North Carolina History

Pre-colonial history

The earliest discovered human settlements in what eventually became North Carolina are found at the Hardaway Site near the town of Badin in the south-central part of the state. Radiocarbon dating of the site has not been possible. However, based on other dating methods, such as rock strata and the existence of Dalton-type spear points, the site has been dated to approximately 8000 BC.

Spearpoints of the Dalton type continued to change and evolve slowly for the next 7000 years, suggesting a continuity of culture for most of that time. During this time, settlement was scattered and likely existed solely on the hunter-gatherer level. Towards the end of this period, there is evidence of settled agriculture, such as plant domestication and the development of pottery.

From 1000 BC until the time of European settlement marks a time period known as the “Woodland period”. Permanent villages, based on settled agriculture, existed throughout the state. By about 800 AD, fortified towns appeared throughout the Piedmont region, suggesting the existence of organized tribal warfare. An important site of this late-Woodland period is the Town Creek Indian Mound, an archaeologically rich location occupied by the Pee Dee culture of the Mississippian tradition.

Earliest European explorations

The earliest exploration of North Carolina by a European expedition is likely that of Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. An Italian from Florence, Verrazzano was hired by French merchants in order to procure a sea route to bring silk to the city of Lyon. With the tacit support of King Francis I, Verrazzano sailed west on January 1, 1524 aboard his ship La Dauphine ahead of a flotilla of three other ships. The expedition made landfall at Cape Fear, and Verrazzano reported of his explorations to the King of France,

“The seashore is completely covered with fine sand [15 feet] deep, which rises in the shape of small hills about fifty paces wide… Nearby we could see a stretch of country much higher than the sandy shore, with many beautiful fields and planes[sic] full of great forests, some sparse and some dense; and the trees have so many colors, and are so beautiful and delightful that they defy description.”

Verrazzano continued north along the Outer Banks, making periodic explorations as he sought a route further west towards China. When he viewed the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds opposite the Outer Banks, he believed them to be the Pacific Ocean; his reports of such helped fuel the belief that the westward route to Asia was much closer than previously believed.

Just two years later, in 1526, a group of Spanish colonists from Hispaniola led by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón landed at the mouth of a river they called the “Rio Jordan”, which may have been the Cape Fear River. The party consisted of 500 men and women, their slaves, and horses. One of their ships wrecked off the shore, and valuable supplies were lost; this coupled with illness and rebellion doomed the colony. Ayllon died in October, 1526 and the 150 or so survivors of that first year abandoned the colony and attempted to return to Hispaniola. Later explorers reported finding their remains along the coast; as the dead were cast off during the return trip.

Hernando de Soto first explored west-central North Carolina during his 1539-1540 expedition. His first encounter with a native settlement in North Carolina may have been at Guaquilli near modern Hickory. In 1567 Captain Juan Pardo led an expedition from Santa Elena at Paris Island, South Carolina, then the capital of the Spanish colony in the Southeast, into the interior of North Carolina, largely following De Soto’s earlier route. His journey was ordered to claim the area as a Spanish colony, pacify and convert the natives, as well as establish another route to protect silver mines in Mexico (the Spanish did not realize the distances involved). Pardo went toward the northwest to be able to get food supplies from natives.

Pardo and his team made a winter base at Joara (near Morganton, in Burke County), which he renamed Cuenca. They built Fort San Juan and left 30 men, while Pardo traveled further, establishing five other forts. He returned by a different route to Santa Elena. After 18 months, in the spring of 1568, natives killed all the soldiers and burned the six forts, including the one at Fort San Juan. The Spanish never returned to the interior to press their colonial claim, but this marked the first European attempt at colonization of the interior. Translation in the 1980s of a journal by Pardo’s scribe Bandera have confirmed the expedition and settlement. Archaeological finds at Joara indicate that it was a Mississippian culture settlement and also indicate Spanish settlement at Fort San Juan in 1567-1568. Joara was the largest mound builder settlement in the region. Records of Hernando de Soto attested to his meeting with them in 1540.

