Paleo-Indian peoples came to North Carolina about 10,000 years ago. These early inhabitants hunted game with spears and gathered nuts, roots, berries, and freshwater mollusks. Around 500 BC, with the invention of pottery and the development of agriculture, the Woodland Culture began to emerge. The Woodland way of life—growing corn, beans, and squash, and hunting game with bows and arrows—prevailed on the North Carolina coast until the Europeans arrived.
Living in North Carolina by this time were Indians of the Algonkian-, Siouan-, and Iroquoian-language families. The Roanoke, Chowanoc, Hatteras, Meherrin, and other Algonkianspeaking tribes of the coast had probably lived in the area the longest; some of them belonged to the Powhatan Confederacy of Virginia. The Siouan groups were related to larger tribes of the Great Plains. Of the Iroquoian-speakers, the Cherokee probably had lived in the mountains since before the beginning of the Christian era, while the Tuscarora had entered the upper coastal plain somewhat later. After their defeat by the colonists in the Tuscarora War of 1711–13, the tribe fled to what is now upper New York State to become the sixth member of the Iroquois Confederacy.
Contact with whites brought war, disease, and enslavement of the Algonkian and Siouan tribes. Banding together, the survivors probably gave rise to the present-day Lumbee and to the other Indian groups of eastern North Carolina. The Cherokee tried to avoid the fate of the coastal tribes by selectively adopting aspects of white culture. In 1838, however, the federal government responded to the demands of land-hungry whites by expelling most of the Cherokee to Indian Territory along the so-called Trail of Tears.
European penetration began when Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine navigator in French service, discovered the North Carolina coast in 1524. Don Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón led an unsuccessful Spanish attempt to settle near the mouth of the Cape Fear River two years later. Hernando de Soto tramped over the North Carolina mountains in 1540 in an unsuccessful search for gold, but the Spanish made no permanent contribution to the colonization of North Carolina.
Sixty years after Verrazano's voyage, North Carolina became the scene of England's first experiment in American empire. Sir Walter Raleigh, a courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, gained the queen's permission to send out explorers to the New World. They landed on the Outer Banks in 1584 and returned with reports so enthusiastic that Raleigh decided to sponsor a colony on Roanoke Island between Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. After a second expedition returned without founding a permanent settlement, Raleigh sent out a third group in 1587 under John White as governor. The passengers included White's daughter Eleanor and her husband, Ananias Dare. Shortly after landfall, Eleanor gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first child born of English parents in the New World. Several weeks later, White returned to England for supplies, but the threat of the Spanish Armada prevented his prompt return. By the time White got back to Roanoke in 1590, he found no trace of the settlers—only the word "Croatoan" carved on a tree. The fate of this "Lost Colony" has never been satisfactorily explained.
The next English venture focused on the more accessible Jamestown colony in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. England tended to ignore the southern region until 1629, when Charles I laid out the territory between 30° and 36°N, named it Carolana for himself, and granted it to his attorney general, Sir Robert Heath. Heath made no attempt to people his domain, however, and Carolana remained empty of whites until stragglers drifted in from the mid-17th century onward. Events in England transformed Virginia's outpost into a separate colony. After the execution of Charles I in 1649, England had no ruling monarch until a party of noblemen invited Charles II back to England in 1660. Charles thanked eight of his benefactors three years later by making them lord proprietors of the province, now called Carolina. The vast new region eventually stretched from northern Florida to the modern boundary between North Carolina and Virginia, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
The proprietors divided Carolina into three counties and appointed a governor for each one. Albemarle County embraced the existing settlements in northeastern North Carolina near the waters of Albemarle Sound; it was the only one that developed a government within the present state boundaries. From the beginning, relations between the older pioneers and their newly imposed government were stormy. The English philosopher John Locke drew up the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, but his political blueprints proved unworkable. The proprietors' arbitrary efforts to collect royal customs touched off factional violence, culminating in Culpepper's Rebellion of 1677, one of the first American uprisings against a corrupt regime.
