Fascinating Small Towns That Are Perfect for History Buffs
The U.S. is filled with fascinating small towns that each have their own unique story to tell. Havens for artsy free spirits. Mining sites that once yielded a ton of gold. Sites of infamous military battles. Stomping grounds of storied pirates.
These small towns offer history buffs a glimpse into our nation’s past, while also remaining just as relevant today as they were years ago. Learn the histories of these small towns, and plan a visit that will encourage you to travel back in time.
Los Alamos, New Mexico
What was once a secret military town is now the fifth-fastest-growing city in the state. Its claim to fame is what’s now called the Los Alamos National Laboratory, operated by the Department of Energy.
This was the creation site of the world’s first atomic bomb as part of the infamous Manhattan Project. During World War II, all incoming truckloads to the area were mislabeled, and it wasn’t revealed until after the bombing of Hiroshima what residents here were really up to.
What to Do
History buffs will want to head straight to Manhattan Project National Historical Park, where you can tour the Manhattan Project’s historic Los Alamos site and the lab’s Bradbury Science Museum. Visitors can engage in the museum’s more than 40 interactive exhibits.
Long before physicists moved to the area, though, the four mesas of the Pajarito Plateau (on which the town sits) was home to Puebloans, and you can visit ruins of their cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. Climb ladders and visit small carved rooms at this archaeological site that features more than 70 miles of trails.
Beaufort, North Carolina
Beaufort was established in 1709, making its historic district alone worth visiting because several buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But this town is one with a pirate history. In fact, it’s where Blackbeard spent most of his days, and in 1996, an archaeological crew found the remains of his flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, in what is now called Beaufort Inlet. Blackbeard ran the ship aground in May 1718.
What to Do
For all things Blackbeard, a stop at the North Carolina Maritime Museum is a must. It features all the artifacts found from Blackbeard’s flagship.
The small town’s Old Burying Ground is equally intriguing, with graves that date back 300 years, including one of a child who died at sea and was buried in a keg of rum.
With 22 buildings and sites on the National Register of Historic Places, Sitka is another small town with history to boot. Its name comes from “sheet-ka,” which means “people on the outside of Baranof Island” to the Tlingit people who settled here more than 10,000 years ago.
When Russian explorers took over the area in 1804 after winning the Battle of Sitka against the native people, the town was designated the capital of Russian America.
What to Do
The 107-acre Sitka National Historical Park interprets the famous battle between the Russians and Tlingit people and features artifacts from the two groups. It also features a collection of Haida and Tlingit totem poles moved from the Louisiana Exposition in St. Louis.
This being Alaska, there is also plenty to do in terms of outdoor activities, from fly fishing to kayaking to wildlife boat tours that will get you up close and personal with the area’s majestic humpback whales.
If only Columbia was as fruitful as it was during its heyday! From 1850 to the early 1900s, $150 million in gold was mined here, earning it the nickname, “Gem of the Southern Mines.”
What was once California’s second-largest city is now home to a few thousand residents who keep its gold rush charm very much alive.
What to Do
Columbia State Historic Park is a living gold rush town and is home to California’s largest single collection of existing structures from this era. Visitors can pan for gold, ride the stagecoach and explore exhibits that tell the history of the California gold rush.
Better yet, a visit to this historic town is free, but you’ll likely want to purchase some sweets at the authentic ice cream parlor or order a pint at the local saloon.
Woodstock, New York
Believe it or not, the epic Woodstock music festival that attracted some 400,000 people to the area for “three days of peace and music” was not held in Woodstock, New York. It was actually held about 60 miles away at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York.
Festival organizers originally wanted to host the concert just across the Woodstock town line in Saugerties, where a series of Woodstock Sound-Outs concerts had been held years prior, earning the area a reputation as a popular summer art colony. But the town wouldn’t approve a permit. Whether or not the festival was actually held here, though, the name stuck, and music and art remain ever-popular here.
