One of the original 13 colonies, North Carolina was the first state to instruct its delegates to vote for independence from the British crown during the Continental Congress. Following the Revolutionary War, North Carolina developed an extensive slave plantation system and became a major exporter of cotton and tobacco, although the enslaved population remained relatively small compared to other southern states.
In 1861, North Carolina became one of 11 states to secede from the United States, beginning the American Civil War. Despite no major battles being fought in the state, North Carolina sent more recruits to fight for the Confederacy than any other rebel state. In 1903, the state became the site of the first manned self-propelled airplane flight when the Wright brothers took off from a cliff near Kitty Hawk.
North Carolina’s Native American History
People began living in the area now known as North Carolina at least 12,000 years ago. Starting around 700 A.D., indigenous people created more permanent settlements, and many Native American groups populated North Carolina, such as the Cape Fear, Cheraw, Cherokee, Chowanoke, Croatoan, Meherrin, Saponi, Tuscarora and Waccamaw.
Europeans started to settle in the area in the mid-1600s. Native Americans attacked settlements, while colonists enslaved indigenous people, seized their lands and took advantage of them in trading negotiations. Scores of Native Americans were displaced from North Carolina or killed by smallpox and other diseases brought by the settlers.
Skirmishes between colonists and indigenous people eventually led to the Tuscarora War, which began in 1711 when the Tuscarora people attacked colonial settlements in North Carolina, attempting to drive out colonists backed by the Yamasee tribe. In 1713, hundreds of Tuscarora were killed or sold into slavery; most who remained migrated north to join the Iroquois Confederation.
Starting in the early 1700s, the Cherokee people in North Carolina were forced to cede large portions of their land to American colonists. Colonists and the Cherokee regularly got into armed conflicts. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, and five years later about 17,000 Cherokee were forcibly moved from North Carolina to present-day Oklahoma on what became known as the Trail of Tears. About 4,000 people died. After several hundred Cherokee refused to leave North Carolina, the American government established a reservation for the Eastern Band of Cherokee.
Today, there are eight federally-recognized Native American tribes in North Carolina, including the Coharie, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Haliwa-Saponi, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the Meherrin, the Sappony, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation and the Waccamaw Siouan.
North Carolina’s Colonial History
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto landed in North Carolina in the 1540s but left without staking a claim. In 1584, explorers traveling for the English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh arrived at Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and the first English settlement was established there in 1585. The settlers developed a hostile relationship with indigenous people, and Sir Francis Drake took most settlers back to England in 1586. When a rescue ship returned, the remaining few had vanished.
Fifteen men from the ship remained to secure the land for the English. Their bones were found in 1587 by explorer John White, who was sent by Raleigh with 116 English settlers to set up a colony. White left the island to secure supplies, and when he returned three years later the settlers had vanished without a trace, except for the word “Croatoan” scratched on a post that had enclosed the settlement. Although there have been several hypotheses as to what occurred, historians and archaeologists have been unable to find evidence to support any of them. The Roanoake settlement became known as the Lost Colony.
In 1629, King Charles I created the province of Carolina from northern Florida to Albermarle Sound. In the 1600s, the first colonists from Virginia began permanently settling in Carolina. A northern colony was established in the county of Albemarle in 1664, followed by a southern colony with its own government at Charles Town (now Charlestown, South Carolina) in 1670, and North Carolina and South Carolina were officially divided in 1712.
North Carolina in the Revolutionary War
In the 17th century, North Carolina residents became angered by the navigation acts, which imposed taxes on colonial goods. To retaliate against the taxes and abuse of power flaunted by the customs collector and deputy governor, Thomas Miller, a group of about 40 North Carolina rebels imprisoned Miller and seized control of the local government in 1677. John Culpeper, one of the group’s leaders, was tried for treason in England, but was acquitted and returned to Albemarle. The uprising became known as Culpeper’s Rebellion.
On November 2, 1769, North Carolina signed a nonimportation agreement to resist British taxes. Thought to be the first time a legislative body acted during the Revolutionary War, it may have inspired the North Carolina slogan “First in Freedom.” The slogan may also refer to the “Halifax Resolves,” which was when North Carolina's assembly authorized their Continental Congress delegates to vote for independence from Great Britain, on April 12, 1776—the first official state action for independence.
Five battles were fought in North Carolina during the American Revolution. In 1780, following the disastrous siege of Charleston, South Carolina, the Battle of King’s Mountain in North Carolina proved a major defeat for the British attempt to secure the southern colonies. North Carolina became the 12th state in the Union when its General Assembly ratified the U.S. Constitution on November 21, 1789.
Slavery and the Civil War
Enslaved people were brought to North Carolina, mainly from other American colonies, in the 17th and 18th centuries as a solution to the shortage of intensive labor required to grow tobacco, rice and indigo. The colony didn’t play a large part in the slave trade due to the lack of accessible ports, and because there weren’t as many plantations as in other colonies.
Enslaved people in North Carolina lived in abysmal conditions under restrictive slave codes. Despite the oppression, enslaved people preserved their families and cultural practices from Africa, until many were converted to Christianity in the 19th century.
At the outset of the Civil War, North Carolina debated whether to remain in the Union, as its economy didn’t depend as heavily on slavery as other states. It eventually seceded in 1861, although it contributed to Union and Confederate causes. Around 130,000 men fought for the Confederacy and 8,000 for the Union, and over 30,000 troops died. North Carolina was an important Confederate food supplier. Most of the 85 battles that took place in the state happened during Sherman’s March and the Battle of Bentonville, which was the Confederacy’s last full-scale action and led to North Carolina’s surrender in 1865. Slavery was abolished when North Carolina signed the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.