British colonization


The earliest English attempt at colonization in North America was Roanoke Colony of 1584–1587, the famed “Lost Colony” of Sir Walter Raleigh. The colony was established at Roanoke Island in the Croatan Sound on the leeward side of the Outer Banks. The first attempt at a settlement consisted of 100 or so men led by Ralph Lane. They built a fort, and waited for supplies from a second voyage. While waiting for supplies to return, Lane and his men antagonized the local Croatan peoples, killing several of them in armed skirmishes. The interactions were not all negative, as the local people did teach the colonists some survival skills, such as the construction of dugout canoes.

When the relief was long in coming, the colonists began to give up hope; after a chance encounter with Sir Francis Drake, the colonists elected to accept transport back to England with him. When the supply ships did arrive, only a few days later, they found the colony abandoned. The ship’s captain, Richard Grenville, left a small force of 15 men to hold the fort and supplies and wait for a new stock of colonists.

In 1587 third ship arrived carrying 110 men, 17 women, and 9 children, some of whom had been part of the first group of colonists that had earlier abandoned Roanoke. This group was lead by John White. Among them was a pregnant woman; she gave birth to the first English subject born in North America, Virginia Dare. The colonists found the remains of the garrison left behind, likely killed by the Croatan who had been so antagonized by Lane’s aggressiveness.[18] White had intended to pick up the remains of the garrison, abandon Roanoke Island, and settle in the Chesapeake Bay. White’s Portuguese pilot, Simon Fernandez, refused to carry on further; rather than risk mutiny, White agreed to resettle the former colony.

The Spanish War prevented any further contact between the colony and England until a 1590 expedition, which found no remains of any colonists, just an abandoned colony and the letters “CROATOAN” carved into a tree, and “CRO” carved into another. John White, who had not remained with the colony he established, made an brief attempt to search Croatan Island (speculated to be either Hatteras Island or Ocracoke Island) for the survivors, but weather prevented a thorough search, and he returned to England with no evidence of what happened to the colony.

No evidence has ever turned up to explain what happened to the colony. One story, told by Powhatan to the settlers of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, was that the Roanoke Colonists were making their way north towards the Chesapeake Bay when they were caught between two warring bands of natives; most of them were killed in the battle. Powhatan provided several copper pots, supposedly from the Roanoke Colony, as evidence of his story. Another speculation is that the colonists were integrated into the Croatan tribe, and intermarried with them. Modern Lumbee peoples may be decendants of these Croatan people.

Development of North Carolina Colony

The Province of North Carolina developed distinctly from South Carolina almost from the beginning. The Spanish experienced trouble colonizing North Carolina because it had a dangerous coastline, a lack of ports, and few inland rivers by which to navigate. In the 1650s and 1660s, settlers (mostly British) moved south from Virginia, in addition to runaway servants and fur trappers. There were only about 5,000 settlers in 1700 and 11,000 in 1715. While mostly British, the settlers included a few African slaves and a colony at New Bern composed of Swiss and German settlers.

As early as 1689, the Carolina proprietors named a separate governor for the region of the colony that lay to the north and east of Cape Fear. By 1712, the term “North Carolina” was in common use. In 1728, the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia was surveyed. In 1730, the population was 30,000. By 1729, the Crown bought out seven of the eight original proprietors, making North Carolina a royal colony.

The proprietor who refused to sell was John Carteret, 2nd Earl Granville, who in 1744 received rights to the vast Granville Tract, constituting the northern half of North Carolina. This happened just as the tide of immigration to North Carolina from Virginia and Pennsylvania began to swell. Many of the mid-18th-century immigrants were farmers of Scots-Irish or German descent. On the eve of the American Revolution, North Carolina was the fastest-growing British colony in North America. The small family farms of the Piedmont contrasted sharply with the plantation economy of the coastal region, where wealthy planters grew tobacco and rice with slave labor. It had a population of 100,000 in 1752 and 200,000 in 1765. By 1760, enslaved Africans constituted one quarter of North Carolina’s population and were concentrated along the coast.

