North Carolina

Although sometimes historically overshadowed by its neighbors Virginia and South Carolina, North Carolina has contributed much to the development of the United States.

History of North Carolina

Although sometimes historically overshadowed by its neighbors Virginia and South Carolina, North Carolina has contributed much to the development of the United States. A relatively narrow state, it stretches from the Great Smoky Mountains, a part of the Appalachian system, through the Piedmont Plateau to the coastal plain, which terminates at the long, narrow islands known as the Outer Banks, where Europeans first attempted to settle the land in the late 1500’s.

Native Americans and Early Europeans

Sometime around 8000 b.c.e., Native Americans began settling what is now North Carolina. By the period 500 b.c.e., what is known as the Woodland culture had developed throughout much of the area, with cultivation of corn, beans, and squash and the hunting of game. By the time Europeans arrived there were around thirty tribes in the area belonging to three basic linguistic groups, the Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan. The five most powerful and important tribes were the Hatteras (also known as Croatoan), Chowanoe, Tuscarora, Catawba, and Cherokee. The relationship between these Native Americans and the Europeans, especially the English, would have a major impact on the development of North Carolina.

Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian explorer in the service of France, was the first European to chart the Carolina coast. He was followed by the Spanish in 1526 with an unsuccessful attempt at settlement and in 1540 with Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s travel through the state. The first serious attempts at European settlement came through England’s Sir Walter Raleigh, who had been granted land by Queen Elizabeth. In 1585 and 1586 the first two expeditions sponsored, but not led, by Raleigh were unsuccessful. However, in 1587 a third group established itself on Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks. A few weeks after the colony was founded, Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter named Virginia, the first English child born in the New World. John White, father of Eleanor Dare and the colony’s governor, sailed to England for supplies. Hostile Spanish fleets prevented his return until 1590, when he found the colony deserted and the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. Although this may have signaled the community’s move to Croatoan Island, south of Cape Hatteras, the mystery of the so-called Lost Colony was never solved.

English Settlement and Revolution

In 1663 King Charles II of England granted a charter to eight Lord Proprietors for a colony to be called Carolina, after himself. A northern county, known as Albemarle, became the foundation of North Carolina. Settlers came from England and Virginia. Initial growth was slow, marked by frequent disputes, sometimes breaking into open rebellion, between settlers and representatives of the Proprietors. The colony faced numerous dangers, including the ravages of pirates, such as Edward Teach or Blackbeard, and the colony was hard-pressed during the Tuscarora War with that tribe, which raged from 1711 through 1715. However, it overcame these difficulties, and in 1712 North and South Carolina were officially recognized as two separate and distinct colonies. In 1731 North Carolina became a royal colony.

After an initially slow start, North Carolina’s population grew steadily, and its economy prospered from the production of naval staples such as turpentine and tar. It was during this period that “Tarheel” became a popular nickname for the state and its residents, because of the abundance of that material. As British high taxes and unfair treatment pushed the colonies toward rebellion, North Carolina joined the movement for independence and took a dramatic step in advance of other American colonies: In 1775 citizens of Mecklenburg County adopted a set of “resolves,” which declared North Carolina independent of Great Britain. In Halifax in April, 1776, a provincial congress again voted in favor of independence.

Revolution and Statehood

The only two battles during the Revolution fought in North Carolina were those of Moore’s Creek Bridge in 1776 and Guilford Courthouse in 1781. However, there was a vicious partisan struggle during the Revolution between loyalists and rebels, as well as uprisings by Cherokee Indians in the mountain areas throughout the conflict.

North Carolina initially rejected the proposed U.S. Constitution from fear of a strong central government but ratified it in 1789, after the Bill of Rights was proposed. Until the mid-1830’s, it lagged behind the new nation in economic development, educational initiatives, and overall prosperity. During this time, North Carolina was sometimes scornfully referred to as the “Rip Van Winkle State” because of its stagnation. However, state leaders pushed through important changes, writing a new state constitution and making the state capital Raleigh, near the center of the state. Railroads, canals, public schools, and other civic improvements led to economic development and population growth.

