The tides of history have flowed back and forth across North Carolina. For Native Americans, the fragile coastline fringed the periphery of their world; for European colonizers, it marked the point from which they steadily pushed the original inhabitants westwards. Once it became part of the United States, North Carolina’s fortunes became entwined with the plantation South, and it eventually seceded to join the Confederacy. Since then, the state has continued to identify with the South, while industrializing and entering the global economy.
The Native Presence
Nomadic peoples are thought to have first reached what’s now North Carolina around 15,000 BC. They hunted the continent’s original ‘megafauna’ – mammoths, mastodons and the like – on the coastal plains, then much larger thanks to lower sea levels.
Life became more sedentary with the arrival of agriculture and pottery, from 1500 BC onwards, while sizable settlements appeared when the Mississippian culture spread through the region around AD 800. The Cherokee trace their roots to the Mound Builder site of Etowah, in modern Georgia.
Dozens of other tribes were present when Hernando de Soto’s bloodthirsty Spanish raiders passed through western North Carolina in 1540. Juan Pardo’s party, who followed in 1566–67, hung around longer and probably brought smallpox with them.
The earliest European settlements, such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s famous ‘Lost Colony,’ were precarious, vulnerable outposts. Scattered in isolation along the marginal, ever-shifting Atlantic shore, they were only able to survive on native sufferance. Raleigh’s first expedition – he never came himself – reached Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584, while his second built a fort there the following summer, only to be evacuated by Sir Francis Drake in 1586. His third built a village in 1587, but it had disappeared entirely by 1590, having failed to become self-supporting or to be resupplied from England.
The colony of Carolina was created in 1663, when King Charles II of England granted a charter to eight English noblemen known as the Lords Proprietors. It was divided into North and South in 1712. Ten years later, the Crown bought out seven proprietors, but the eighth, Lord Granville, refused to relinquish his control of the so-called Granville Tract, occupying the northern half of North Carolina, and the colony remained largely untamed and lawless.
The 18th Century
As North Carolina lacked natural harbors like Charleston and Newport, European incursions tended to come via landward migration from north or south. The understandable hostility of the native inhabitants towards the freebooting adventurers who plundered the rich coastal plains for furs and slaves prompted the Tuscarora War (1711–13) and Yamasee War (1715–17). Native American defeat, coupled with a major smallpox epidemic in 1738–39, effectively cleared the way for large-scale European settlement. Great swathes of wetlands were drained to create huge plantations, especially along the Cape Fear River, and as tobacco and rice farming expanded, so too did the importation of slaves.
When the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, tribes including the Catawba and Cherokee initially sided with the British. By now, however, thanks to the opening of the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to Georgia, Scots-Irish and German Moravian migrants were moving into the ‘backcountry,’ and clashes with native peoples swiftly escalated. At the end of the war in 1763, George II rejected tribal claims to their historic homelands while supposedly acknowledging Native American sovereignty over the lands beyond the mountains. During the Revolutionary War, British hopes that their Southern colonies might prove loyal to the Crown were soon dashed, and several important battles were fought hereabouts, especially around Charlotte.
Independence and Civil War
With independence won, the new state of North Carolina shifted its capital (previously in Edenton and New Bern) to the neutral inland town of Raleigh. A sleepy enough agricultural backwater to be nicknamed the 'Rip Van Winkle State,' its fortunes were rooted in the cotton plantations of the east. Although the mountains held a small, free black population, some of whom even had the vote until 1835, a third of the state's one million inhabitants in 1860 were slaves.
Enthusiasm for the Civil War was far from universal, and North Carolina was among the last states to secede, only doing so in May 1861, a month after the attack on Fort Sumter. In total, though, it supplied more Confederate soldiers than any other state – around 125,000, of whom 40,000 died – while around 10,000 fought for the Union. At war’s end, Wilmington was the last major Confederate port to fall.
Reconstruction and Civil Rights
During Reconstruction, the brief promise of black political participation swiftly receded in the face of Klan violence. The era came to a definitive end in 1898, when, in what historians consider a unique coup d’etat, white supremacists overthrew the ‘Fusionist’ city government of Wilmington, slaughtering at least 60 black citizens. The ensuing Jim Crow era of racial segregation lasted until the 1960s, when North Carolina’s main contributions to the Civil Rights campaign were the emergence of the sit-in movement in Greensboro, and the formation of the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Raleigh.
The Modern State
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs including RJ Reynolds in Winston-Salem and Washington Duke in Durham had made tobacco the mainstay of the state's economy, and industrial-scale textile manufacturing boomed too. Further west, large-scale logging operations cut down most of the magnificent old-growth forest during the early 1900s. In their wake, the Depression-era creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway kick-started the growth of recreational tourism. Charlotte, by now the largest city in the Carolinas, re-identified itself as a banking center later in the 20th century, while technology and medicine brought prosperity, and a population boom, to the Raleigh-Durham area.