In the late 1760s, tensions between Piedmont farmers and coastal planters welled up in the Regulator movement. With specie scarce, many inland farmers found themselves unable to pay their taxes and resented the consequent seizure of their property. Local sheriffs sometimes kept taxes for their own gain and sometimes charged twice for the same tax. Governor William Tryon’s conspicuous consumption in the construction of a new governor’s mansion at New Bern fuelled the movement’s resentment. As the western districts were under-represented in the colonial legislature, it was difficult for the farmers to obtain redress by legislative means. Ultimately, the frustrated farmers took to arms and closed the court in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Tryon sent troops to the region and defeated the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771.

North Carolina in the American Revolution

In the spring of 1776, North Carolinians, meeting in the fourth of their Provincial Congresses, drafted the Halifax Resolves, a set of resolutions that empowered the state’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress to concur in a declaration of independence from Great Britain. In November 1776, North Carolina representatives gathered in Halifax to write a new state constitution, which remained in effect until 1835.

Although North Carolina was spared violence in the early years of the Revolutionary War, it was a major focus of fighting in 1780-81. American general Nathanael Greene engaged British forces under Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Guilford Court House in March 1781. In 1786, the population of North Carolina had increased to 350,000.

The United States Constitution drafted in 1787 was controversial in North Carolina. Delegate meetings at Hillsboro in July 1788 initially voted to reject it for anti-federalist reasons. They were persuaded to change their minds partly by the strenuous efforts of James Iredell and William Davies and partly by the prospect of a Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, residents in the wealthy northeastern part of the state, who generally supported the proposed Constitution, threatened to secede if the rest of the state did not fall into line. A second ratifying convention was held in Fayetteville in November 1789, and on November 21, North Carolina became the 12th state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.

North Carolina adopted a new state constitution in 1835. One of the major changes was the introduction of direct election of the governor, for a term of two years; prior to 1835, the legislature elected the governor for a term of one year. North Carolina’s current capitol building was completed in 1840.

James K. Polk, who was president of the United States from 1845 until 1849, was born in North Carolina. Andrew Jackson, who was president of the United States from 1829 until 1837, was most likely born in South Carolina, but is sometimes also claimed as a native of North Carolina. Andrew Johnson, President of the United States from April 15, 1865 to March 4, 1869,was born in Raleigh.

Civil War, Reconstruction and disfranchisement

As a plantation state, North Carolina had a long history of slavery. It also received numerous African American migrants from Virginia who had been free people of color since the colonial period. They tended to settle in frontier areas, where relations were easier. Up until 1835, free African Americans had the right to vote in the state, but they were disfranchised and put under increasing restrictions as tensions built toward the Civil War. By the 1860 census, there were 629,942 whites and 361,544 African-Americans, of whom 30,000 were free.

In the fraught election of 1860, North Carolina’s electoral votes went to Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge, an adamant supporter of slavery who hoped to extend human bondage in blacks to the United States’ western territories. He defeated the Constitutional Union candidate, John Bell, who carried much of the upper South.

In marked contrast to most of the states which Breckinridge carried, North Carolina was reluctant to secede from the Union when it became clear that Republican Abraham Lincoln had won the presidential election. North Carolina did not secede until May 20, 1861, after the fall of Fort Sumter and the secession of the Upper South’s bellwether, Virginia.

Many North Carolinians, especially yeoman farmers who owned few or no slaves, were not supportive of the Confederacy. Draft-dodging, desertion, and tax evasion were common during the Civil War years. The Union’s naval blockade of Southern ports and the breakdown of the Confederate transportation system took a heavy toll on North Carolina residents, as did the runaway inflation of the war years. In the spring of 1863, there were food riots in North Carolina (as well as Georgia).


