How do you go about founding a city?

A few days ago (probably the 22nd May) the Library of Congress Map Division tweeted: “On 22nd May 1819 Andrew Jackson and a couple of others founded Memphis”.


Map of Tennessee from around the time of the founding of Memphis. Library ofCongress.

This made me think: how do you go about founding a city? Do you stand there and proclaim, in a loud voice, “I hereby found the city of …[whatever you want to call it] ?

Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve wondered about this. When reading about the  Spanish conquistadors in South America, I discovered that several of them founded cities, and it made me wonder what exactly was involved.

A city, after all, is a town, and towns don’t spring up overnight. You can’t magic them into existence. The distinction between a “city” and a “town” is different from country to country. In the UK, it used to be that a town with a cathedral was designated a city. For example, I live in a fairly small town called Durham; pop. c. 20,000 souls.  But it is designated as a city because it has a cathedral (and what a cathedral!) in it.

In the USA, I gather, cities are self-governing communities; sometimes these can be quite small. I seem to remember seeing road signs saying something like, Croak City, pop. 300.  In general, however, cities are larger and more important than towns. Most start out as villages, which grow into towns, sometimes over several hundred years, and then somehow become cities, perhaps after a further few centuries. Some start as forts or trading posts around which settlements grow up over time. Eventually these are designated cities.

In the world of the Greeks and the Romans, it was usually clear what “founding a city” entailed. In the early days of Greek colonization (8th to 6th centuries BC) a city in the Greek homeland (which in those days meant western Asia Minor as well as Greece) would send out a party of its citizens to, say, the coast of Italy, or France, and they would establish a settlement there. They would set about constructing defences against hostile natives, clearing land, allotting the land amongst themselves, planting their fields, and so on.

Given a bit of luck their settlement would prosper. They would ship grain to the land-hungry people back at home, several hundred miles away by sea. In return they would ship in manufactured produce from the skilled professional craftsmen of the home city. They would eventually strike some sort of modus-vivendi with the natives and start trading with them, exchanging their goods for, of, wine? olive oil? textiles?

Eventually they could start building permanent walls, temples, gymnasia, theatres, agora, and so on. Some of these cities, notably Syracuse, in Sicily, and Naples, in southern Italy, became amongst the largest of Greek cities.

Later, Alexander the Great and his successors, and then the Romans, founded colonies by settling time-served soldiers (and their women and children they had picked up along the way) at certain locations.

This was similar to what happened in early China, from the 11th century BC onwards. The king would dispatch one of his nobles to a frontier zone with orders to bring it under the king’s rule. The noble would then set off with some farmers, who would double as soldiers, and their families. When they had found a good defensible location they would construct a fort-cum-settlement, lay out some fields around it, and defy the locals to come and dislodge them. Many of these communities would eventually grow into prosperous towns and cities.

Is this the sort of thing that the Conquistadors did? Or Andrew Jackson?

I’ve been doing a bit of digging around in Wikipedia. In the case of Memphis, Tennessee, the area was controlled by a Native American people before 1819, and (although I can’t be sure, not having delved into the matter for too long) the foundation of a settlement was a way of boosting white control there. Perhaps word was sent out to potential settlers to come and establish farms, and, being in (at least potentially) hostile territory, these were close together for self defence. It would have made sense to set up a formal town to for their social, economic and religious needs.

Painting by Pedro de Lima of the founding of Santiago, Chile, by Pedro de Valdivia: Museo Historico    Nacional

As for the Conquistadors, some thing along the same lines as with Alexander and his successors seems to have been happening. Armies of men a long way from home (and 16th century South America was a long way from Spain) naturally picked up women, and then children, along the way. These were the camp followers of a marching army; but in due course a commander needed to find a permanent solution for them if he was to retain the loyalty of his men. Founding towns for them was the natural way to do it. These of course also served the purpose of centres of conquest power in a vast new land. In the case of Santiago, in Chile, it seems that the original settlement also included Native American families.

Anyhow, I would be interested to find out more about how new cities were actually founded – can anyone point me in the direction of any information that might help?

By Peter Britton