People and Culture

Centuries of migration and mixing have given North Carolina a character and a culture all its own. Yes, its Southern identity is still crucial, but there’s a far greater diversity than that might suggest, as reflected by literature such as the powerful autobiography of escaped slave Harriet Jacobs. In the state's music, too, even the most apparently ‘traditional’ sounds are a melange of different influences.

A State of Change

More than 10 million people now call North Carolina home, of whom just under a quarter are black and less than 2% claim Native American ancestry. In very general terms, it is fair to say that North Carolina remains recognizably a Southern state, albeit more New South than Old South or Deep South; that it’s still politically conservative despite the increasing number of liberal pockets (Asheville springs to mind); and that the birthplace of Billy Graham continues to be characterized by muscular Christian conviction.

Naturally, though, things are a whole lot more complicated than that. Quite apart from the ongoing presence of the Cherokee, North Carolina’s cultural heritage is rooted in generations of transatlantic migration from throughout the Old World. From the coastal Outer Banks to remote Appalachian villages, you can still hear echoes of the archaic accents of old Europe. And the state's demographics are continuing to change, too, with almost 10% of North Carolinians now of Hispanic origin.

From Slavery to Freedom

Right from the start, it was enslaved people who did the actual work of agriculture in North Carolina. At first, many colonists brought their own slaves with them from the West Indies, but in the long run thousands of captured Africans were shipped over direct, often from West African regions where they had previously farmed rice.

In 1860, more than a third of North Carolina’s million-plus residents were black slaves. That the black population has since (proportionately) declined owes much to the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when black workers from all over the South moved north and west following the failure of Reconstruction. At the same time, there was a significant movement of industrial workers of all ethnic origins into central North Carolina, with the growth of the tobacco and textile industries.

The result is that the state's African American population tends to be concentrated in what were historically the most industrialized areas, and especially in larger cities such as Charlotte, Greenville and Durham.

Native American Roots

In 1700, Native Americans still constituted half the population of Carolina. Pitting each tribe against the next, the European colonists provoked inter-tribal conflicts from which prisoners could be sold as slaves. To prevent escape or rescue, most such captives were carried to the West Indies, and swapped at a rate of two-for-one for African slaves.

Disease, wars and failed uprisings had such a swift impact that, by 1730, only one Native American was left for every 16 incomers. Modern North Carolina still holds a significant Native American population, however. Although most of the Cherokee were forcibly expelled along the Trail of Tears during the 1830s, many retreated deep into the mountains. Their descendants now own and occupy what’s known as the Qualla Boundary – not technically a reservation – out west at the foot of the Smokies. Smaller groups include the Lumbee tribe, formerly known as the Croatans, in the southeast.


The largest contingent of early European immigrants came not from England, but from Scotland. Many were prompted to leave the newly formed United Kingdom by the defeat of Scottish rebellions in 1715 and 1745. Once in North Carolina, they tended to stick together. Almost half were descended from Scottish Protestants who had attempted to colonize northern Ireland a generation earlier, only to be driven out by Catholic hostility and economic hardship. Known as the Scots-Irish – as opposed to the Irish themselves – they settled especially in the mountainous west, where they contributed many distinctive elements to what became Appalachian culture. Similarly, the Highlanders who gathered along the Cape Fear valley clung to their identity as a distinct cultural group.

If you’re looking for visible signs of North Carolina’s Hibernian heritage, head for the mountains – especially the rural villages around Linville, where the Grandfather Mountain area stages its own Highland Games every July.


German Protestants migrated to North Carolina en masse, to live and worship free from the chaos and persecution of their fragmented homeland. The best-known, the Moravians, came by way of Pennsylvania, after Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg purchased the 100,000-acre Wachovia Tract from Lord Granville – the last of the Lords Proprietors – in 1753. The first Moravian settlement, Bethabara, was swiftly followed by Bethania in 1759, and in 1766 by Salem, which, as 'Old Salem,' can still be visited in Winston-Salem.


Of the 18th-century arrivals from England, well over half were criminals. Sentenced to transportation rather than death, they were sold – for less than half the price of an African slave – to the plantation owners. In theory, they were indentured servants, due to be freed after around 14 years. Few survived that long, and even fewer subsequently prospered. Of the remaining English immigrants, who came by choice, most signed up for shorter periods of servitude, and many did indeed go on to acquire land and build independent lives.

