Why is Raleigh the Capital of North Carolina?

Why is Raleigh the Capital of North Carolina?
Why is Raleigh the capital of North Carolina? While it is by no means a small city, with a population of over 460,000, Raleigh is still just over half the size of Charlotte. So why is the largest city in the state, not the capital?

The Capital of North Carolina

Before there was ever both North and South Carolina, Charleston was the capital of the singular Carolina state. Originally a British province, then later a colony, Carolina is named for the Latin version of King Charles (Carolus), who was ruler at the time. Charleston started out as Charles Town, eventually running together and shortened to its current form. Charlotte, however, despite sounding roughly similar as well, was not named for the great monarch but rather for his Queen Consort.

The southern section of Carolina, based around the port of Charleston, served as the main entry port for the British West Indies. As such, in those early days, it was a major player in the slave trade. With so many large farms and plantations, African slaves soon made up the majority of the population. In the northern frontierland of the colony, however, slavery was much less prominent. Eventually, spurred by some cultural differences, the two areas split in surprisingly amicable fashion, officially separating in 1712.

New Bern was the first capital of the newly formed North Carolina, before ceding the title to Edenton in 1722. In 1766, the capital changed back to New Bern again. Then in 1788, Raleigh was chosen as the new capital of North Carolina. It became official upon incorporation in 1792.

The History of Raleigh

Raleigh was built on 1,000 acres of land purchased from Joel Lane. He and his two brothers settled the area in 1741, and within 30 years Wake County was established. They started out with a jail and courthouse near their home. But since their location was such a popular spot for travelers, they soon branched out to include a tavern and church. Throughout this time it was known alternately as Bloomsbury or Wake Courthouse.

In April 1792, the city was planned and surveyed by William Christmas with Union Square as the center of town and all other streets radiating out from there. The main streets were all named for the different districts within the state. Four parks were included in the plans, and a state house was built. As almost no people actually lived in Raleigh at this point, it was known as “a city of streets without houses”. Even by the year 1800, there were only 669 residents.

Why is Raleigh the Capital of North Carolina?

The main criteria that resulted in Raleigh being chosen (and essentially custom-built), was its central location. The feeling was that its relative distance from the sea would leave it less vulnerable to naval attacks. When the Revolutionary War started in 1775, New Bern’s ocean-front location was deemed less than ideal. Government meetings began to be held in a six-city rotation further inland. Apparently, this confusing plan led to people getting mixed up and missing meetings. It was then decided that one city would have to be chosen.

Fayetteville was the early favorite, being the commercial hub of the state at the time and boasting the Cape Fear River. Raleigh, however, had the advantage of being close to two major roads; east-west from New Bern to Salem, and north-south from Petersburg, Virginia down to Charleston. The University of North Carolina, established in 1789, was also located in Chapel Hill, just down the road from Raleigh.

Raleigh Today

Raleigh experienced rapid population growth in the early 20th century, increasing by 79% from 1900 to 1920 (although this was still just over 24,000 people). Now, in the 21st century, Raleigh is a state hub for business, sports, the arts, and is often cited as one of America’s leading cities for overall quality of life, a far cry from its humble beginnings as little more than a centrally located oak grove.

Want to learn more about the history behind state capitals? Click here for further reading.


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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 161 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.