During Reconstruction, African American leaders came both from those free before the war, from men who had escaped to the North and decided to return, and from migrants from the North who wanted to help in the postwar years. Many of these had escaped from slavery and got some education before they came back to the state. In general, however, illiteracy was a problem shared by most African Americans and about one-third of the whites in the state.

A number of white northerners migrated to North Carolina to work and invest. While feelings in the state were high against carpetbaggers, of the 133 persons at the constitutional convention, only 18 were Northern carpetbaggers and 15 were African American. North Carolina was readmitted to the Union in 1868, after ratifying a new state constitution. It included provisions to establish public education, prohibited slavery, and adopted universal suffrage. It also provided for orphanages, public charities and a penitentiary. The legislature also ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In 1870 the Democratic Party came to power in the state. Governor William W. Holden had used civil powers and spoken out to try to combat the Ku Klux Klan’s increasing violence. Conservatives accused him of being head of the Union League, of believing in social equality between the races, and of being corrupt. When the legislature voted to impeach him, however, it charged him only with using and paying troops to put down insurrection (Ku Klux Klan activity) in the state. Holden was impeached and turned over his duties to Lieutenant Governor Tod R. Caldwell on December 20, 1870. The trial began on January 30, 1871, and lasted nearly three months. On March 22, the North Carolina Senate found Holden guilty and ordered him removed from office.

After the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 went into effect, the U.S. Attorney General, Amos T. Akerman, vigorously prosecuted Klan members in North Carolina. During the late 1870s, there was increased violence in the Piedmont area, where whites tried to suppress minority black voting in the election.


As in other Southern states, after white Democrats regained power, they worked to re-establish white supremacy. Nonetheless, in the 1880s, black officeholders were at a peak in local offices, elected from black-majority districts. In 1894 after years of agricultural problems, an interracial coalition of Republicans and Populists won a majority of seats in the state legislature. White Democrats worked to break up the coalition and reduce black and poor white suffrage.

In 1896 North Carolina passed a statute that made voter registration more complicated and reduced blacks on voter registration rolls. In 1898 in an election characterized by violence, fraud and intimidation of black voters, white Democrats regained power in the state legislature. They then passed a new constitution in 1900 with a suffrage amendment. Its provisions for poll taxes, literacy tests and similar mechanisms succeeded in reducing black voter turnout completely by 1904, and disfranchising many poor whites as well. Contemporary accounts estimated that 75,000 black men lost the vote. In 1900 blacks numbered 630,207 citizens, about 33% of the state’s total population.

With control of the legislature, white Democrats passed Jim Crow laws establishing segregation in public facilities and transportation. It would take African Americans more than 60 years before they would regain full power to exercise the suffrage and other full rights of citizens. Without the ability to vote, they lost all chance at local offices: sheriffs, justices of the peace, jurors, county commissioners and school board members, which were the active site of government at the turn of the century. Suppression of the black vote and re-establishment of white supremacy quickly overwhelmed people’s memory and knowledge of the thriving black middle class in the state.

“Native American” groups

Post-Civil War racial politics encouraged efforts to divide and co-opt groups. In 1885 North Carolina passed a law sponsored by Hamilton McMillan, a Democrat from Robeson County, to create separate school districts for free persons of color of the county. They did not want to attend the schools for freedmen, where they were directed because of segregation. McMillan invented the name “Croatan Indians” and theorized that the people had descended from a friendly tribe of Indians on the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina who had mixed with the whites in Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony in 1587 . Twelve “Croatan Indian” districts were created from districts which had formerly been classified as “Colored”. Robeson County residents switched their votes to the Democrats as a result of McMillan’s efforts.

In this way the Democrats solidified their position in the legislature. They also drew racial lines in a county where they had been blurred. In 1900 the state passed laws completing the disfranchisement of former slaves and free people of color. With conservative white Democrats in control of the state legislature, the “Croatan Indians” lost much of their influence, since the Republicans were no longer competitive in the state. Thus, the 1885 law formally created three castes in Robeson County: white, Colored and “Croatan Indian.” Later, there would be three sets of water fountains, seating areas, rest rooms, etc. The group changed their name to “Cherokee Indians of Robeson County” in 1913, “Siouan Indians of Lumber River” in 1934-1935, and were given limited recognition by the U.S. Congress as Lumbee Indians in 1956.