What to Do
A stroll down Tinker Street will take you back to the town’s bohemian roots, where quirky mom-and-pop shops sell crystals and Tibetan trinkets to visitors. There’s also a handmade candle shop, indie bookstore and a place where you can get tarot card readings. And don’t miss the Mower’s Flea Market or Woodstock Farm Festival held weekly during the summer and fall seasons.
Of course, the town is also filled with art galleries and music venues, such as Levon Helm Studios, where you can check out local acts. In the summer, the Maverick Concerts series, founded in 1916, takes place in a rustic concert hall in the woods, where the acoustics are exceptional.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Gold, prostitution, gunslingers — you name it, Deadwood had it in spades in the late 1800s. In fact, the settlement of Deadwood itself began illegally because the land was originally granted to the Lakota people in 1868. By 1874, however, Colonel George Armstrong Custer brought people here as part of the Black Hills Gold Rush. And by 1876, there were more than 25,000 people in this lawless community where murder was commonplace.
Even gun showman Wild Bill Hickock was killed here, and he and his associate, Calamity Jane, are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, which is open to visitors.
What to Do
Looking to get a taste of the Deadwood experience? The entire city is designated a National Historic Landmark District because of its well-preserved architecture.
But the Days of ’76 Museum features more than 50 historic wagons, stagecoaches, firearms, clothing and other memorabilia that celebrates the town’s early pioneering days. Or you can experience those early days first-hand via the 1876 Mystery Dinner Theater, where you can help solve a murder.
This small town needs little introduction to history buffs, but we’d be remiss not to include it.
After all, it’s where the Battle of Gettysburg took place in July 1863, marking a significant turning point in the Civil War and inspiring President Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address” speech.
Bisbee has a mining history — it was once dubbed “Queen of the Copper Camps” — with artsy appeal. During its heyday in the late 1870s, miners discovered 3 million ounces of gold and more than 8 billion pounds of copper as well as silver, lead and zinc.
By the 1970s, the mine closed, and the town’s historic district began to attract creative free spirits who found the setting’s inspiration and inexpensiveness appealing. Today, Bisbee’s mix of art, history and outdoor activities makes it a promising travel destination.
What to Do
The Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum is the first stop on any historian’s tour of the city. Affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, the museum takes visitors through the history of the town’s mining days. A Queen Mine Tour also allows visitors to descend into the very mine where Bisbee made its riches.
Other historic hotspots include one of the nation’s oldest ballfields (Warren Ballpark), the state’s first golf course (Turquoise Valley) and its first community library (Copper Queen). Contemporary Bisbee is equally entertaining, filled with artisanal shops and art galleries. Make sure to visit on the second Saturday of the month for the Bisbee After 5 artwalk.
If you want to walk the grounds of America’s only monarchy, then a visit to Lahaina on Maui is a must. King Kamehameha III preferred the town to Honolulu and chose it as the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1820 to 1845. It’s here where he built his palace complex.
It was also the epicenter of the global whaling industry in the 19th century and served as an anchor spot for as many as 400 sailing ships. Even Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick,” called Lahaina home.
What to Do
The entire town of Lahaina is on the National Register of Historic Places. Just take a stroll down Front Street, and you’ll see why it’s been dubbed one of “America’s 10 Greatest Streets” by the American Planning Association. You can even take a self-guided tour of the Lahaina Historic Trail, which will take you to 62 historic sites, including Hale Paahao, the infamous jail that housed raucous sailors in the 1850s.
Don’t miss the town’s famous banyan tree, the largest of its kind in the country as well as a circa 1930 Buddhist temple.
One of the more populated towns on this list, Clarksville has quite the storied past. First, it happens to be the oldest American town in what was once the Northwest Territory.
Founded in 1873 by George Rogers Clark, the brother of explorer William Clark, Clarksville is one of the towns that claim to be where the Lewis and Clark Expedition began. A two-person statue stands near the Falls of the Ohio to remember the expedition.
What to Do
While, yes, the falls commemorate the town’s explorer history, Falls of the Ohio State Park will also impress geographers, as home to the world’s largest exposed Devonian period fossil bed. It features plant and marine life from a coral reef that dates back 386 million years. A visit to the state park, where visitors can participate in hands-on classroom labs to fossil bed hikes, is a must.
