In Need of a Capital City

During much of the colonial period, North Carolina was without a fixed capital city. Governors lived in their own homes and the Assembly moved from place to place, meeting in private homes, and in courthouses when available.

In 1722 the Assembly selected Edenton as the capital, but years passed before modest government facilities became available. By then the center of the population had shifted southward, and the government again became migratory.

Elevation of Tryon Palace

Plans showing the front elevation of
Tryon Palace designed by John
Hawks in 1767. The original plans
are in the British Public Records
Office. Courtesy of North Carolina
Office of Archives and History, Raleigh

Several efforts to establish a seat of state government failed until 1766, when the town of New Bern was selected. Construction of Governor Tryon's Palace began in 1767 and was completed in 1771. This new structure served as the governor's residence and office, as well as a meeting place for the Upper House. However, when New Bern was threatened by enemy attacks during the American Revolution, the government took to the roads again, meeting in both coastal and inland towns of the state. The "palace" soon became neglected and in 1798 all but one wing burned to the ground.

North Carolina’s first State House

This circa 1800 water color
painting depicts North
Carolina’s first State House,
as seen from Fayetteville

Meanwhile, the state's population had moved westward, and in 1788 a State Convention voted to fix the capital within ten miles of Isaac Hunter's plantation in Wake County. A committee later purchased 1,000 acres of Joel Lane's plantation, and a plan for Raleigh was drawn, based on the then nation's capital of Philadelphia. Construction of a State House began on the town's central square in 1792.

First occupied in 1794, the State House was enlarged by State Architect William Nichols between 1820 and 1824. A third floor and eastern and western wings were added to the building, and a domed rotunda constructed at its center to house Antonio Canova's statue of President George Washington, acquired by the state in 1821. Sadly, when the State House burned down in 1831, the statue of George Washington was damaged beyond repair.

1830s lithograph of the Capitol

This 1830s lithograph depicts Nichols’ masterful transformation
of the 1795 State House into a stately 19th century neoclassical Capitol.