The 1885 North Carolina bill affected the very history of Indians in the Southeast. Anthropologist James Mooney included the Croatan Indians and other mixed-race communities in his studies of the Indian tribes of the Southeast in 1907. Frank G. Speck traveled throughout the Southeast “discovering” lost tribes.

In 1887 Person County granted a separate school to a group called “old issue negroes”. It was discontinued about 1896 but reestablished in 1901. Person County Indians were recognized by the state in 1911. What some researchers call “invented” North Carolina Indian tribes followed: the Sampson County Coharie Indians, Columbus County Waccamaw-Siouan Indians, and Halifax County Haliwa-Saponi Indians. Virginia recognized the former free-person-of-color community of Norfolk County as Nansemond Indians and the community in Amherst county as Monacan Indians.

Post-war economic development

During the late 19th century, North Carolina’s Piedmont region developed a cotton textile industry, based in close-knit company towns. The introduction of manufacturing helped to diversify North Carolina’s chiefly agricultural economy. In the early decades, African Americans were rejected for textile industry jobs because of segregation.

On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the first successful airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Reacting to segregation, disfranchisement and difficulties in agriculture, tens of thousands of African Americans left North Carolina for the North for better opportunities in the Great Migration, whose first wave was from 1910-1940. They went to Washington, DC; Baltimore, and Philadelphia; and sometimes further north, where there was work.

In the early 20th century, North Carolina launched both a major education initiative and a major road-building initiative to enhance the state’s economy. The educational initiative was launched by Governor Charles Aycock in 1901. Supposedly, North Carolina built one school per day while Aycock was in office. In addition, North Carolina was helped by the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which contributed matching funds for the construction of thousands of schools for African Americans in rural areas throughout the South in the 1920s and 1930s.

The state’s road-building initiative began in the 1920s, after the automobile became a popular mode of transportation. During the early decades of the 20th century, several major U.S. military installations, notably Fort Bragg, were located in North Carolina. There were many usable trains in the town.

North Carolina since the New Deal

In the period since the 1930s, North Carolina’s reputation as an educational and manufacturing center has continued to grow. During World War II, North Carolina supplied the U.S. armed forces with diverse manufactured goods, including more textiles than any other state in the nation. North Carolina also became known for its excellent universities. Three major institutions compose the state’s Research Triangle: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (chartered in 1789 and greatly expanded from the 1930s on), North Carolina State University, and Duke University (rechartered in 1924).

In 1931 the Negro Voters League was formed in Raleigh to press for voter registration. The city had an educated and politically sophisticated black middle class; by 1946 the League had succeeded in registering 7,000 black voters, an achievement in the segregated South. The work of racial desegregation and restoration of civil rights for African Americans continued throughout the state.

In 1960 nearly 25% of the state was African American: 1,114,907 citizens who had been living without full rights. African-American college students began the sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro on February 1, 1960, sparking a wave of copycat sit-ins across the American South. They continued the Greensboro sit-in sporadically for several months until, on July 25, African Americans were at last allowed to eat at Woolworth’s. Integration of public facilities followed.

Together with continued activism in states throughout the South, African Americans’ moral leadership gained passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Throughout the state, African Americans began to participate fully in political life. In October 1973, Clarence Lightner was elected mayor of Raleigh, making history as the first popularly elected mayor of the city, the first African American to be elected mayor, and the first African American to be elected mayor in a white-majority city of the South.

In 1971, North Carolina’s third state constitution was ratified. A 1997 amendment to this constitution granted the governor veto power over most legislation.

During the last 25 years, North Carolina’s population has increased as its economy has grown, especially in finance and knowledge-based industries. Most of the growth has taken place in metropolitan areas of the Piedmont, in Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Greensboro.