For a few years afterward, local residents had a more representative government, until the proprietors attempted to strengthen the establishment of the Anglican Church in the colony. In 1711, Cary's Rebellion was touched off by laws passed against the colony's Quakers. During the confusion, Tuscarora Indians launched a war against the white intruders on their lands. The whites won the Tuscarora War in 1713 with assistance from South Carolina, but political weakness in the north persisted. Proprietary officials openly consorted with pirates—including the notorious Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard—and royal inspectors questioned the fitness of proprietary government. South Carolina officially split off in 1719 and received a royal governor in 1721. Ten years later, all but one of the proprietors relinquished their rights for £2,500 each, and North Carolina became a royal colony. The remaining proprietor, Lord Granville, gave up his governing rights but retained ownership of one-eighth of the original grant; the Granville District thus included more than half of the unsettled territory in the North Carolina colony.
In the decades that followed, thousands of new settlers poured into North Carolina; by 1775 the population had swollen to 345,000, making North Carolina the 4th most populous colony. Germans and Scots-Irish trekked down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania to the Piedmont. Scottish Highlanders spread over the upper Cape Fear Valley as more Englishmen filled up the coastal plain. Backcountry settlers practiced self-sufficient farming, but eastern North Carolinians used slave labor to carve out rice and tobacco plantations. The westerners were often exploited by an eastern-dominated colonial assembly that sent corrupt and overbearing officials to govern them. Organizing in 1768 and calling themselves Regulators, unhappy westerners first petitioned for redress and then took up arms. Royal Governor William Tryon used eastern militia to crush the Regulators in a two-hour pitched battle at Alamance Creek in 1771.
The eastern leaders who dominated the assembly opposed all challenges to their authority, whether from the Regulators or from the British ministry. When England tightened its colonial administration, North Carolinians joined their fellow colonists in protests against the Stamp Act and similar impositions by Parliament. Meeting at Halifax in April 1776, the North Carolina provincial congress resolved in favor of American independence, the first colonial representative body to do so. Years later, citizens of Mecklenburg County recalled a gathering in 1775 during which their region declared independence, but subsequent historians have not verified their claim. The two dates on the North Carolina state flag nevertheless commemorate the Halifax Resolves and the "Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence."
Support for Britain appeared among recent Scottish immigrants, who answered the call to aid the royal governor but were ambushed by patriot militia at Moore's Creek Bridge on 27 February 1776. The incident effectively prevented a planned British invasion of the South. There was little further military action in North Carolina until late in the War for Independence, when Gen. Charles Cornwallis invaded the state from South Carolina in the fall of 1780. Guerrilla bands harassed his troops, and North Carolina militia wiped out a Loyalist detachment at King's Mountain. Pursuing the elusive American army under Gen. Nathanael Greene, Cornwallis won a costly victory at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781 but could neither eliminate his rival nor pacify the countryside. For the rest of 1781, Cornwallis wearied his men in marches and countermarches across North Carolina and Virginia before he finally succumbed to a trap set at Yorktown, Va., by an American army and a French fleet.
Numerous problems beset the new state. The government had a dire need of money, but when the victors sought to pay debts by selling land confiscated from the Loyalists, conservative lawyers objected strenuously, and a bitter political controversy ensued. Suspicious of outside control, North Carolina leaders hesitated before joining the Union. The state waited until November 1789 to ratify the US Constitution—a delay that helped stimulate the movement for adoption of a Bill of Rights. North Carolina relinquished its lands beyond the Great Smokies in 1789 (after an unsuccessful attempt by settlers to create a new state called Franklin), and thousands of North Carolinians migrated to the new western territories. The state did not share in the general prosperity of the early federal period. Poor transportation facilities hampered all efforts to expand commercial agriculture, and illiteracy remained widespread. North Carolina society came to appear so backward that some observers nicknamed it the "Rip Van Winkle state."
