How the City of Oaks got its name, and more Raleigh history

Raleigh is a storied city with over 230 years of history. Learn more about the history of Raleigh and test your knowledge with a quick quiz.

An aerial view drawing of Raleigh, NC in 1872

See any street names you recognize?

Photo via the Library of Congress

Table of Contents

How much do you know about the City of Oaks? Whether you’re a Raleigh native or a more recent Raleighite, there’s always more to learn about the history of Raleigh. Here’s a quick rundown of the city’s past.

Before Raleigh

Before Raleigh was Raleigh, the area was a collection of colonial settlements until Isaac Hunter and Joel Lane purchased wide swaths of farmland. Hunter and Lane operated taverns and other businesses for central NC travelers and called the area Wake Crossroads.

Bath, Edenton, and New Bern all served as early capitals of NC but were too far east to travel for some North Carolinians on government business. Raleigh was chosen for its central location and was officially established on December 31, 1792.

Why “Raleigh”?

The name Raleigh was chosen for Sir Walter Raleigh, a 16th century English explorer and nobleman. Fun fact: Sir Walter never visited the land that would become Raleigh, and never even stepped foot in North America.

Raleigh culture

Raleigh became a busy city because of its government connections, with Fayetteville Street operating as the commercial center. After the Civil War, racial segregation pushed Black business owners to East Hargett Street. The street became a social hub for Black people in Raleigh and was called “Black Main Street.”

Raleigh earned the nickname “City of Oaks” for its high density of oak trees. It is rumored that the founders originally called Raleigh the City of Oaks in 1792, and the name just stuck. Oak trees drop acorns, which is why a 10-foot-tall copper acorn stands on Fayetteville Street and is dropped at midnight on New Year’s Eve as part of First Night Raleigh.

Think you know everything about Raleigh? Take a quiz and test your City of Oaks knowledge.