Civil War

When the Civil War was brewing, North Carolina resisted joining other Southern states in seceding from the Union. There was strong antislavery and pro-Union sentiment in North Carolina, especially in the western portion of the state, and efforts were made to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. It was not until Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter and President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for troops to put down the rebellion that North Carolina left the Union, in 1861.

Despite coming late to the conflict, North Carolina sent more troops to the Confederate army than any other Southern state, and more than one-quarter of its soldiers were killed. During the war, Union forces quickly captured the Outer Banks and much of the coastline, with only the port of Wilmington remaining open for Confederate blockade runners until the spring of 1865. The last major battle of the war was fought at Bentonville on March 19-21, 1865, between the forces of Union general William Tecumseh Sherman and Confederate Joseph E. Johnston. Johnston’s defeat and surrender to Sherman shortly after Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s effectively ended the Civil War.


The Reconstruction period in North Carolina was one of intense struggle between defenders of the old order against newly freed African Americans and whites who had not been slave owners before the war. Under a new constitution, North Carolina was readmitted to the Union in 1868, and a series of reforms were enacted, which benefited both whites and blacks. However, conservative forces regained power in the state legislature in 1870, and in 1876, when federal troops left and Reconstruction ended, blacks and poor whites found themselves again under the domination of landlords and the rich.

Antebellum North Carolina’s economy had relied primarily upon agriculture, with the state split between larger farms and plantations dependent upon slave labor in the east and smaller farms in the west. Following the Civil War, small farms leased out to sharecroppers became a dominant pattern, with tobacco and cotton the primary cash crops. Textile mills, many of them using the water power abundant in the state’s Piedmont area, were established. Tobacco became a major crop, and North Carolina a major manufacturer of tobacco products. In 1890, James B. Duke founded the American Tobacco Company, and his rival, Richard Joshua Reynolds, made his company, R. J. Reynolds, one of the nation’s leading industries. Meanwhile, the abundant forests and water power of western North Carolina and the wood-working technology it powered caused furniture making to become a growth industry that remained important throughout the twentieth century. Technology of another kind was literally launched on December 17, 1903, when Wilbur and Orville Wright made the first powered flight of an aircraft at Kitty Hawk on the windswept Outer Banks.

Modern North Carolina

North Carolina, like so much of the South, was hard hit by the Great Depression, but Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the economic mobilization brought about by World War II began massive changes in the state. By offering tax breaks and other incentives, North Carolina was highly successful in recruiting new business, including high- technology firms. Research Triangle Park, located in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, became the site of research and development efforts by many national and international companies, often in conjunction with North Carolina’s colleges and universities. During the 1980’s, North Carolina became a major player in the financial world as regional and national banks located their headquarters in the state.

Under Governor Terry Sanford, from 1961 to 1965, North Carolina developed a progressive attitude toward education and the arts. Many community and technical colleges were established to provide training and education for workers in high-tech industries, and the nation’s first state-supported school for the performing arts was launched in Winston-Salem. During this time North Carolina’s institutions of higher education, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and Wake Forest, became recognized as among the finest in the United States.

However, economic development and academic achievement were not always evenly matched by social progress. The nation’s first sit-in to protest racial segregation occurred in Greensboro in 1960 and provoked reactions from the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, including the murder of five protesters at an anti-Klan rally in 1979. At the same time, the Republican Party grew in strength in North Carolina, at times by appealing to the “white backlash” vote. In 1972 Jesse Helms became the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina in the twentieth century.

The state was also battered by natural disasters in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In March, 1984, a series of tornadoes in the state’s eastern counties killed forty-four people. Only six months later, Hurricane Diana caused more than $65 million in damage. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo, one of the strongest storms ever to come ashore in the United States, caused millions of dollars of damage in Charlotte, hundreds of miles inland. In 1996 two hurricanes, Bertha in July and Fran in September, left massive destruction behind them, and twenty-one people died in Fran’s fury. With potential prosperity and growth on the one hand, and unresolved racial tensions on the other, North Carolina is ever more mindful of its motto, Esse quam videri–“To be rather than to seem.”