North Carolina History

North Carolina

North Carolina, state in the SE United States. It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean (E), South Carolina and Georgia (S), Tennessee (W), and Virginia (N).

Facts and Figures

Area, 52,586 sq mi (136,198 sq km). Pop. (2010) 9,535,483, an 18.5% increase since the 2000 census. Capital, Raleigh. Largest city, Charlotte. Statehood, Nov. 21, 1789 (12th of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution). Highest pt., Mt. Mitchell, 6,684 ft (2,039 m); lowest pt., sea level. Nickname, Tar Heel State. Motto,Esse Quam Videri [To Be Rather than to Seem]. State bird, cardinal. State flower, dogwood. State tree, pine. Abbr., N.C.; NC


The eastern end of North Carolina juts out from the East Coast of the United States into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream, making the state prone to Atlantic hurricanes, which tend to strike the state every three to four years. Running along the entire coast of North Carolina, serving as a buffer against the Atlantic, is a long chain of barrier islands (the Outer Banks), with constantly shifting sand dunes, from which project three famous capes—Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear. Between the islands and the shoreline stretch lagoons—Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound are the largest—that receive the Chowan, Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, and Cape Fear rivers. Wilmington, the chief port, is at the head of the Cape Fear estuary. The mainland bordering the sounds is low, flat tidewater country, often swampy, even beyond the Great Dismal Swamp in the north. In the upper coastal plain the land rises gradually from the tidewater, reaching 500 ft (152 m) at the fall line.

There begins the Piedmont, a rolling hill country with many swift streams such as the Broad River; the Catawba; and the Pee Dee, with its three large dams. The hydroelectric power these rivers generate has made this an important manufacturing area, and the Piedmont is home to most of the state's population and its largest cities. At the western edge of the Piedmont the land rises abruptly in the Blue Ridge, then dips down to several basins, and rises again in the Great Smoky Mts. Asheville is the leading urban center of this mountain region. Mt. Mitchell (6,684 ft/2,037 m) is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. The French Broad River, the Watauga, and other rivers rising west of the Blue Ridge flow into the Mississippi system, almost all via the Tennessee River.

North Carolina, in the warm temperate zone, has a generally mild climate, with abundant and well distributed rainfall. The state's congenial climate, its many miles of beaches, and its beautiful mountains attract large numbers of visitors and vacationers each year. Chief among the tourist attractions are the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the Cape Lookout National Seashore, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Great Smoky Mts. National Park. Wildlife abounds in national forests (the state has four) and in the Great Dismal Swamp. Places of historic interest include Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, on Roanoke Island; the Wright Brothers National Memorial, at Kitty Hawk; Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, at Flatrock; and Guilford Courthouse and Moores Creek national military parks.

One of the largest military reservations in the nation is at Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, and the huge Marine Corps amphibious training base is at Camp Lejeune, near the mouth of the New River. Raleigh is the capital and the second largest city. The largest city is Charlotte; other major cities include Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Asheville.


North Carolina leads the nation in the production of tobacco and is a major producer of textiles and furniture. It grows 40% of all U.S. tobacco, but the continuing trend is toward diversification. Broilers, hogs, turkeys, greenhouse products, sweet potatoes, corn, soybeans, peanuts, and eggs are important. Plentiful forests supply the thriving furniture and lumber industries. The state has long been a major textile manufacturer, producing cotton, synthetic, and silk goods as well as various kinds of knit items. Other leading manufactures are electrical machinery, computers, and chemicals; the Research Triangle complex near Chapel Hill has spurred high-tech manufacturing, as well as bringing federal jobs into the state. The state also has mineral resources: It leads the nation in the production of feldspar, mica, and lithium materials and produces substantial quantities of olivine, crushed granite, talc, clays, and phosphate rock. There are valuable coastal fisheries, with shrimp, menhaden, and crabs the principal catches. Charlotte developed in the 1980s into a major U.S. banking center, and related businesses have flourished in the area.

