North Carolina's white population is descended mostly from English settlers who arrived in the east in the 17th and early 18th centuries and from Scottish, Scots-Irish, and German immigrants who poured into the piedmont in the middle of the 18th century. Originally very distinct, these groups assimilated with one another in the first half of the 19th century to form a relatively homogeneous body of native-born white Protestants. By 1860, North Carolina had the lowest proportion of foreign-born whites of any state; more than a century later, in 1990, only 1.7% (115,077) of North Carolina residents were foreign born, mostly from Germany, the United Kingdom, and Mexico. Within the following decade, however, the foreign-born population increased dramatically, to 430,000 (5.3%) in 2000. In the same year, the estimated Hispanic and Latino population was 378,963 (4.7% of the state total), up from 161,000 (2.1%) in 1990.
According to the 2000 federal census there were some 99,551 Native Americans (including Eskimos and Aleuts) living in North Carolina, the 6th-largest number in any state, and the largest number in any state east of the Mississippi. The Lumbee of Robeson County and the surrounding area are the major Indian group. The total population of their lands in 2000, including non-Indians, was 474,100. Their origins are mysterious, but they are probably descended from many small tribes, decimated by war and disease, that banded together in the Lumber River swamps in the 18th century. The Lumbee have no language other than English, have no traditional tribal culture, and are not recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Haliwa, Waccamaw Siouan, Coharie, and Person County Indians are smaller groups in eastern North Carolina who share the Lumbee's predicament. The only North Carolina Indians with a reservation, a tribal language and culture, and federal recognition are the Cherokee, whose ancestors hid in the Smokies when the majority of their tribe was removed to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1838. The North Carolina Cherokee have remained in the mountains ever since, living in a community that now centers on the Qualla Boundary Reservation near Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The 1,737,545 blacks in North Carolina made up 21.6% of its total population in 2000. Black slaves came to North Carolina from the 17th century through the early 19th; like most white immigrants, they usually arrived in North Carolina after previous residence in other colonies. Although black slaves performed a wide variety of tasks and lived in every county of the state, they were most often field laborers on the large farms in the eastern region. The distribution of black population today still reflects the patterns of plantation agriculture: the coastal plain contains a much higher than average concentration of black inhabitants. The overall proportion of blacks in North Carolina rose throughout the 19th century but fell steadily in the 20th, until about 1970, as hundreds of thousands migrated to northern and western states. Some of the earliest demonstrations of the civil rights movement, most notably a 1960 lunch counter sit-in at Greensboro, took place in the state.
In 2000 North Carolina's Asian population numbered 113,689, including 26,197 Asian Indians, 18,984 Chinese, 15,596 Vietnamese, 12,600 Koreans, 9,592 Filipinos, and 7,093 Hmong. Pacific Islanders numbered 3,983.