In 1815, state senator Archibald D. Murphey of Orange County began to press for public schools and for improved transportation to open up the Piedmont. Most eastern planters resisted Murphey's suggestions, partly because they refused to be taxed for the benefit of the westerners and partly because they feared the destabilizing social effects of reform. As long as the east controlled the general assembly, the ideas of Murphey and his sympathizers had little practical impact, but in 1835, as a result of reforms in the state constitution, the west obtained reapportionment and the political climate changed. North Carolina initiated a program of state aid to railroads and other public works, and established the first state—supported system of common schools in the South.
Like other southern whites, North Carolina's white majority feared for the security of slavery under a national Republican administration, but North Carolinians reacted to the election of Abraham Lincoln with caution. When South Carolina and six other states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America in 1861, North Carolina refused to join, instead making a futile attempt to work for a peaceful settlement of the issue. However, after the outbreak of hostilities at Ft. Sumter, S.C., and Lincoln's call for troops in April 1861, neutrality disappeared and public opinion swung to the Confederate side. North Carolina became the last state to withdraw from the Union, joining the Confederacy on 20 May 1861.
North Carolina provided more troops to the Confederacy than any other state, and its losses added up to more than one-fourth of the total for the entire South, but support for the war was mixed. State leaders resisted the centralizing tendencies of the Richmond government, and even Governor Zebulon B. Vance opposed the Confederacy's conscription policies. North Carolina became a haven for deserters from the front lines in Virginia. William W. Holden, a popular Raleigh editor, organized a peace movement when defeat appeared inevitable, and Unionist sentiment flourished in the mountain counties; nevertheless, most white North Carolinians stood by Vance and the dying Confederate cause. At the war's end, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the last major Confederate army to Gen. William T. Sherman at Bennett House near Hillsborough on 26 April 1865.
Reconstruction was marked by a bitter political and social struggle in North Carolina. United in the Conservative Party, most of the prewar slaveholding elite fought to preserve as much as possible of the former system, but a Republican coalition of blacks and nonslaveholding white Unionists defended freedmen's rights and instituted democratic reforms for the benefit of both races. After writing a new constitution in 1868, Republicans elected Holden as governor, but native whites fought back with violence and intimidation under the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Holden's efforts to restore order were ineffectual, and when the Conservatives recaptured the general assembly in 1870, they impeached him and removed him from office. Election of a Conservative governor in 1876 signaled the end of the Reconstruction era.
Once in power, the Conservatives—or Democrats, as they renamed themselves—slashed public services and enacted legislation to guarantee the power of landlords over tenants and sharecroppers. They cooperated with the consolidation of railroads under northern ownership, and they supported a massive drive to build cotton mills on the swiftly flowing streams of the Piedmont. By 1880, industry had surpassed its prewar level. But it was not until 1900 that blacks and their white allies were entirely eliminated as contenders for political power.
As the Industrial Revolution gained ground in North Carolina, small farmers protested their steadily worsening condition. The Populist Party expressed their demands for reform, and for a brief period in the 1890s shared power with the Republican Party in the Fusion movement. Under the leadership of Charles Brantley Aycock, conservative Democrats fought back with virulent denunciations of "Negro rule" and a call for white supremacy. In 1900, voters elected Aycock governor and approved a constitutional amendment that barred all illiterates from voting, except for those whose ancestors had voted before 1867. This literacy test and "grandfather clause" effectively disenfranchised blacks, while providing a temporary loophole for uneducated whites. To safeguard white rights after 1908 (the constitutional limit for registration under the grandfather clause), Aycock promised substantial improvements in the school system to put an end to white illiteracy.
In the decades after Aycock's election, an alliance of business interests and moderate-to-conservative Democrats dominated North Carolina politics. The industrial triumvirate of textile, tobacco, and furniture manufacturers, joined by banks and insurance companies, controlled the state's economy. The Republican Party shrank to a small remnant among mountain whites as blacks were forced out of the electorate.
In the years after World War II, North Carolina took its place in the booming Sunbelt economy. The development of Research Triangle Park—equidistant from the educational facilities of Duke University, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—provided a home for dozens of scientific and technology laboratories for government and business. New industries, some of them financed by foreign capital, appeared in formerly rural areas, and a prolonged population drain was effectively reversed.
