The Lost Cities in America

Yes, we have lost cities in America. The United States contains many lost cities and forgotten communities.

Interestingly, some of these communities live on as national monuments and tourist sites so they are lost, but not forgotten. The original cities; however, are lost to history.

Consequently, nobody needs to fly to Europe, Asia, South America, or Mexico to see a lost city. There are many interesting lost cities here in the United States.

The many lost cities in America include:


The Mississippi river town of Nauvoo, Illinois, once rivaled Chicago in size. By 2010, however, there were only 1,149 residents within Nauvoo’s city limits.

Nauvoo began life as the town of Quashquema named for a local Saulk and Fox chief. By 1832, they had changed the name to Venus. In 1834, boosters rebranded Venus as Commerce to attract settlers.

The rebranding failed, and in 1840 they sold Commerce to the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (the Mormons). The Mormons needed a refuge because a state-sponsored pogrom drove them out of Missouri.

KBy Ryan Ballantyne – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Mormon Prophet Joseph renamed the town Nauvoo. Nauvoo became the capitol of Mormon America. By 1845, Nauvoo had around 15,000 residents, a steam mill, a large Mormon temple, and an elaborate hotel.

The Mormons’ success attracted the jealousy of non-Mormons. Violence and official persecution resulted. In 1844, a lynch mob shot Smith and his brother Hyrum at a jail in Carthage, Illinois. The mob shot and killed Smith who was trying to protect himself with a gun.

The Mormons, fearing more lynch mobs, fled Nauvoo. Most of the Mormons followed Brigham Young to in Utah on the far frontier in 1846. German immigrants replaced Nauvoo’s Mormon residents. Thus, Nauvoo was the site of one of America’s most successful campaigns of ethnic or religious cleansing.

They demolished the Nauvoo Temple after a fire and a tornado damaged it. By the early 20th Century, Nauvoo had a Roman Catholic majority.

During the 1850s, the Icarians a socialist group, built a commune based on the Utopian ideals of French Philosopher Étienne Cabet in Nauvoo. The commune collapsed after Cabet’s death in 1856.

The Mormons began returning to Nauvoo in the 1950s. They established an LDS congregation in Nauvoo in 1956. Meanwhile, both the Salt Lake City based LDS, and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (RLDS); now the Community of Christ, bought many of Nauvoo’s historic sites.

The LDS began staging the City of Joseph an outdoor musical based on Smith’s life in Nauvoo in 1976.They organized an LDS Stake in the city in 1979. The LDS built a modern copy of the original Mormon Temple on the site of the original in 2002.

Hence, modern Nauvoo’s economy relies on attractions that cater to Mormon tourists. Attractions in Nauvoo today include the Mormon Temple, a National Historic District, walking tours, and museums. A lost city lives on as a tourist attraction for the descendants of the people the lynch mobs drove away.

Chaco Canyon

This UNESCO World Heritage Site in New Mexico contains an enormous number of ruins built by the Ancestral Puebloans.

The ruins in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park contain some of the largest buildings constructed in what became the United States before the 19th Century. Those buildings include the Great Kivas and Great Houses where hundreds of people lived.

The Great Houses contained hundreds of rooms. Archaeologists think many of the Chaco Canyon structures were oriented to solar, lunar, and astronomical lines based on centuries of study. Archaeologists have found sophisticated astronomical markers, water control systems, and enormous earth mounds that could have served as fortifications at Chaco Canyon.

By National Park Service (United States) – Chaco Canyon National Historical Park: Photo Gallery, Public Domain,

Research shows Chaco Canyon was an administrative center and the hub of a turquoise trading network that extended throughout North America. The details of Chaco Canyon’s government and its true role are unknown. The prevailing theory is that Chaco Canyon was the administrative, religious, and economic center of the San Juan Basin in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Whatever its use, Chaco Canyon was massive. There are over 150 Great Houses in the area. The modern theory is that each Great House contained a farming village. It is unclear if the Great Houses were permanent residences, or emergency shelters, however.

