comment before publishing time.

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