NEW YORK – The Dow Jones industrial average closed its best start to the year since 1999 on Thursday, rising 6.4 percent in the first three months.

The index of 30 large companies gained 742 points in that stretch. Measured against other first quarters, that’s the largest point gain since 1998 and the second-best on record.

Stocks ended the day mixed as the price of oil jumped to a 30-month high. Slightly disappointing reports on unemployment claims and factory orders also weighed on the market.

The first-quarter gains were anything but an easy ride. Uprisings in the Arab world, a jump in oil prices, and the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan led to many deep one-day falls.

“This is a market that has been defined by resilience in the face of uncertainty,” said Andrew Goldberg, a market strategist at JPMorgan Funds.

The Dow average fell 30.88 points Thursday, or 0.3 percent, to 12,319.73. That’s just 72 points shy of its Feb. 18 high for the year.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 2.43, or 0.2 percent, to 1,325.83. The Nasdaq composite rose 4.28, or 0.2 percent, to 2,781.07.

The S&P 500 rose 5.4 percent during the first quarter, the Nasdaq 4.8 percent.

The market turned wildly volatile in March. In the third week, the Dow moved by more than 100 points four straight days. On March 16, fears that Japan’s nuclear crisis would get even worse turned all three major indexes negative for the year. The next day a jump in manufacturing and a drop in unemployment claims helped bring them back.

Stocks swung between small gains and losses Thursday as the price of oil surged to settle at $106.72 a barrel.

Oil prices have jumped $20 since the Libyan uprising began in February. Higher oil prices can pinch spending by forcing consumers to pay more for gasoline and could cut into economic growth.

There were also slightly disappointing reports on new unemployment claims and factory orders. The Labor Department said fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, signaling that companies may be slowing layoffs. The number of new claims fell by 6,000 to 388,000. Analysts had expected a larger drop.

The news comes a day before the Labor Department’s monthly employment report. The unemployment rate is expected to remain unchanged at 8.9 percent.