North Carolina's treacherous coast was explored by Verrazano in 1524, and possibly by some Spanish navigators. Under Juan Pardo, the Spanish explored (1566–68) the interior of the Carolinas, establishing several short-lived forts. In the 1580s, Sir Walter Raleigh attempted unsuccessfully to establish a colony on one of the islands (see Roanoke Island). The first permanent settlements were made (c.1653) around Albemarle Sound by colonials from Virginia. Meanwhile, Charles I of England had granted (1629) the territory S of Virginia between the 36th and 31st parallels (named Carolina in the king's honor) to Sir Robert Heath. Heath did not exploit his grant, and it was declared void in 1663. Charles II reassigned the territory to eight court favorites, who became the "true and absolute Lords Proprietors" of Carolina. In 1664, Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia and one of the proprietors, appointed a governor for the province of Albemarle, which after 1691 was known as North Carolina.
By 1700 there were only some 4,000 freeholders, predominantly of English stock, along Albemarle Sound. There, with the labor of indentured servants and African- and Native-American slaves, they raised tobacco, corn, and livestock, mostly on small farms. The people were semi-isolated; only vessels of light draft could negotiate the narrow and shallow passages through the island barriers. Furthermore, communication by land was almost impossible, except with Virginia, and even then swamps and forests made it difficult. There was some trade (primarily with Virginia, New England, and Bermuda).
In 1712, North Carolina was made a separate colony. The destructive war with Native Americans of the Tuscarora tribe broke out that year. The Tuscarora were defeated, and in 1714 the remnants of the tribe moved north to join the Iroquois Confederacy. A long, bitter boundary dispute with Virginia was partially settled in 1728 when a joint commission ran the boundary line 240 mi (386 km) inland.
The British government made North Carolina a royal colony in 1729. Thereafter the region developed more rapidly. The Native Americans were gradually pushed beyond the Appalachians as the Piedmont was increasingly occupied. German and Scotch-Irish settlers followed the valleys down from Pennsylvania, and Highland Scots established themselves along the Cape Fear River. These varied ethnic elements, in addition to smaller groups of Swiss, French, and Welsh that had migrated to the region earlier in the century, gradually amalgamated. There has been little new immigration since colonial days, and North Carolina's white population is now largely homogeneous.
In 1768 the back-country farmers, justifiably enraged by the excessive taxes imposed by a legislature dominated by the eastern aristocracy, organized the Regulator movement in an attempt to effect reforms. The insurgents were suppressed at Alamance in 1771 by the provincial militia led by Gov. William Tryon, who had seven of the Regulators executed.
After the outbreak of the American Revolution, royal authority collapsed. A provisional government was set up, the disputed Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was allegedly promulgated (May, 1775), and the provincial congress instructed (Apr. 12, 1776) the colony's delegates to the Continental Congress to support complete independence from Britain. Most Loyalists, including Highland Scots, fled North Carolina after their defeat (Feb. 27, 1776) at the battle of Moores Creek Bridge near Wilmington. The British, however, did not give up hope of Tory assistance in the state until their failure in the Carolina campaign (1780–81). The designation of North Carolinians as "Tar Heels" was said to have originated during that campaign when patriotic citizens poured tar into a stream across which Cornwallis's men retreated, emerging with the substance sticking to their heels.
Settlements had been established beyond the mountains before the Revolution (see Watauga Association and Transylvania Company) and were increased after the war. In 1784 North Carolina ceded its western lands to the United States, spurring the transmontane people to organize a new, short-lived government (see Franklin, State of). Within the year North Carolina repealed the act ceding the land; however, the cession was reenacted in 1789, and that territory became (1796) the state of Tennessee.
North Carolina opposed a strong central government and did not ratify the Constitution until Nov., 1789, months after the new U.S. government had begun to function. Little social and economic progress was made under the state's undemocratic constitution (framed in 1776), which largely served the interests of the politically dominant, tidewater planter aristocracy, and North Carolina appeared to be on the verge of revolution.
In 1835, however, the western part of the state, now its most populous section, finally succeeded in enacting a constitution that abolished the property and religious qualifications for voting and holding office (except for Jews) and provided for the popular election of governors. In the same year began the final forced removal of most of the Cherokee; but to check the steady, voluntary outmigration of whites, internal improvements, especially the building of railroads and plank roads, were effected. The Public School Law (1839) inaugurated free education, and other important reforms were instituted. The period of progress continued until the Civil War.