During the post-war Reconstruction, more than 360,000 emancipated enslaved people in North Carolina struggled to integrate into society under the oversight of the federally-enacted Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1866, North Carolina created a Black Code that denied citizenship to free African Americans and restricted their movement. When North Carolina rejected the 14th Amendment guaranteeing formerly enslaved people equal protection under the law, its government was dissolved. The state was put under military rule from March 1867 until July 1868, when its legislature approved the 14th Amendment and North Carolina was admitted back into the Union.
Immigration in North Carolina
North Carolina’s peak immigration occurred in the 18th century. Many settlers from other British colonies came to escape high taxes and oppression and were of English, Scottish, Irish and German descent. Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, more Highland Scotts immigrated to North Carolina than any other U.S. state.
Immigration to North Carolina slowed in the early 19th century due to poor economic conditions and turned into a significant out-migration. After the Civil War, many African Americans moved from North Carolina to big cities like New York and Detroit. Migration to the state only began to pick up in the 1960s and 1970s. Immigrants mainly came from Asian countries, including Vietnam, Laos, China and India, and later Central American and South American countries.
Black History in North Carolina
Following the Civil War through the end of the 1800s, many African Americans were elected to North Carolina state offices. Shaw University, in Raleigh, North Carolina, became the first college available to African Americans in the South when it opened its doors in 1865. African Americans launched numerous successful businesses, including North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest Black-owned life insurance company in the U.S., and the Coleman Manufacturing Company, the first black-owned cotton mill.
These successes drew the attention of white supremacists and politicians. The end of the 19th century ushered in an era of Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation, while white Democrats attempted to remove Black politicians from office. In 1898, a mob seized the Wilmington government and terrorized the Black community, killing as many as 250 people, in an event known as the Wilmington Massacre.
Throughout the early to mid-20th century, North Carolina Civil Rights leaders fought for equal rights. The 1960 Greensboro sit-in became a catalyst for sit-ins throughout the south, leading to the desegregation of public facilities.
North Carolina Industry and Economy
Inventors Wilbur and Orville Wright became interested in flight in the late 1800s and moved to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1900 for its strong winds and soft sands—perfect conditions for flying a glider. After nearly four years of experiments, they conducted the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight on December 17, 1903.
Today, the aerospace and defense industry remains an important sector of North Carolina’s economy, hosting company headquarters including Lockheed Martin. Sometimes called the “Furniture Capital of the World,” North Carolina also has the world’s largest furniture store, furniture manufacturer and furnishings industry trade show. Other key industries include banking, pharmaceuticals, food processing and technology.
Date of Statehood: November 21, 1789
Population: 10,439,388 (2020)
Size: 53,819 square miles
Nickname(s): Old North State; Tar Heel State
Motto: Esse Quam Videri (“To Be Rather Than to Seem”)
- The first child born in America of English descent was a girl named Virginia Dare. Born on August 18, 1587, Virginia was one of the members of the “Lost Colony,” discovered missing on what would have been her 3rd birthday by her grandfather John White, who had originally led the colonial expedition to Roanoke Island but later returned to England for supplies.
- Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first powered airplane flight on December 17, 1903, covered only 120 feet and lasted only 12 seconds.
- During World War II, approximately 10,000 enemy soldiers were contained within 18 prisoners of war camps throughout the state of North Carolina.
Recommended for you
- North Carolina is the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the nation. In 2011, farmers within the state harvested 64,000 acres—yielding 1.28 billion pounds of vitamin A-rich tubers.
North Carolina History in Photos
Oral History, Archaeological Evidence & Historical Timeline, meherrinnation.org
Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina: History and Migrations, lumbeetribe.com
North Carolina American Indian History Timeline, ncmuseumofhistory.org
Tuscarora War, northcarolinahistory.org
FAQs About American Indians, americanindiancenter.unc.edu
A Brief History of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, obsn.org
"North Carolina's First Colonists: 12,000 Years Before Roanoke," archaeology.ncdcr.gov
The Lost Colony of Roanoke, outerbanks.org
North Carolina in the American Revolution, americanrevolutioninstitute.org
North Carolina History, sosnc.gov
Carolinas, Separation of, ncpedia.org
Culpeper’s Rebellion (Roots of), northcarolinahistory.org
"First in Freedom," ncpedia.org
The Halifax Resolves, ncpedia.org
"Early North Carolina: Colonial Era and Revolutionary War," ncdcr.gov
South Carolina, battlefields.org
"North Carolina Becomes the Twelfth State," ncdcr.gov
"The Growth of Slavery in North Carolina," ncpedia.org
"North Carolina in the Civil War," battlefields.org
War's End and Reconstruction, historicsites.nc.gov
Johnston County, NC, battlefields.org
Thirteenth Amendment, ncpedia.org
13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Abolition of Slavery (1865), archives.gov
Highland Scots, northcarolinahistory.gov
Coleman Manufacturing Company, ncpedia.org
North Carolina's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), ncpedia.org
Black Wall Street, Durham, North Carolina, ncpedia.org
1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, ncdcr.gov
"A North Carolina city begins to reckon with the massacre in its white supremacist past," npr.org
African American Civil Rights in North Carolina, ncpedia.org
Wright Brothers in North Carolina, ncpedia.org
Key Industries in North Carolina, commerce.nc.gov
North Carolina, usnews.com
QuickFacts: North Carolina, census.gov
"North Carolina: Leading sweet potato production for 50 years," ncdemography.org