Government and Higher Education

North Carolina's first constitution was adopted in 1776. Its present constitution dates from 1868 but was thoroughly revised in 1875–76 as a result of Reconstruction experiences; it has been amended many times since. The state's executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term. North Carolina's general assembly has a senate with 50 members and a house with 120 members, all elected for two-year terms. The state elects 2 senators and 13 representatives to the U.S. Congress and has 15 electoral votes. James B. Hunt, Jr., a Democrat, was elected governor in 1992 and reelected in 1996. In 2000, Democrat Mike Easley won the governorship; he was reelected in 2004. Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, won in the post in 2008, becoming the state's first woman governor, but in 2012 Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor. McCrory narrowly lost the governorship to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016.

The state's notable institutions of higher learning include the Univ. of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill and four other campuses; Duke Univ., at Durham; North Carolina State Univ., at Raleigh; Wake Forest Univ. and the North Carolina School of the Arts, at Winston-Salem; East Carolina Univ., at Greenville; North Carolina Agricultural and Technical Univ., at Greensboro; and Appalachian State Univ., at Boone.


Exploration and Colonization

North Carolina's treacherous coast was explored by Verrazzano in 1524, and possibly by some Spanish navigators. Under Juan Pardo, the Spanish explored (1566–68) the interior of the Carolinas, establishing several short-lived forts. In the 1580s, Sir Walter Raleigh attempted unsuccessfully to establish a colony on one of the islands (see Roanoke Island). The first permanent settlements were made (c.1653) around Albemarle Sound by colonials from Virginia. Meanwhile, Charles I of England had granted (1629) the territory S of Virginia between the 36th and 31st parallels (named Carolina in the king's honor) to Sir Robert Heath. Heath did not exploit his grant, and it was declared void in 1663. Charles II reassigned the territory to eight court favorites, who became the "true and absolute Lords Proprietors" of Carolina. In 1664, Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia and one of the proprietors, appointed a governor for the province of Albemarle, which after 1691 was known as North Carolina.

By 1700 there were only some 4,000 freeholders, predominantly of English stock, along Albemarle Sound. There, with the labor of indentured servants and African- and Native-American slaves, they raised tobacco, corn, and livestock, mostly on small farms. The people were semi-isolated; only vessels of light draft could negotiate the narrow and shallow passages through the island barriers. Furthermore, communication by land was almost impossible, except with Virginia, and even then swamps and forests made it difficult. There was some trade (primarily with Virginia, New England, and Bermuda).

In 1712, North Carolina was made a separate colony. The destructive war with Native Americans of the Tuscarora tribe broke out that year. The Tuscarora were defeated, and in 1714 the remnants of the tribe moved north to join the Iroquois Confederacy. A long, bitter boundary dispute with Virginia was partially settled in 1728 when a joint commission ran the boundary line 240 mi (386 km) inland.

The British government made North Carolina a royal colony in 1729. Thereafter the region developed more rapidly. The Native Americans were gradually pushed beyond the Appalachians as the Piedmont was increasingly occupied. German and Scotch-Irish settlers followed the valleys down from Pennsylvania, and Highland Scots established themselves along the Cape Fear River. These varied ethnic elements, in addition to smaller groups of Swiss, French, and Welsh that had migrated to the region earlier in the century, gradually amalgamated. There has been little new immigration since colonial days, and North Carolina's white population is now largely homogeneous.

Resistance and Revolution

In 1768 the back-country farmers, justifiably enraged by the excessive taxes imposed by a legislature dominated by the eastern aristocracy, organized the Regulator movement in an attempt to effect reforms. The insurgents were suppressed at Alamance in 1771 by the provincial militia led by Gov. William Tryon, who had seven of the Regulators executed.