Sidebar: North Carolina on the Silver Screen

North Carolina’s scenery starred in Last of the Mohicans (1992), with its big fight at Chimney Rock; Dirty Dancing (1987), filmed in Lake Lure; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), which was really Sylva, west of Asheville. Sadly, though, the stunning scenery in Cold Mountain (2003) is actually Romania.

North Carolina in Books and Movies

Writers have been chronicling, cataloging, celebrating and castigating North Carolina for more than 300 years. An important early literary work is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs, the devastating autobiography of an enslaved woman who hid for years in an Edenton attic. The state’s most celebrated novelist remains Thomas Wolfe (1900-38), thanks largely to his debut 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel. A lyrical, exuberant account of his boyhood in Asheville, thinly disguised as ‘Altamont,’ the book so antagonized locals that it was banned from the city library, and Wolfe stayed away from his home for eight years.

Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel Cold Mountain provides a wonderful evocation of both time and place in 19th-century North Carolina. Following the fortunes of two lovers separated by the Civil War, it focuses in particular on the epic homeward trek, westward across the state, of a wounded Confederate deserter. Although Cold Mountain is a real place, much of the successful movie adaptation was filmed in Romania.

In recent years, Nicholas Sparks has written a string of hugely popular romantic novels set in various North Carolina locations. Several have also become movies, including Nights in Rodanthe (filmed 2008), centering on the eponymous Outer Banks town.

In Serena (2008), filmed in 2015, Ron Rash created an extraordinary, Gothic-tinged account of the lumber industry’s Depression–era devastation of the western mountains, revolving around the malevolent Serena herself, the young bride of a timber magnate.

Wiley Cash’s doomed heroine in The Last Ballad (2017) is a much more inspiring figure. The novel tells the gripping true-life story of Ella May Wiggins, an impoverished textile worker, union activist and balladeer, who was murdered in Gastonia in 1929. There’s a similar political undercurrent to Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009), with its descriptions of the impact of McCarthyism on Asheville from the late 1940s onwards.

Finally, historian Timothy Tyson’s stunning autobiographical memoir, Blood Done Sign My Name (2004), recounts a racist murder and its aftermath in Oxford, North Carolina, in 1970. It throws considerable light on the Civil Rights movement in the state, and became a movie in 2010.

Sidebar: Voyages to North Carolina

The descriptions of North Carolina’s ‘delicious Country’ in A New Voyage to Carolina, published in 1709 by Englishman John Lawson, attracted many early settlers. For a comprehensive modern take on local history, seek out New Voyages to Carolina (2017), edited by Larry E Tise and Jeffrey C Crow.


Rooted in centuries of Appalachian tradition, North Carolina owes its special place in the story of American music to its role in the emergence of two distinct genres, bluegrass and the Piedmont blues, as well as their development and ongoing popularity. On top of that, the state has also been home to some of America’s greatest names in other musical forms, ranging from jazz to soul.

Sidebar: North Carolina’s Musical Greats

The Tar Heel State has been the birthplace of an amazing roster of musicians, including jazz legends Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane; soul and funk stars including Roberta Flack, Nina Simone, Clyde McPhatter, Ben E King and George Clinton; singer-songwriter Tori Amos; and country fiddler Charlie Daniels.

Appalachian mountain music

For North Carolina’s earliest colonists, living in isolation at the edge of the wilderness, music provided a precious link with their homelands. Traditions thus persisted in the New World long after they’d evolved or even disappeared back in Europe. English and Scottish settlers sang old ballads such as 'Barbara Allen' and 'Pretty Polly,' while Irish fiddlers played familiar reels from the old country. Other styles were present too; the German Moravians who founded Salem, for example, were passionate devotees of brass bands.

African slaves, and their African American descendants, also introduced their own traditions. Under slavery, black musicians were expected to play the popular music of the day as entertainment for social and public occasions. The banjo, which can be traced back to the stringed African kora, came to prominence at this time. After the Civil War, former slaves became professional entertainers, still catering primarily to white tastes. To mix things up further, white musicians increasingly adopted this ‘minstrelsy’ tradition, playing the banjo and, notoriously, performing in blackface.

Earliest recordings

By the end of the 19th century, Appalachian music was a mélange of countless influences, with a distinctive sound of its own. Contemporary ballads were being written in the US, often in response to news stories such as train wrecks and mining disasters, and they remain staples of the local repertoire.

