North Carolina History
Geology and Environment
North Carolina has three regions, the Mountains, the Piedmont Plateau, and the Coastal Plain. These regions formed as the sea retreated 125 million years ago. It left rich mineral deposits. Pockets of water and marine life formed marl beds. The oldest fossils are from the Triassic period, 180 million years ago. Mastodons, mammoths, and other unique reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals lived in the regions.
The Americas were first peopled by Ice Age hunters. They crossed the Bering Strait during warming periods 28,000 – 10,000 years ago. These Paleo-Indians may have come as far as the Piedmont/Mountain region by 8000 BC. By 1000 BC, native peoples were practicing agriculture. Mississippian peoples settled the Piedmont region. Town Creek Indian Mound in Mt. Gilead is an example of Mississippian culture. On the Coastal Plain, Woodland peoples were farmers and lived near waterways.
Native peoples originated either from Woodland or Mississippian groups. They fell into three language groups. Siouan and Iroquoian (living in the Cape Fear/Piedmont), and Algonquian (living on the Coastal Plain). Native peoples lived in matrilineal societies. 50,000-100,000 native peoples lived in North Carolina before European contact. The introduction of European diseases decimated native populations.
In 1524, Giovanni Verrazano was the first European to explore North Carolina’s coast. The first English explorers arrived on the Outer Banks in 1584. Ralph Lane founded a settlement in 1585, but it lasted only one year. In 1587, John White attempted a settlement at Roanoke. When White returned from England three years later, he found that the settlement had disappeared. It is known as “The Lost Colony.” In 1660, Virginia recorded the earliest North Carolina land sale.
Colonial North Carolina
King Charles II chartered Carolina 1663 as a reward to eight political supporters. The Albemarle was the first region settle. Settler expansion caused tension and conflict with native groups. This led to the 1711-1713 Tuscarora War.
Colonial North Carolina was one of the poorest North American colonies. A small number of enslaved people labored in coastal regions. Exports included lumber, tar, turpentine, pork, and other produce. In 1729, North Carolina became a crown colony. The king appointed royal governors. In 1765, New Bern became the first permanent capital. Royal Governor William Tryon built what became known as Tryon’s Palace.
A decade of dispute between England and the colonies led to a war for independence. North Carolina had many firsts in that contest. On August 25, 1774, the First Provincial Congress met in New Bern. In February 1776, Colonel James Moore defeated Loyalists at Moore’s Creek Bridge. The Halifax Resolves issued on April 12, 1776 advocated for self-governance. North Carolina Continental troops served in the most iconic battles of the war. After his victory at Guilford Courthouse in 1781, General Lord Cornwallis retreated to Wilmington. From there he marched to Virginia. George Washington and French allies defeated him at Yorktown in October.
At Hillsborough in July 1788, delegates voted against ratifying the new U. S. Constitution. Anti-Federalists distrusted a federal government not accountable to state voters. They also wanted protections for personal and property rights (i.e., a Bill of Rights). For a year North Carolina was not part of the United States. They met a second time and ratified the Constitution.
Many of the same issues that had troubled the colony continued to trouble the state. Roads were bad and rivers were hard to navigate. Education was not accessible to most people. The modest economy relied more on enslaved labor to produce cotton and tobacco. Political and section divisions split the state. In the first quarter of the 19th century, more people migrated out of North Carolina than migrated in. Leaders like Archibald D. Murphey, John Motley Morehead, and William Gaston promoted education and internal improvement to help solve the state’s problems. The state constitutional convention of 1835 mad important changes to state government. But it also denied black men the right to vote.
North Carolina was cautious about secession after the election of Abraham Lincoln. The April 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumpter, South Carolina, strengthened support for secession. Even so, North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union on May 20, 1861.
A U.S. Navy coastal blockade starved the state of necessary war supplies. In February 1862, Federal troops under General Ambrose Burnside took Roanoke Island. They proceeded up the Neuse River, capturing New Bern in March. Union forces controlled most of the eastern part of the state through the end of the war. The most significant battle took place at Bentonville in March 1865. General William T. Sherman’s Union forces were victorious. The state surrendered a few days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865.
During the Civil War, enslaved people seized their freedom. Some 7,000 refugees settled at James City. Several thousand men enlisted in all-black USCT regiments that served with distinction. When the war ended, blacks formed Equal Rights leagues. They promoted education, justice, and equality. Republicans and black voters built a transracial coalition leading to
significant political victories. By 1868, the state had three black senators and 17 state representatives.
These victories were short-lived. Reconstruction ended in 1877. White supremacist organizations like the KKK suppressed black political engagement. They used violence and murder to intimidate black voters from supporting Republican candidates. In 1898, a white mob overthrew the elected government of Wilmington. They burned black-owned businesses and murdered black citizens. White politicians crafted laws denying black men the vote. The state became segregated.
Post-Civil War industry blossomed. By the turn of the century, tobacco products, textile production, lumber, and furniture were the backbone of the state’s economy. Cities grew, especially in the Piedmont region. In 1903, the first successful experiments with radio transmission and manned flight took place at Ocracoke and Kitty Hawk.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, North Carolina established training camps and produced naval vessels. The Great Depression hit the state hard. Hunger and unemployment were serious problems. Decades of exhaustive farming stripped the land of nutrients. New Deal relief programs offered employment. Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of the most successful federal programs. Infrastructure was improved, municipal buildings and recreational facilities were built. During World War II, North Carolina’s shipyards built naval vessels, and the Marine Corp built bases at Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point.
Black citizens grew dissatisfied with the segregated society and legal inequality. In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized to fight inequality. Federal efforts, such as the 1948 desegregation of the military and the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, began the work of undoing decades of discriminatory policy. In 1960, four young black men entered a Greensboro F. W. Woolworth’s and staged a peaceful protest at the lunch counter. Sit-ins spread across the state and the region. Protests bore fruit in more Federal legislation, including the Voting Rights Acts. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made whole the promises of the 14th and 15th amendments. It ended decades of practices denying black citizens their right to vote.