After the outbreak of the American Revolution, royal authority collapsed. A provisional government was set up, the disputed Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was allegedly promulgated (May, 1775), and the provincial congress instructed (Apr. 12, 1776) the colony's delegates to the Continental Congress to support complete independence from Britain. Most Loyalists, including Highland Scots, fled North Carolina after their defeat (Feb. 27, 1776) at the battle of Moores Creek Bridge near Wilmington. The British, however, did not give up hope of Tory assistance in the state until their failure in the Carolina campaign (1780–81). The designation of North Carolinians as "Tar Heels" was said to have originated during that campaign when patriotic citizens poured tar into a stream across which Cornwallis's men retreated, emerging with the substance sticking to their heels.

Westward Expansion and Civic Improvements

Settlements had been established beyond the mountains before the Revolution (see Watauga Association and Transylvania Company) and were increased after the war. In 1784 North Carolina ceded its western lands to the United States, spurring the transmontane people to organize a new, short-lived government (see Franklin, State of). Within the year North Carolina repealed the act ceding the land; however, the cession was reenacted in 1789, and that territory became (1796) the state of Tennessee.

North Carolina opposed a strong central government and did not ratify the Constitution until Nov., 1789, months after the new U.S. government had begun to function. Little social and economic progress was made under the state's undemocratic constitution (framed in 1776), which largely served the interests of the politically dominant, tidewater planter aristocracy, and North Carolina appeared to be on the verge of revolution.

In 1835, however, the western part of the state, now its most populous section, finally succeeded in enacting a constitution that abolished the property and religious qualifications for voting and holding office (except for Jews) and provided for the popular election of governors. In the same year began the final forced removal of most of the Cherokee; but to check the steady, voluntary outmigration of whites, internal improvements, especially the building of railroads and plank roads, were effected. The Public School Law (1839) inaugurated free education, and other important reforms were instituted. The period of progress continued until the Civil War.

Secession and Civil War

Few North Carolinians held slaves, and considerable antislavery sentiment existed until the 1830s, when organized agitation by Northern abolitionists began, provoking a defensive reaction that North Carolinians shared with most Southerners. Yet it was a native of the state, Hinton Rowan Helper, who made the most notable southern contribution to antislavery literature. Not until President Lincoln's call for troops after the firing on Fort Sumter did the state secede and join (May, 1861) the Confederacy. The coast was ideal for blockade-running, and the last important Confederate port to fall (Jan., 1865) was Wilmington (see Fort Fisher).

Gov. Zebulon B. Vance zealously defended the state's rights against what he considered encroachments by the Confederate government. Although many small engagements were fought on North Carolina soil, the state was not seriously invaded until almost the end of the war when Gen. William Sherman and his huge army moved north from Georgia. After engagements at Averasboro and Bentonville in Mar., 1865, Confederate Gen. J. E. Johnston surrendered (Apr. 26, 1865) to Sherman near Durham; next to Lee's capitulation at Appomattox, it was the largest (and almost the last) surrender of the war.

Reconstruction and Agrarian Revolt

In May, 1865, President Andrew Johnson applied his plan of Reconstruction to the state. The radical Republicans in Congress, however, adopted their own scheme in 1867, and the Carolinas, organized as the second military district, were again occupied by federal troops. The Reconstruction constitution of 1868 abolished slavery, removed all religious tests for holding office, and provided for the popular election of all state and county officials. In 1871 the legislature, with conservatives again in control, impeached and convicted Gov. William H. Holden.

The often maligned period of Reconstruction actually saw the beginning of the modern state, with a tremendous rise in industry in the Piedmont. Increased use of tobacco in the Civil War stimulated the growth of tobacco manufacturing (first centered at Durham), and the introduction of the cigarette-making machine in the early 1880s was an immense boon to the industry, creating tobacco barons such as James B. Duke and R. J. Reynolds.

Agriculture, however, was in a critically depressed condition. The old plantation system had been replaced by farm tenancy, which long remained the dominant system of holding land. Much farm property was destroyed, credit was largely unavailable, and transportation systems broke down. The nationwide agrarian revolt reached North Carolina in the Granger movement (1875), the Farmers' Alliance (1887), and the Populist party, which united with the Republicans to carry the state elections in 1894 and 1896. However, the Fusionists (as members of the alliance were called) were blamed for the rise of black control in many tidewater towns and counties, and in the election of 1898, when the Red Shirts, like the Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction days, were active, the Democrats regained control.

