Raleigh History

Created as a planned capital city in 1792, the area we now know as Raleigh, North Carolina had a handful of sparse settlements as early as the 1760s.  Enterprising landholders like Isaac Hunter and Joel Lane owned large tracts of farmland and operated taverns and ordinaries near their homes to accommodate travelers along the main north-south route cutting through central North Carolina.

By the late 1780s, North Carolina’s general assembly recognized a need for a permanent location to conduct state government.  Prior to this time, the state’s seat of government had been hosted by several existing cities.  Rather than select one of these communities, the legislature decided to build a new city that was more centrally located within the state.  Eight commissioners were appointed to choose the new capital’s location.  On March 30, 1792, the commissioners purchased 1,000 acres from Wake County landowner Joel Lane and a city plan was quickly developed.  On December 31, 1792 the North Carolina General Assembly christened the city “Raleigh” in honor of the 16th century English explorer and nobleman Sir Walter Raleigh.

The city of Raleigh grew slowly, with state government initially its primary focus. The opening of the original State House in 1794 provided not only a physical location for governmental business but also a center for the community’s social life. Fayetteville Street quickly became Raleigh’s commercial core as storefronts began to replace residences along the blocks south of the State Capitol.

Raleigh emerged from the Civil War unscathed physically and a new era unfolded.  Retail flourished and a plethora of family-owned businesses dominated the downtown district.  19th century Raleigh witnessed a wave of publishing enterprises as newspapers, printers and bookbinders became an important means of communication and advertising.  As the century progressed and the industrial revolution brought new technology to Raleigh, innovations like the Raleigh Street Railway, the Raleigh Waterworks, and electric lights on Fayetteville Street fundamentally altered the city’s way of life.

In the early 20th century, Raleigh evolved into the retail center for eastern North Carolina.  People flocked to Fayetteville Street not just for shopping but also for entertainment and civic celebrations.  From grand opera to vaudeville and motion pictures, Raleigh’s theaters and public performance venues offered something for everyone, young and old alike.  At the same time East Hargett Street thrived as the African American retail and social hub of Raleigh.  By World War II, automobiles and buses had replaced streetcars and buggies and Fayetteville Street reached its zenith as the “heyday of downtown” reigned.

Throughout its history, Raleigh has also been a home to many of North Carolina’s major events and celebrations. As Raleigh progresses through its third century, it is a hybrid of state government and hi-tech industries, of historic neighborhoods and new developments, and of long-term residents and new arrivals. When viewed as a whole, each of these significant elements makes up the city we call Raleigh, North Carolina.

Want more information?  Be sure to review our exhibit web page, or pick up your copy of “Historic Raleigh” today!