Musicians and folklorists alike began to realize the need to preserve Appalachian music in its authentic form. The most important early star was Bascom Lamar Lansford, a banjo and fiddle player from Mars Hill, western North Carolina, who established what’s claimed to be the first folk festival, in Asheville, in 1928. Lansford died in 1973, but the Mountain Dance & Folk Festival is still going strong as it approaches its centenary.

Listening to early recordings today, there’s little to distinguish between white and black musicians. It was the divergence of their favored instruments that created what we think of as separate genres. Blues musicians opted for guitars, country musicians for fiddles and amplification in general, and bluegrass players stayed acoustic, using a wide range of instruments.

Sidebar: Bascom Lansford, musical pioneer

Born in 1882, and a lawyer and teacher as well as a banjo and fiddle player, Bascom Lamar Lansford was so determined to dispel stereotypes of ‘hillbilly’ music that he performed in formal clothes. He made his best-known recording, ‘I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground,’ in 1928.

The Piedmont Blues

The Piedmont blues, which evolved in Georgia and the Carolinas from the 1920s onwards, is characterized by nimble finger-picking on the guitar, with the thumb working through the bass line while the treble strings carry the melody. It’s less raw and melancholic than the blues of the Mississippi Delta, with performers drawing on older banjo tunes, ragtime, and popular novelty songs, rather than chronicling their own experiences.

During the Depression, the still-booming tobacco warehouses of Winston-Salem and Durham were rare in offering dependable support for street musicians. Among them were Blind Boy Fuller, born just outside Charlotte around 1907, who coined the phrase ‘keep on truckin',’ and his teacher, Reverend Gary Davis, born in South Carolina in 1896 but based in Durham from the mid-1920s onwards. Davis, who was described by one contemporary as ‘the playingest man I ever saw,’ found renewed popularity during the folk revival of the 1960s, as did Elizabeth Cotten from Chapel Hill.


Bluegrass, which evolved during the 1940s, took its name and direction from Kentucky-born bandleader Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. What Monroe characterized as a ‘high lonesome sound’ swiftly became identified with the quickfire picking of his banjo player, Earl Scruggs, who wore picks on three fingers. Born near Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in 1924, Scruggs played on Monroe’s signature 1946 hit, 'Blue Moon of Kentucky.' Leaving the band soon afterwards, with fellow member Lester Flatt, he formed the award-winning duo Flatt and Scruggs, and passed away in 2014.

Scruggs’ close contemporary, guitarist Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson, was born near Boone in 1923. He too was renowned for his deft picking, in this case flat-picking, playing fiddle tunes on his guitar with a pick held between thumb and forefinger. While he didn’t restrict himself to bluegrass, and recast himself in the singer-songwriter mold during the 1960s, his repertoire remained rooted in traditional ballads. For around 20 years, he performed with his son Merle, who died in 1985. Doc himself died in 2012, but Merle Fest, which he set up in Wilkesboro to honor Merle’s memory, continues to celebrate ‘traditional plus’ music each year.

The modern era

Singer-songwriter James Taylor was born in Massachusetts, but grew up in Carrboro, outside Chapel Hill. He’s best remembered in North Carolina for the song ‘Carolina in My Mind,' now an unofficial anthem for both the University of North Carolina and the state as a whole. Chapel Hill has remained a musical hotbed, producing bands such as Southern Culture on the Skids, Superchunk, Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five.

Perhaps the most intriguing North Carolinian music of recent years has been created by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, whose 2010 album ‘Genuine Negro Jig’ won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Playing stringed instruments including mandolins, ukuleles and banjos, and drawing on old-time songs from multiple genres, they’ve set about reclaiming the historical role of black performers in Appalachian music. During her acclaimed solo career, the band’s central figure, Greensboro-born singer Rhiannon Giddens, has performed more overtly political material, written by herself as well as others, and won multiple awards.

Landscape and the Environment

Unfold a map of North Carolina, and, as it concertinas out, you’ll soon grasp the state’s most salient feature: it’s a whole lot wider than it is tall, measuring 500 miles west to east, and just 150 miles north to south. Far from being a single geographical entity, it consists of three distinct regions: the forested Appalachian peaks in the west; the hilly, well-watered Piedmont below; and the flat expanse of the coastal plain, extending to the Atlantic Ocean.