They began constructing Chaco Canyon in the middle-800s. The city endured until the 1100s and 1200s when the residents abandoned it. The reason for the abandonment is unclear but the most popular theory is that a 50-year drought made Chaco Canyon uninhabitable.

Many Southwest natives look upon Chaco Canyon as one of their ancestral homes and a sacred site. Modern Pueblo view Chaco Canyon as a special gathering place. The Navajo venerate it in some of their ceremonies.

By HJPD – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The first known Mexican visitor to Chaco Canyon was New Mexico Governor José Antonio Vizcarra, who wrote about visiting the ruins on an 1823 expedition. In 1832, trader Josiah Gregg became the first known American visitor. The first survey of Chaco Canyon was by the US Army in 1849 after the Mexican War.

Archaeologists did not reach Chaco Canyon until 1896 when the Hyde Exploring Expedition from the American Museum of Natural History began excavations. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt (R-New York) proclaimed Chaco Canyon a National Monument.

The Chaco Canyon National Monument became the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in 1980. They designated Chaco Culture an International Dark Sky Park in 2013 to protect the sky. Some areas of the park are off limits to visitors to protect the ruins.

The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is well worth a visit. Visitors to the Four Corners Region will also enjoy Mesa Verde National Park and the historic towns of Durango, Colorado, and Farmington, New Mexico.

Cahaba, Alabama or Old Cahawba

Old Cahawba was the first permanent state capitol of Alabama from 1820 to 1825.

The state legislature and most of the residents fled Alabama’s Historic Ghost Town because its site at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers floods regularly. They chose Cahaba as the state capitol in 1818, however construction delays prevented the state government from taking up residence until 1820.

In 1826, they moved the state capitol to Tuscaloosa. Cahaba; however, survived and thrived because of slavery and cotton. Before the Civil War, Cahaba was an important river distribution point for cotton with 2,000 residents. From Cahaba, they shipped cotton down the Alabama River to the important port of Mobile.

During the Civil War, Cahaba became notorious as Castle Morgan; or Cahaba Prison, an infamous Confederate prisoner of war camp. The Confederate Army imprisoned up to 3,000 Union POWs at Castle Morgan.

The Castle Morgan prisoners faced hunger, malnutrition, and sickness because of food shortages. They often kept Union prisoners in dungeons and starved some POWs as a punishment. A lack of clean water led to sickness.

Oddly, Castle Morgan had the lowest death rate of any Civil War POW camp around 2%. In comparison, 15.5% of the men in the average Confederate POW camp died.

However, between 142 and 147 Union prisoners died at Castle Morgan. Some observers credit the camp’s commandant Captain H. A. M. Henderson, a devout Methodist minister, for the humane conditions at Castle Morgan. However, many former Castle Morgan prisoners died when the steamboat Sultana, which was taking them to their homes in the North, sank after the war.

Cahaba declined after the Civil War as railroads became the primary means of shipping cotton. In 1866, they moved county seat of Dallas County to Selma.

By 1870, Cahaba’s population had fallen to 431 people. By the 1890s a local entrepreneur, ironically an ex-slave, bought Cahaba for $500. The new owner demolished most of the buildings and shipped the architectural salvage to Mobile and Selma for use as building materials.

Although Cahaba is no longer inhabited, the town is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Alabama Historical Commission operates the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park which owns Cahaba.

Notable structures at Cahaba include the Historic St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. They built St. Luke’s in Cahaba in 1854 and moved it to Martin’s Station in 1878. They moved St. Luke’s back to Cahaba in the 21st Century and they are raising money to restore it.

Modern visitors to Cahaba can see the ruins of the old state capitol, cemeteries, a brick slave quarters from the Kirkpatrick Mansion, and streets. Although, most of Cahaba’s buildings are long gone, there are some famous ghost stories about the town.

If you want to see America’s only ruined state capitol, Cahaba is worth a visit.

So yes, America contains lost cities including a lost state capitol. Those who seek historic lost cities will find them in America.