The process of development has not been smooth or uniform, however. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a shift in employment patterns as financial and high-technology industries boomed while jobs in the state's traditional industries, notably textiles and tobacco, declined. North Carolina possessed both the largest percentage of manufacturing jobs in the country and the lowest manufacturing wages. In 1990, 30% of all jobs paid annual wages below the poverty line for a family of four, resulting in 13% of North Carolinians living below the nationally established poverty line. Despite widespread prosperity in the 1990s, North Carolina was one of only 15 states where poverty—and child poverty—were on the rise. The rate had climbed to 14% by 1998.
The excellence of many of North Carolina's universities contrasted with the inferior education provided by its primary and secondary public schools. North Carolina students' SAT scores placed them last nationally in 1989. In the ongoing effort to improve the public school system, in 2000 Democratic Governor Jim Hunt's top two priorities were raising teacher pay by 6.5% and funding the Smart Start (early childhood education) program. But Hunt's stance was not popular with the state's workers, who were lobbying the governor and the General Assembly for pay raises.
Racial tensions have created divisions within the state, which has one of the highest levels of Ku Klux Klan activity in the country. While Charlotte integrated its schools peacefully in 1971 through court-ordered busing, the militancy of black activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s provoked a white backlash. That backlash, along with the identification of the Democratic party in the early 1970s with liberal causes and with opposition to the Vietnam War, helped the conservative wing of the Republican party gain popularity in a state whose six military bases had given it a hawkish tradition. In 1972, North Carolina elected its first Republican US senator (Jesse A. Helms) and governor (James E. Holshouser, Jr.) since Fusion days, and Republican strength continued to build into the mid-1990s. But after 1998 elections, the state was leaning toward a more bipartisan representation: Democratic candidate John Edwards took the state's second Senate seat while conservative Republican Helms retained the other; and voters sent seven Republicans and five Democrats to represent them in the US House.
Rising crime rates were among the leading public policy issues in the 1990s. The state legislature enacted laws imposing tough penalties on adults who supply guns to minors, and mandating life imprisonment without parole for three-time violent offenders.
Mother Nature has posed serious problems for North Carolinians in recent times. In September 1999, successive hurricanes moved onshore, water logging the low-lying eastern part of the state. The worst flooding in North Carolina history was intensified by more rainfall in the weeks that followed. The death toll climbed to 40 while property damages and agricultural losses rose. Preliminary damage estimates reached $1.3 billion and were expected to rise. Clean-up of the state's waterways, which were polluted by waste from pigs and other livestock as well as from flooded sewage plants, remained a major health concern. In January 2000 the same region was blanketed in record snowfalls, adding further hardships to those who were struggling to recover. A month earlier, in an emergency legislative session, the General Assembly approved Governor Jim Hunt's plan to send $836 million to flood victims. By July 2000 the federal government had approved more than $1 billion in aid to the state. But it was estimated that the conditions had put thousands of farmers permanently out of business. North Carolina experienced a harsh winter in 2002–03, with some of the heaviest snowfalls since 1989.
The state's agricultural producers were also facing the declining demand for tobacco. The documented health hazards of smoking, state and federal excise taxes, ongoing lawsuits, and declining exports combined to cut cigarette production (also hurting the state's manufacturing sector in the process). With Kentucky, North Carolina farmers produced more than 65% of the total US crop. The state's historical dependency on the cash crop caused lawmakers to allocate half the funds from the national tobacco settlement to tobacco communities—to support educational and job training programs, provide employment assistance for farmers and displaced laborers, fund rural health care and social service programs, and invest in local public works and economic development projects to attract new businesses to areas that had been dependent on tobacco. The other half of the settlement was evenly divided between statewide health care and a trust fund for (former) tobacco growers and farm laborers.
Governor Mike Easley set his 2003 executive agenda on education, proposing a state lottery to fund education. The state was considering a moratorium on the death penalty in 2003, due to concerns over racial bias.