Progress in the Twentieth Century

The turn of the century marked the beginning of a new progressive era, typified by the successful airplane experiments of the Wright Brothers near Kitty Hawk. The crusade for public education for both whites and blacks led by Gov. Charles B. Aycock, elected in 1900, had a wide impact, and new interest was created in developing the state's agricultural and industrial resources. However, one old pattern was strengthened when a suffrage amendment, the "grandfather clause" assuring white supremacy, was added (1900) to the state constitution.

Since World War I the state government has increasingly followed a policy of consolidation and centralization, taking over the public school system and the supervision of county finances and roads. A huge highway development program, begun by the counties in 1921, was assumed by the state a decade later when the counties could no longer meet the costs. Expenditures for higher education were greatly increased, and the three major state educational institutions were merged into a greater entity, the Univ. of North Carolina. North Carolina, more than many other Southern states, was able to make a peaceful adjustment to integration in the public schools following the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in 1954.

Industrialization burgeoned after World War II, and in the 1950s the value of manufactured goods surpassed that of agriculture for the first time, as North Carolina became the leading industrial state in the Southeast. The Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham airports were both transformed into major air-travel hubs during the 1980s, reflecting the tremendous growth (most of it suburban) in those metropolitan areas, which were becoming financial, business, and research boomtowns. Traditional, low-skill industries have been gradually replaced by high-technology concerns, especially in the Research Triangle between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, which draws on the resources of the three cities' universities. Farming in North Carolina has become increasingly dominated by the large-scale production of hogs and broiler chickens, raising environmental concerns about the disposal of their waste. In Sept., 1999, floods on the Cape Fear and other rivers followed Hurricane Floyd, causing widespread devastation in the southeast; rains from Hurricane Matthew caused similar flooding and devastation in the state's east in Oct., 2016.


See Federal Writers' Project, The North Carolina Guide, ed. by B. P. Robinson (rev. ed. 1955); J. H. Wheeler, ed., Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851 (from original records, 1964); J. Brickell, The Natural History of North Carolina (1737, repr. 1969); H. T. Lefler and A. R. Newsome, North Carolina: The History of a Southern State (3d ed. 1973); H. T. Lefler and W. S. Powell, Colonial North Carolina: A History (1973); J. W. Clay, North Carolina Atlas (1975); J. Vickers et al., Chapel Hill: An Illustrated History (1985); J. Crutchfield, The North Carolina Almanac and Book of Facts (1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

North Carolina History: Selected full-text books and articles

North Carolina through Four Centuries By William S. Powell University of North Carolina Press, 1989
New Voyages to Carolina: Reinterpreting North Carolina History By Larry E. Tise; Jeffrey J. Crow University of North Carolina Press, 2017
North Carolinians in the Era of the Civil War and Reconstruction By Paul D. Escott University of North Carolina Press, 2008
A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713 By Noeleen McIlvenna University of North Carolina Press, 2009
Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy By David S. Cecelski; Timothy B. Tyson University of North Carolina Press, 1998
Conservative Constraints: North Carolina and the New Deal By Douglas Carl Abrams University Press of Mississippi, 1992
The Research Triangle: From Tobacco Road to Global Prominence By William M. Rohe University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011
Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867 By Patricia C. Click University of North Carolina Press, 2001
The North Carolina Experience: An Interpretive and Documentary History By Lindley S. Butler; Alan D. Watson University of North Carolina Press, 1984
Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers By Karl E. Campbell University of North Carolina Press, 2007
Librarian's tip: Sam Ervin was a U.S. Senator from North Carolina. He chaired the Watergate Committee. He also served in the North Carolina State Assembly and as a judge.
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