Sidebar: A Journey Through Time

As you move eastwards across North Carolina, you’re moving from the very old to the very young. The Appalachian mountains are truly ancient, cut through by some of the planet’s oldest rivers, whereas the shoreline is forever being reborn, a dynamic process that’s most apparent in the ever-shifting barrier islands.

The Mountains

Historically significant as an obstacle to migration and exploration, the Appalachian mountain range extends all the way from Canada to northeast Alabama. Within North Carolina, it’s made up of several separate chains, of which the best known are the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains. The highest summits are in the Black Mountains, a sub-range of the Blue Ridge that, despite being just 15 miles long, holds six of the tallest peaks in the eastern US, including the mightiest of all, the 6684ft Mount Mitchell. Around 300 million years ago, the Appalachians stood as tall as the Rockies, but even then the French Broad River managed to cross the entire range. The river now traverses modern Asheville as it flows north – one of only two US rivers to do so – to join the Tennessee River.

Industrial-scale logging in western North Carolina, early in the 20th century, did much to awaken conservationists, and prompted the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway, along with several state parks. Little old-growth timber now survives – the finest is in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, 40 miles west of Bryson City – but the vast forests of the western mountains once more provide a magnificent spectacle. Sadly, the trees are still under threat, with insect infestation decimating the fir and hemlock, while air pollution and acid rain, largely from coal-fired power stations in the Midwest, wreak wider devastation. On a more encouraging note, wild elk were reintroduced to the mountains in 2001.

Sidebar: Stripped Bare: the Legacy of the Loggers

While the magnificent forest panoramas visible from the Blue Ridge Parkway might seem the very essence of natural splendor, century-old photos tell a very different story. By the time the loggers moved on, almost every hillside had been denuded of its towering original growth of eastern hemlock and longleaf pine.

The Piedmont

Deriving its name from the French for ‘foothills,’ the Piedmont parallels the eastern flank of the Appalachians from New Jersey to Alabama, and essentially consists of eroded rock washed down from the mountains. The Piedmont in North Carolina forms the state's central region, and is home to almost all its major cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham and Winston-Salem. Sloping from elevations of around 1500ft in the west to 300ft in the east, it’s generally flat enough to count as a plateau. Its eastern edge, however, is delineated by a ‘fall zone,’ where rivers drop abruptly from harder sedimentary rocks down to the coastal plain. For early settlers, attempting to head west by water, that was a major impediment.

After the Civil War, the Piedmont became the powerhouse of the state’s economy. Tobacco production boomed around Durham and Winston-Salem in particular, while conditions proved even more suitable for cotton. Both industries developed an infrastructure to process imported as well as homegrown raw materials, and by the 1920s the Carolina Piedmont had surpassed New England to become the largest textile manufacturing district in the US. While industrialization contributed to the urban sprawl that continues today, and banking and scientific research are major elements in the regional economy, agriculture – mainly small, individual farms – still dominates the Piedmont landscape.

The Coastal Plain

North Carolina’s coastal plain has been so repeatedly reshaped that it’s often hard to specify where the sea ends and the land begins. Its most distinctive characteristic is the beach-fringed string of barrier islands and peninsulas that shield it from the open sea, the northerly 200 miles of which are known as the Outer Banks. North of Cape Lookout, the islands tend to stand 4 or 5 miles offshore, though some are as much as 30 miles out. As they’re not protected by reefs, they’re vulnerable to endless re-configuration by hurricanes. Wild mustangs still roam the Outer Banks, while the Atlantic here is rich in marine species from whales to manatees, thanks to the mingling of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the cooler Labrador Current.

Sea levels have fluctuated enormously over the centuries. For most of human history they've been much lower, and the broad Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds bear witness to this being a drowned shoreline. On the other hand, the Sandhills in the state’s southwestern corner are the remains of ancient dunes deposited when levels were significantly higher.

Much of the coastal plain is fertile farming country – the valleys and estuaries especially held huge plantations in North Carolina’s early days. The low-lying areas closest to the ocean, known as the Tidewater, were originally wetlands, with ill-defined waterways threading through brackish marshes. Roughly half this region has been drained for agriculture since European settlement began. Much of what survives, though – including a small portion of the appetizingly named Great Dismal Swamp, which once extended from Chesapeake Bay to Albemarle Sound – is now protected within the national park system.