Local News

City of Ralegh: Have we been spelling 'Raleigh' wrong this whole time?

Posted August 1, 2021 1:57 p.m. EDT
Updated August 2, 2021 12:11 p.m. EDT

City of Raleigh.

Or is it Ralegh?

If the city is, as elementary school history classes teach us, named after Sir Walter Raleigh, then we may not be spelling it exactly right.

It could also be Rauley. Rawlygh. Rawleyghe. Raleghe. Rawleighe. Raughleigh.

It really just depended on who was trying to spell it back in the 1500s when Sir Walter Raleigh lived.

According to research from the National Park Service, Sir Walter himself has signed it multiple ways. The people around him spelled it with even more variety.

It may seem strange to imagine the City of Raleigh not actually being the correct historic spelling of its namesake, but this kind of phonetic spelling was quite common back then. Not everyone had access to a high caliber education in reading and writing; plus, everything was handwritten, making it easy to misread the wild cursive handwriting.

William Stebbing, a Victorian biographer of Raleigh, detailed his research into Sir Walter's name in the late 1800s.

"There was no standard of orthography for surnames till the latter part of the seventeenth century," he wrote.

According to Stebbing, Sir Walter did not keep the same spelling throughout his life, spelling his name differently at different times.

"Down to 1583 his more usual signature had been the phonetic Rauley. But in 1578 he signed as Rawleyghe a deed which his father signed as Ralegh, and his brother Carew as Rawlygh. A letter of March 17, 1583, is the first he is known to have signed as Ralegh; and in the following April and May he reverted to the signature Rauley. From June 9, 1584, he used till his death no other signature than Ralegh," he wrote.

However, Stebbing wrote that the spelling 'Raleigh' was not one he ever used himself.

Stebbing, arguably one of Sir Walter's most prolific historians, spelled it 'Ralegh' on the cover of his book.

Rocky Mound and Carey: Other communities with misspelled names changed by history

As common as it was to misread script in previous centuries, it's little surprise other North Carolina cities have been given the 'wrong' names by historic mistakes.

Rocky Mount was originally named Rocky Mound. The community was established along a natural fault line creating a giant 'mound' of rocks in the Tar River. The resulting formation made it an ideal spot for building mills, around which the community was built.

The community took on the name 'Rocky Mound,' inspired by the geographic formation central to their mill area – but a spelling error at the post office accidently transcribed the town name as 'Rocky Mount' – a name which has stuck to this day.

The Town of Cary, which was named after a traveling temperance preacher named Samuel Fenton Cary, also had some confusion.

When the town was granted a charter by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1871, the charter included an 'e,' which made the name 'Carey.'

A newspaper snippet reads, "An act to, incorporate the town of Carey, in Wake County."

In this case, the issue was fixed later – however, some people who have lived in the town since the early 1900s sometimes pronounce it 'Kay-ree' instead of 'Care-ee.'

The Cittie of Raleigh

Sir Walter was long dead before the City of Raleigh was established in 1792 as the state capital. While many know the city was named in his honor, many aren't aware there was another community called 'Raleigh' long before our city was founded.

According to the National Park Service, the "Cittie of Ralegh" was the name of the settlement that the 1587 colonists planned to create on the shores of Chesapeake Bay. The exact location of the settlement is a mystery to this day, in the books alongside the mystery of Roanoke.

"The only known site actually inhabited by the planters is the vicinity of the settlement built in 1585 by the Ralph Lane Colony on the north end of Roanoke Island, North Carolina," according to NPS.

The 'Cittie of Raleigh' could very well have been the first site established under the order of Sir Walter. As it has since vanished from time, the capital took on the name instead – with the original, historic spelling washed away by time.


Do you know any other North Carolina cities that originally had a different name -- or have an idea for a hidden history investigation? Email our Hidden Historian at hleah@wral.com.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.