A History of Raleigh, North Carolina

Raleigh City Auditorium

Created as a planned 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. Called Wake Crossroads by some, this primitive outpost provided a foundation for Raleigh's future development.

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. In the North Carolina Booklet, Volume 5, Page 14, the original site for Raleigh was called Bloomsbury until the name of Raleigh was finally decided upon in 1792.

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. Over time inns, taverns, dry-goods stores, coffin houses, and brickyards were established to support the burgeoning capital city. Until the American Civil War these businesses catered mostly to retail customers, providing both services and basic needs. Fayetteville Street quickly became Raleigh's commercial core as storefronts began to replace residences along the blocks south of the State Capitol. In addition to downtown commerce, a handful of mills and new ventures, like the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad, completed the composition of early Raleigh.

Raleigh emerged from the Civil War unscathed physically and a new era unfolded. Although there was an effort to establish a manufacturing base in Raleigh with cotton mills and other industries, Raleigh did not develop into a manufacturing mecca. Retail, however, flourished and a plethora of family-owned businesses dominated the downtown district. Nineteenth-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 twentieth 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. Sports on all levels became a popular pastime as crowds gathered for minor-league baseball at Devereux Meadow and college football at Riddick Stadium. By World War II, automobiles and buses had replaced streetcars and buggies, and Fayetteville Street reached its zenith as the "heyday of downtown" reigned.

While Raleigh's citizens trekked downtown to work and play, they returned home to residential neighborhoods. Raleigh's first neighborhoods were contained within the original city plan but as the population grew other residential districts were formed, often outside the existing city limits. An important component of any neighborhood was its local school, whether it was a small private kindergarten or a large city high school. Some neighborhoods were influenced by the establishment of six institutions of higher learning in Raleigh. From the earliest women's colleges to traditionally African American institutions and eventually a large state university, education has played an important role in the lifecycle of the city.

Like all communities, Raleigh has been touched by national events. Sometimes the local impact was felt in unique ways. For example, a connection to the USS Raleigh during the Spanish-American War precipitated the creation of Raleigh's city flag. During the world wars, Raleigh not only lost young men to the fighting but local citizens were asked to make contributions on the home front, from buying war bonds to volunteering for the Red Cross. After World War II, the nation experienced a boom in housing. This new suburban experience was introduced in Raleigh when Cameron Village, the Southeast's first shopping center, opened in 1949. However, no other national event impacted Raleigh more profoundly than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. After years of Jim Crow rule in the South, local students and activists - through marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and public protests - helped give rise to fundamental social change as new laws were enacted to protect the rights of all citizens.

Throughout its history, Raleigh has also been a home to many of North Carolina's major events and celebrations. The annual State Fair brings thousands of Tarheels to Raleigh each year, and gubernatorial inaugurations, holidays and other observances all give local citizens a reason to revel. 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.

Raleigh Plat 1792


Raleigh was granted a US Post Office on January 1, 1795, and its first Postmaster was Mr. William Shaw. It has been in continuous operation ever since.


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