The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina

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The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina, by Milton Ready. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005. xv, 404 pp. $39.95 cloth.

THE HISTORY OF NORTH CAROLINA AND ITS PEOPLE, JUST LIKE ITS GEOGRAPHY, defies easy categorization. Yet Milton Ready has produced a welcome one-volume guide to the Tar Heel state that is well-organized, wide-ranging and very readable despite these challenges. Few historians these days would attempt such a feat given the proliferation of new scholarship on so many topics, including race, class, and gender, but also politics, culture, and environment. Moreover, chronological coverage necessitates starting quite early, as we now know much about pre-contact Native American societies, and ending late, indeed with the twenty-first century.

North Carolina has had its share of chroniclers. The standard texts, Lefler-Newsome's North Carolina: The History of a Southern State (1954) and William Powell's North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989) provide traditional political histories but put too little emphasis on racial politics and do nothing with gender. Joe A. Mobley's recently edited collection, The Way We Lived in North Carolina (2003), offers an important corrective to these classics by emphasizing social and cultural history. But Milton Ready is to be commended for producing "the first interpretative history of North Carolina in a generation" by a single author. It takes us in Braudelian fashion from the story of North Carolina geology during the Paleozoic era right up to the emergence of today's "modern megastate."

The book is heavily weighted toward the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. It opens with an unusual overview of North Carolina's origins in the ancient supercontinent of Pangea. Ready wants to explain North Carolina's geological and geographical distinctiveness and the structural limitations and challenges they have posed for political and economic development to the colony and the state. The second chapter looks at Amerindian and European contests in Carolina in the sixteenth century, the weaknesses in English military and colonial leadership these clashes exposed, and the subtle emergence of a separate North from South Carolina. The next 100 pages tell the more familiar story of eighteenth-century settlement and the American Revolution. It should be noted that Ready gives the Revolution as much importance as the Civil War, and explains North Carolina's relationship to larger national debates and developments while explicitly discussing internal challenges and conflicts nicely. …