We can be surrounded by our past yet remain clueless.
Street signs, for instance, help commuters and travelers find their final destinations. Those signs can be much more than guideposts, though. They often provide interesting clues into an area’s history.
During the 1780s and early 1790s, state legislators had lengthy and intense debates regarding where to establish a permanent capital. While debating whether to ratify the U.S. Constitution at the 1788 Hillsborough Convention, delegates also tackled this topic. Delegates chose seven locations, including Isaac Hunter’s inn in Wake County, and decided that a new capital should be located within 10 miles of one of the proposed spots.
This ordinance intensified an ongoing debate. Many were dissatisfied with a proposed Wake County choice, for the location was, they argued, essentially “unconnected” to the majority of the state’s commercial centers. For convenience sake, many Easterners wanted the capital to be in New Bern, while others preferred Fayetteville.
Proponents of a capital in Wake County preferred a more central location for all Tar Heels. The location, it was argued, would make representation more democratic; Piedmont and western delegates would not be so far removed from the seat of government. (Discontent already had been expressed from North Carolinians living in the land that later became Tennessee, as evidenced by efforts to create a State of Franklin during the mid-1780s.)
The choices were winnowed until finally a slim majority — 57-55 in the House, and 27-24 in the Senate — voted for the Wake County site. In January 1792, the General Assembly established a commission to choose a permanent location in Wake County and then supervise and plan the site.
On March 31 of that year, the nine commissioners purchased 1,000 acres from Col. Joel Lane. (His offer was selected from among 17 others within the allotted space in Wake County). The commissioners helped survey and plan the 400 acres within the Lane tract — what is essentially downtown Raleigh today. The General Assembly approved the proposed city name and street names in December 1792. The first State House opened in 1794.
The namesake of the capital was Sir Walter Raleigh, a nobleman who sponsored the first English colonists to what his contemporaries called the New World. The street names are now as they were in 1792. The streets named North, South, East, and West were the respective boundaries of the 400 acres that comprised original Raleigh. Lane Street is named after the prior owner of the land.
Other streets were named after each of North Carolina’s eight judicial districts, represented then and commemorated now, in downtown Raleigh: Edenton, Fayetteville, Halifax, Hillsborough, Morgan, New Bern, Salisbury, and Wilmington.
The nine commissioners (an at-large member and one from each of the judicial districts) were complimented with street names: William Dawson of Chowan County, Edenton district; Joseph McDowell of Burke County, Morgan district; James Martin of Stokes County, Salisbury district; Thomas Blount of Edgecombe County, Halifax Distirct; James Bloodworth of New Hanover County, Wilmington district; Frederick Hargett of Jones County, New Bern district; Henry William Harrington of Richmond County, Fayetteville district; and Thomas Person of Granville County, Hillsborough district. The at-large commissioner, Willie Jones, the state’s leading Antifederalist, was also from Halifax County.
Other state leaders were also recognized: Revolutionary General William Davie, Senate Speaker William Lenoir, and House Speaker Stephen Cabarrus.
Three of Raleigh’s four down-town squares were named for early governors who served after North Carolina’s independence — Richard Caswell, Abner Nash, and Thomas Burke. The fourth square, historians have concurred, is named for jurist Alfred Moore.
Next time you make a right (or left) turn in your hometown, you might want to ask yourself: “How did this street get its name?” The quest for an answer will lead you to a better appreciation and a deeper understanding of where you live.
Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project.