Few North Carolinians held slaves, and considerable antislavery sentiment existed until the 1830s, when organized agitation by Northern abolitionists began, provoking a defensive reaction that North Carolinians shared with most Southerners. Yet it was a native of the state, Hinton Rowan Helper, who made the most notable southern contribution to antislavery literature. Not until President Lincoln's call for troops after the firing on Fort Sumter did the state secede and join (May, 1861) the Confederacy. The coast was ideal for blockade-running, and the last important Confederate port to fall (Jan., 1865) was Wilmington (see Fort Fisher).
Gov. Zebulon B. Vance zealously defended the state's rights against what he considered encroachments by the Confederate government. Although many small engagements were fought on North Carolina soil, the state was not seriously invaded until almost the end of the war when Gen. William Sherman and his huge army moved north from Georgia. After engagements at Averasboro and Bentonville in Mar., 1865, Confederate Gen. J. E. Johnston surrendered (Apr. 26, 1865) to Sherman near Durham; next to Lee's capitulation at Appomattox, it was the largest (and almost the last) surrender of the war.
In May, 1865, President Andrew Johnson applied his plan of Reconstruction to the state. The radical Republicans in Congress, however, adopted their own scheme in 1867, and the Carolinas, organized as the second military district, were again occupied by federal troops. The Reconstruction constitution of 1868 abolished slavery, removed all religious tests for holding office, and provided for the popular election of all state and county officials. In 1871 the legislature, with conservatives again in control, impeached and convicted Gov. William H. Holden.
The often maligned period of Reconstruction actually saw the beginning of the modern state, with a tremendous rise in industry in the Piedmont. Increased use of tobacco in the Civil War stimulated the growth of tobacco manufacturing (first centered at Durham), and the introduction of the cigarette-making machine in the early 1880s was an immense boon to the industry, creating tobacco barons such as James B. Duke and R. J. Reynolds.
Agriculture, however, was in a critically depressed condition. The old plantation system had been replaced by farm tenancy, which long remained the dominant system of holding land. Much farm property was destroyed, credit was largely unavailable, and transportation systems broke down. The nationwide agrarian revolt reached North Carolina in the Granger movement (1875), the Farmers' Alliance (1887), and the Populist party, which united with the Republicans to carry the state elections in 1894 and 1896. However, the Fusionists (as members of the alliance were called) were blamed for the rise of black control in many tidewater towns and counties, and in the election of 1898, when the Red Shirts, like the Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction days, were active, the Democrats regained control.
The turn of the century marked the beginning of a new progressive era, typified by the successful airplane experiments of the Wright Brothers near Kitty Hawk. The crusade for public education for both whites and blacks led by Gov. Charles B. Aycock, elected in 1900, had a wide impact, and new interest was created in developing the state's agricultural and industrial resources. However, one old pattern was strengthened when a suffrage amendment, the "grandfather clause" assuring white supremacy, was added (1900) to the state constitution.
Since World War I the state government has increasingly followed a policy of consolidation and centralization, taking over the public school system and the supervision of county finances and roads. A huge highway development program, begun by the counties in 1921, was assumed by the state a decade later when the counties could no longer meet the costs. Expenditures for higher education were greatly increased, and the three major state educational institutions were merged into a greater entity, the Univ. of North Carolina. North Carolina, more than many other Southern states, was able to make a peaceful adjustment to integration in the public schools following the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in 1954.
Industrialization burgeoned after World War II, and in the 1950s the value of manufactured goods surpassed that of agriculture for the first time, as North Carolina became the leading industrial state in the Southeast. The Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham airports were both transformed into major air-travel hubs during the 1980s, reflecting the tremendous growth (most of it suburban) in those metropolitan areas, which were becoming financial, business, and research boomtowns. Traditional, low-skill industries have been gradually replaced by high-technology concerns, especially in the Research Triangle between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, which draws on the resources of the three cities' universities. Farming in North Carolina has become increasingly dominated by the large-scale production of hogs and broiler chickens, raising environmental concerns about the disposal of their waste. In Sept., 1999, floods on the Cape Fear and other rivers followed Hurricane Floyd, causing widespread devastation in the southeast.