North Carolina Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the original thirteen colonies, North Carolina began its existence as an immigrant society. After the United States became independent, it received few foreign immigrants until the 1960’s and 1970’s, when significant economic growth brought waves of new people looking for work. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the state had one of the nation’s fastest growing population of Latinos, a large but unknown number of whom were undocumented laborers.

The non-Native American population of early colonial North Carolina was necessarily a product of immigration, not all of it foreign. Many of North Carolina’s earliest settlers came from other colonies, such as Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. Indeed, the first permanent white settlers came to Albemarle Sound from Virginia during the 1650’s. Mostly of English extraction, they numbered several hundred farmers and traders. North Carolina’s first significant conflict with Native Americans, the Tuscarora War of 1711, was in part sparked by the settlement of Swiss immigrants;North CarolinaSwiss and German immigrants;North CarolinaGerman colonists at New Bern. Its outcome, the defeat of the Indians, spurred new European immigration to North Carolina’s Coastal Plain.North CarolinaNorth Carolina[cat]STATES;North Carolina[03940]

Colonial Society

The colony’s growing population was quite diverse. In addition to settlers of English ancestry, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, German, and Swiss settlers were well represented. Black Slavery;North Carolinaslaves, most of whom came from either the West Indies or directly from West Africa, arrived in increasing numbers. They were concentrated mostly in the Lower Cape Fear region, where the plantations of affluent South Carolina and Virginia immigrants produced naval stores, indigo, and rice.

North Carolina had the distinction of attracting more Scottish immigrants;North CarolinaScottish Highlanders in the eighteenth century than any other future state. From 1732 to 1775, between 15,000 and 30,000 Highlanders came to North Carolina’s Cape Fear Valley. Among them were the poet MacRae, JohnJohn MacRae and the Jacobite heroine MacDonald, FloraFlora MacDonald. Their communities were highly insular, and Gaelic prevailed as the majority language–even for slaves in the region–into the early nineteenth century.

Westward expansion into North Carolina’s Piedmont region was similarly diverse. While the first settlers there were English colonists from the coast, they were soon joined by others–including the stream of Germans and Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants];North CarolinaScotch-Irish who by the mid-eighteenth century had begun moving southward from Pennsylvania along the Great Valley of Virginia. In 1753, Pennsylvania Moravian immigrantsMoravians began work on the planned community of Salem. They would also establish several other settlements in the region. Immigration into the mountain region–which, by 1830, would give western North Carolina a preponderance of the population–followed a similar ethnic profile. Most migrants were of Scotch-Irish, English, or German ancestry. Many came directly from the Piedmont region.

Nineteenth Century Trends

Because of a slow-down in immigration and a significant degree of out-migration during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several attempts to attract immigrants to North Carolina were concocted. These began during the post-Civil War era under the auspices of the state Department of Agriculture, Immigration, and Statistics and its subordinate organization, the North Carolina Bureau of Immigration. The bureau’s successes were mostly modest; they included the settlement of sixty-nine immigrants described as “German Polanders” in Salisbury in 1881. Private citizens also attempted to attract foreign labor and capital to the state through colonization schemes. The most famous of these, Wilmington entrepreneur MacRae, HughHugh MacRae, founded several settlements of Italian, Polish, Dutch, German, and Hungarian immigrants;North CarolinaHungarian immigrants in the southeastern part of the state between 1905 and 1908.

Twentieth Century Developments

North Carolina had little significant immigration until the 1960’s and 1970’s, when economic growth and the end of racial segregation in public accommodations encouraged people from out of state and overseas to enter the state. Most of the population growth since that period has been centered in the state’s major urban regions–the so-called Research Triangle that encompasses the major university towns of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill; the Piedmont Triad of Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point; and Asheville and Wilmington. Many immigrants from around the world have settled in these areas in search of economic opportunities and education, bringing a degree of cultural diversity unprecedented in North Carolina history.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s many Vietnamese immigrants;North CarolinaSoutheast Asian immigrants entered North Carolina. A large portion of these people were refugees fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Of the 125,000 Vietnamese refugees authorized to enter the United States during President Gerald Ford’s administration, about 2,400 were living in North Carolina by 1980. They were joined by another stream of Vietnamese migration during the 1980’s. Many Vietnamese immigrants;MontagnardsMontagnard immigrantsMontagnards joined this stream of post-Vietnam War refugees. By the early twenty-first century, North Carolina had the largest population of Montagnards–about 5,000–outside Vietnam. Laotian immigrants;North CarolinaHmong immigrants fleeing Laos’s Vietnam-backed government also came in large numbers to the United States. The estimated 7,100 to 12,000 refugees who settled in North Carolina formed one of the largest Hmong communities in the United States.

The 1960’s also saw the immigration of people from other parts of Asia into North Carolina. Many are involved in business, education, research and other middle-class pursuits, and most live in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle. By 2000, roughly 26,000 Asian Indians, 19,000 Chinese, 15,000 Vietnamese, 12,000 Koreans, and 9,000 Filipinos resided in the state.

The single largest-growing immigrant group in North Carolina, however, has been Latin American immigrants;North CarolinaLatinos. Mostly of Mexican origin but also including people from South and Central America, the Latino population of North Carolina saw the highest increase in the nation (394 percent) between 1990 and 2000. This growth has been in large part due to the U.S. demand for cheap, unskilled labor, combined with the potent push factor of poverty and limited jobs in Mexico and other countries. It was sped by an economic boom experienced in the South during the 1990’s that was particularly strong in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham.

Latinos have been especially attracted to the construction industry in North Carolina, in which they made up about 29 percent of the labor force during the early twenty-first century. They have also been heavily employed in North Carolina’s agricultural and agricultural processing sectors, in which they have rapidly displaced African American workers. About one-third of the nation’s documented guest workers labor on farms in North Carolina. However, a large but unknown number of Latino workers are undocumented.North Carolina

Further Reading
  • Blethen, H. Tyler, and Curtin W. Wood, Jr. From Ulster to Carolina: The Migration of the Scotch-Irish to Southwestern North Carolina. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Division of Archives and History, 1998.
  • Haines, David W., ed. Refugees as Immigrants: Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese in America. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1989.
  • Nazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey. New York: Random House, 2006.
  • Sherman, Spencer. “The Hmong in America: Laotian Refugees in the Land of the Giants.” National Geographic (October, 1988).

British immigrants

Economic opportunities

Ethnic enclaves

European immigrants


German immigrants

Guest-worker programs

Mexican immigrants

South Carolina

Vietnamese immigrants

Westward expansion

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