You also won’t want to miss the Colgate clock, the seventh-largest clock in the world.
Dodge City, Kansas
A prominent spot along the Santa Fe Trail, Dodge City was founded in 1872. But it wasn’t just people passing through. The start of the Santa Fe Railroad brought cattle into town to be traded, quickly turning it into a frontier town that embodied the Wild West.
With it came saloons, gambling, brothels and gunfighters, like the famous lawman Wyatt Earp, who spent a stint here as assistant city marshal.
What to Do
Visitors can step back in time at the Boot Hill Museum and walk down Front Street, built to look like how Dodge City existed in 1876. There are also preserved wagon tracks from a section of the Santa Fe Trail.
Come in the summer for Dodge City Days festival, which lasts 10 days and includes the Dodge City Roundup Rodeo, concerts and parades. And if the town’s history doesn’t attract you, then maybe its sunshine will — it happens to be the 21st sunniest city in the U.S.
Even though Natchitoches wasn’t officially incorporated as a town until 1819, it happens to be the oldest permanent settlement from the French Louisiana region, dating back to 1714.
Like several other towns in the region, Natchitoches has a French Colonial area that’s now a National Historic District. It’s home to the most bed and breakfasts (about 50) in the state.
What to Do
The town tells the difficult history of slavery through the Magnolia and Oakland plantations — both designated as National Historic Landmarks. Tours and programs at the sites tell about how Blacks and Creoles of color supported the community.
Visitors can also check out the state’s oldest general store: Kaffie-Frederick Inc. General Mercantile on Front Street. It dates back to 1863 and has been featured on the reality shows “Duck Dynasty” and “Cajun Pawn.”
Nebraska City, Nebraska
Believe it or not, Nebraska City is quite the tree-hugging town. The country’s first Secretary of Agriculture, J. Sterling Morton lived here and promoted the planting of trees to provide shade, fruit and windbreaks on the prairie.
This led to the creation of Arbor Day, the globally celebrated tree-planting day, in 1872.
What to Do
Nature lovers will want to check out Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, the site where Morton initiated Arbor Day. The 72-acre site features his 52-room historic mansion as well as an arboretum, log cabin, carriage house, walking trails and lilac gardens.
Other prominent sites include the Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Center, which highlight’s the expedition’s natural history achievements, as well as the Mayhew Cabin that served as a station on the Underground Railroad.
Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
Harpers Ferry played an integral role in the Civil War as the northernmost town controlled by the Confederacy. This is where abolitionist John Brown’s raid occurred in 1859 when he tried to use weapons from the town’s munitions plant as a means for a slave revolt.
The raid failed, and Brown was tried and hung for treason, but he grabbed the nation’s attention enough that the incident is now considered a prelude to the Civil War.
What to Do
The town is essentially a part of the National Park Service as Harpers Ferry National Historic Park.
Visitors can step back in time and walk the streets of this historic community or hike trails to nearby battlefields, all while taking in views at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
While California gets most of the credit for the country’s gold rush days, the first major gold rush actually took place in Dahlonega in 1828. In fact, its name comes from the Cherokee word, “Dalonige,” which means “yellow” or “gold.”
It was even home to a U.S. Mint branch that operated from 1838 to 1861, producing none other than minted gold coins of $1, $2.50, $3 and $5.
What to Do
Visitors can learn about the town’s history at the Dahlonega Gold Museum Historic Site in the middle of the historic town square. Here, visitors can also frequent art galleries and studios and even wine-tasting rooms that feature wine from the area’s five licensed wineries.
The popular Bearn on the Square festival in April — marking the day that, yes, a black bear wandered onto the square — the three-day event features bluegrass and old-time music. Its Gold Rush Days event in October, however, attracts more than 200,000 people in search of basking in the town’s rich history.
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
Not to be confused with Taos, located just 1 mile south, Taos Pueblo is an ancient pueblo that's been continuously inhabited by the Native American tribe of Pueblan people who have lived here for more than 1,000 years. It's one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the country and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Taos-speaking Puebloans keep their culture and traditions a secret from the rest of the world.
