North Carolina History

Early History

It was the English who made the first permanent European settlements in North Carolina, and the Roanoke Island settlement (1585-86) of Sir Walter RALEIGH was the first English colony in the New World. A second group set sail from England in 1587 but had vanished by 1590 when a supply ship arrived. The mystery of the colony’s disappearance has never been solved. Among the settlers was the first child born of English parents in America, Virginia DARE.

More than 150 years passed before settlers moved inland across the state–from the northeast corner in 1670 to the westernmost tip in 1820. The early European settlers came in contact with a number of Indian tribes as settlement spread westward, the most numerous groups encountered being the TUSCARORA. The natives occupied parts of the coastal plain and fiercely resisted the whites before being defeated in 1713, after which they returned to New York, their ancestral home. The CATAWBA of the southern Piedmont were friendly. The Cherokee, living in the Appalachian Mountains, were the last major tribe to be confronted by the settlers.

Proprietary Period

The colonial period from 1663 to 1729, known as the proprietary period, began when Charles II granted to eight lords proprietors that region lying between 31 deg and 36 deg north latitude and extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the South Seas. This region was later (1665) extended to 36 deg 30 minutes N to include the Albemarle settlers who had moved south from Virginia. Political strife and Indian wars slowed the colony’s growth, however, and as the Charleston settlement grew more rapidly, the territory began to be known as North and South Carolina. The northern territory was made a separate colony in 1712 and had its own governors until 1829. This boundary was not established until 1735, nor fully surveyed until 1815. This period was characterized by misgovernment, turmoil, and slow growth. Piracy and disputes with Virginia over tobacco shipments through Virginia ports hampered trade. Bath, near the mouth of the Pamlico River, was the first town to be incorporated (1706). Settlement was generally confined to the coastal areas.

British Royal Colony

In 1729, North Carolina became a crown colony when George II purchased the shares of Carolina from all the lords proprietors except Lord Granville. Until the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775, a more efficient government brought about increased settlement and greater prosperity. The population increased from 35,000 in 1729 to almost 350,000 in 1775, and settlement extended to the Blue Ridge Mountains and beyond. With this transmontane movement came the deep-seated differences between east and west that have continued to the present day. The colonial government was dominated by the eastern planters, and the more egalitarian and poorer west suffered from corrupt government and excessive taxes. The conflict resulted in the War of Regulation (see REGULATORS), in which the western insurgents were crushed by Gov. William Tryon (1729-88) at the Battle of Alamance Creek on May 16, 1771.

In 1747-48 the Spanish attacked the North Carolina coast. Troops from North Carolina assisted British troops in the capture of Fort Duquesne during the FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR (1754-63) and fought the Cherokee on the western frontier in 1760. Yet, North Carolina was among the leaders in resistance to British rule in the 1760s, and in 1765-66 its armed citizens prevented enforcement of the STAMP ACT in the colony.

Revolutionary War Period

British rule came to an end in North Carolina when Gov. Josiah Martin fled New Bern in May 1775. The Second Provincial Congress in 1775 established two regiments and a state government. The first battle of the Revolution in North Carolina was fought against Scottish Loyalists at Moore’s Creek Bridge on Feb. 27, 1776. Later that year the Fifth Provincial Congress adopted a state constitution and elected Richard Caswell the first governor. North Carolina was the first colony to declare officially its readiness for independence and in April 1776 furnished ten regiments to the Continental army, as well as thousands of militiamen. At the same time, it helped defeat the Cherokee and suppressed the Tory residents who made the revolution virtually a civil war in North Carolina. Despite its leadership in the Revolution, North Carolina was the next to last of the 13 original states to ratify the federal Constitution (November 1789). In 1789, North Carolina ceded its western territory, present-day Tennessee, to the federal government.

The 19th Century

The period from 1815 to 1835 was one of political and economic stagnation, with the oligarchic east in power at the expense of the more reform-minded west. The state’s convention of 1835 resulted in a reapportionment that gave the west control of the state house of representatives, leaving the east in control of the senate. From 1835 until 1860 progress in transportation, education, tax reform, and women’s rights, as well as agricultural expansion and greater prosperity, reversed the downward political and economic spiral and halted emigration west or south.

The CIVIL WAR brought this improving trend to an end. North Carolina, though sympathetic to the South, was the last state to secede, on May 20, 1861. The battles of Fort Hatteras, Plymouth, Fort Fisher, and Bentonville, as well as Sherman’s 1865 invasion and Johnston’s surrender to Sherman near Durham on Apr. 26, 1865, were the most notable Civil War events in North Carolina. The political and social disruption caused by the war were exacerbated during RECONSTRUCTION. The Democratic party regained control of the legislature in 1870 and removed from office Gov. W. W. Holden, electing Z. B. Vance in 1876 to end the Reconstruction period in the state.

North Carolina Bibliography

Bishir, Catherine W., North Carolina Architecture (1991); Butler, Lindley S., and Watson, Alan D., eds., North Carolina Experience: An Interpretive and Documentary History (1984); Hamilton, Joseph, Reconstruction in North Carolina (1914; repr. 1964); Jones, H. G., North Carolina Illustrated, 1524-1984 (1983); Lefler, Hugh T., and Newsome, Albert R., North Carolina: The History of a Southern State, 3d ed. (1973); Lefler, Hugh T., and Powell, William S., Colonial North Carolina: A History (1973); Powell, William S., North Carolina: A Bicentennial History (1977).


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