The North Carolina General Assembly has been convening exclusively in Raleigh since 1794.
The city of Raleigh was planned and built specifically for the purpose of becoming the state’s capital, which was largely decided on based on it being close to the geographical center of the state. There were several benefits of designating Raleigh as the capital; it was not vulnerable to naval attack, it was located near a major interregional thoroughfare, and it was seen as a blank slate for some. However, many opposed this decision initially.
From 1776 through 1792, it was reported that Halifax, Hillsborough, Fayetteville, Smithfield, and Tarboro each served as the state capital (of sorts) for a time, but they were not formally ratified as the capital.
During a Senate session on May 8, 1779, legislature declared that “the holding [of] the General Assembly and the offices incident thereto at some certain fixed place, at or near the center thereof, would save a considerable expense to the public and tend much to the ease and advantage of the inhabitants in other respects as well as the preservation of the public records” (Senate Joint Resolutions: May 4-15).
This resolution was rejected, however; the next move to establish a permanent seat of government came in another Senate session on November 11, 1788, which proposed a bill that would enact an ordinance from the Hillsborough Convention of 1788 entitled “an ordinance for establishing a place for holding the future meeting of the General Assembly and the place of residence of the chief officer of the state” (House Joint Resolutions, Nov. 3-Dec. 6). The bill also ordered that the state capital be located within 10 miles of Isaac Hunter’s plantation in Wake County; some speculate this area of land was designated not only because of Hunter’s southern hospitality through his tavern, but also because his tavern was located alongside a major road—serving as a convenient place to eat and sleep for travelers, which is what most cities are built around.
While that bill passed in the Senate and on two readings in the House, it was dropped. The bill was tossed around for a few more years and finally passed in 1791 (House Bills, December 29). Raleigh narrowly won the bid against Fayetteville, which did not come without protest. A petition was created by opposing Assembly members that said, in part, “the establishment of a seat of government in a place unconnected with commerce, and where there is at present no town, will be attended with a heavy expense to the people, and the town when established never can rise above the degree of a village” (Oakes, 1950).
Regardless of protest, nine commissioners were named to select the site and build the State Capitol, and if you drive around Raleigh today, their names might seem familiar: Joseph McDowell, James Martin, Thomas Person, Thomas Blount, William Johnston Dawson, Frederick Hargett, Henry William Harrington, James Bloodworth, and Willie Jones (Battle, 1892).
Roughly 1,000 acres of land near the Wake County court house was purchased from Colonel Joel Lane in April 1792, who was paid 1,378 pounds for his land (See Joel Lane deed), which is over $200,000 today. Colonel Lane likely held some influence over the decision to select Raleigh as our state capital, as he introduced the bill that created Wake County in 1771 and had strong political connections.
In December 1792, a bill was passed that gave the city a name, “Raleigh,” and declared it as the “permanent and unalterable seat of government of the state of North Carolina” (Senate Bills, Nov. 20-Dec. 14).
Governor Alexander Martin noted that by having the seat of government fixed, “the public officers will be brought together, heretofore detached to too great distances—archives of the state collected and preserved—and the different departments of government conducted near each other, to the quick dispatch of business and ease to the citizen.” Thus, as H. G. Jones (1966) remarks, “a new era began in both making and keeping the archives of North Carolina.”
Related Resources & Recommended Reading
Battle, Kemp P. (1893). The early history of Raleigh, the capital city of North Carolina: A centennial address delivered by invitation of the Committee on the centennial celebration of the foundation of the city, October 18, 1892. Raleigh: Edwards and Broughton, printers. Retrieved from http://digitalstatelibnc.cdmhost.com/cdm/ref/collection/p249901coll26/id/3331.
Cavanagh, John C. (2006). Convention of 1788. NCPedia. Retrieved from http://www.ncpedia.org/government/convention-1788.
City of Raleigh Museum. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://cityofraleighmuseum.org.
Isaac Hunter’s Tavern. (1935). North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. Raleigh, N.C. Retrieved from http://www.ncmarkers.com/Markers.aspx?sp=Markers&k=Markers&sv=H-3.
Jones, H. G. (1966). For history’s sake: The preservation and publication of North Carolina history. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Murray, E. R. (1983). Wake, capital county of North Carolina. Raleigh, N.C: Capital County Pub. Co.
North Carolina emigration and immigration. (n.d.) FamilySearch. Retrieved from http://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/North_Carolina_Emigration_and_Immigration.
Oates, John A. (1950). The story of Fayetteville and the Upper Cape Fear. Charlotte, NC: Dowd Press Inc.
Powell, W. S. (1990). North Carolina through four centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Quine, Katie. (2015). Why is Raleigh the capital of North Carolina? Our State Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.ourstate.com/why-is-raleigh-the-capital-of-north-carolina.
Legislative Documents Cited
“May 8: appointing commissioners to determine site of next Assembly and to propose sites for seat of government (rejected) (with message).” (1779). Senate Joint Resolutions: May 4-15. GASR May 1779, Box 1. MARS ID 22.214.171.124.7. Session Records. General Assembly Records. State Archives of North Carolina.
“Nov. 11: Senate bill to carry into effect ordinances for establishing a place for General Assembly meetings.” (1788.) House Joint Resolutions, Nov. 3-Dec. 6. GASR Nov-Dec 1788, Box 2. MARS ID 126.96.36.199. Session Records. General Assembly Records. State Archives of North Carolina.
“Bill to Carry into Effect the Ordinance of the Convention Held at Hillsborough for Establishing a Place for Holding the Future Meetings of the General Assembly and the Place of Residence of the Chief Officers of the State.” (1791.) House Bills, December 29. GASR Dec. 1791-Jan. 1792, Box 1. MARS ID 188.8.131.52.5. Session Records. General Assembly Records. State Archives of North Carolina.
“Senate Bills. December 10: a Bill to confirm the proceedings of the commissioners appointed under an act entitled an Act to carry into effect the ordinance entitled an Ordinance for establishing a place for holding the future meetings of the General Assembly and the place of residence of the chief officers of the state” (1792.) Senate Bills, Nov. 20-Dec. 14. GASR Nov 1792-Jan 1793, Box 1. MARS ID 184.108.40.206.