What to Do
Even though the native people are secretive about their culture, the Pueblo is open to the public except for when tribal rituals are taking place. Visitors can walk through the village made entirely of adobe — earth combined with water and straw. The Pueblo is made up of many individual homes built side by side but with no connecting doorways.
Modern conveniences like running water or electricity do not exist in the Pueblo, where 150 residents live full time. Other families that own homes in the Pueblo live outside the village walls in more modern homes but return for ceremonials. Tourism is an important source of employment for the community, and visitors can shop for pottery, silver jewelry, and animal-skin moccasins, boots or drums made by the locals.
Tarrytown, New York
Dutch farmers, fur trappers and fishermen settled Tarrytown in 1645, and several stories have quite literally come out of this town ever since. In 1780, a Revolutionary War incident took place in which Major John Andre was arrested as a spy for the British army, who exposed plans of Benedict Arnold, a famous traitor of the U.S.
Later in 1820, author Washington Irving wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" about his childhood hometown. (Sleepy Hollow is the town located immediately to the north.) Fast-forward another 30 or so years, and Tarrytown was a spot on the Underground Railroad at the end of the Civil War.
At the turn of the 20th century, many wealthy men, including John D. Rockefeller built elaborate mansions here, and Tarrytown is now considered one of the top 10 places to live in the state.
What to Do
There are three estates that offer a glimpse into Tarrytown's past. First is Sunnyside, the Dutch colonial home where Irving spent his remaining days. Then, there's Lyndhurst Castle, the estate of railroad baron Jay Gould. Lastly, Rockefeller's Kykuit estate contains priceless art, including two artifacts from the Tang Dynasty as well as exquisite gardens that line the grounds.
Of course, Main Street is also a hotspot for visitors, with outdoor cafes, bars and Tarrytown Music Hall, which attracts big-name acts to this charming town.
Another no-brainer on any historian's tour of the country is Williamsburg. Founded in 1632 as Middle Plantation, it served as the capital of the Colony and Commonwealth of Virginia form 1699 to 1780 and was a prominent town during the American Revolution.
Of course, Colonial Williamsburg — the town's restored historic area — is a major attraction. Williamsburg and nearby Jamestown and Yorktown combine to form the Historic Triangle. All three are living history museums that attract more than 4 million tourists each year.
What to Do
We all know the reason to come to Williamsburg, and that's to pay a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. The 301-acre living-history museum takes you back to what life was like in the 18th century when Williamsburg was the capital of Colonial Virginia. Costumed employees help create the experience, dressing as locals did during the 1700s and oftentimes even speaking the way they did.
Williamsburg is also a college town, home to the College of William and Mary, founded in 1693, making it the second-oldest institute of higher education in the U.S.
Known as "Alabama's Williamsburg," the postage-stamp-sized town of Mooresville is on the National Register of Historic Places, with most of its public buildings dating back to the early 1800s.
Not only was this a prominent battleground site during the Civil War, but Andrew Johnson, the country's 17th president, even called Mooresville home when he apprenticed as a tailor.
What to Do
There are four historic buildings that deserve a visit: the Stagecoach Inn and Tavern, the Mooresville Church of Christ, the Brick Church and Mooresville Post Office.
The post office is the oldest in operation in the state, and several of its call boxes have been owned by the same families since before the Civil War.
The “First Town in the First State” was founded in 1631 by Dutch settlers as a whaling and trading post.
While the town is steeped in history that dates back to the early Colonial days, it's also a popular vacation spot for visitors from Washington, D.C., with the Atlantic nearby at Cape Henlopen, connected to the town by bike-friendly streets.
What to Do
You can check out Delaware's history at Zwaanendael Museum in a building that was once used as a women's club in the 1930s. Or stroll down Savannah, Second and Front streets — all of which have shops, restaurants and historical venues to peruse.
Fisherman's Wharf is another spot where visitors will find entertainment. Stretching along the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal, restaurants, bait shops and hundreds of boats abound.