North Carolina Family History Research

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This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the North Carolina Family History Research series.
History of North Carolina
North Carolina Vital Records
Census Records for North Carolina
Background Sources for North Carolina
North Carolina Maps
North Carolina Land Records
North Carolina Probate Records
North Carolina Court Records
North Carolina Tax Records
North Carolina Cemetery Records
North Carolina Church Records
North Carolina Military Records
North Carolina Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
North Carolina Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Ethnic Groups of North Carolina
North Carolina County Resources
Map of North Carolina


History of North Carolina

The first permanent English settlers in North Carolina were Virginians who heard glowing reports of fertile bottomlands, abundant timber resources, and an excellent climate. They moved into the Albemarle Sound area about 1650, purchasing land from the local Indian tribes. The Virginia Assembly also granted land along the Chowan and Roanoke rivers to Roger Green in 1653. By 1657, Nathaniel Batts had the first house—at the western end of Albemarle Sound.

English claims on North Carolina date to 1497 when John Cabot visited the New World and claimed the area for King Henry VII. These claims were the basis for Charles I’s 1629 grant of “Carolana” to Sir Robert Heath, who failed to settle Carolina before the execution of Charles I in 1649. During the Commonwealth period in England, many citizens remained loyal to Charles II. At his ascension to the throne of England in 1660, eight men pressed their claims for a reward: Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon; George Monck, Duke of Albemarle; Lord William Craven; Lord John Berkeley; Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury; Sir George Carteret; Sir William Berkeley; and Sir John Colleton. Charles II granted Carolina to the eight Lords Proprietors in 1663. After the claims of Heath’s successors had been disposed of, the grant was revised and extended in 1665.

Two factors heavily influenced the development of North Carolina. Its stormy coastline, known as the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” does not include a natural harbor to promote commerce. The Cape Fear River is the only river that empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and its approaches are endangered by the Frying Pan Shoals. Except for a few Highland Scots, immigrants to North Carolina generally arrived by overland routes. The second factor influencing North Carolina’s development was the presence of approximately 35,000 Native Americans. They taught the European settlers important agricultural techniques such as planting row crops and fertilizing plants. The Europeans also learned the natives’ techniques of wilderness war. But the presence of the whites eventually destroyed the native civilization through disease, forceful removal to reservations, and war.

New Bern was founded in 1710 by colonists from Germany, Switzerland, and England under the leadership of Christopher de Graffenried. The colonists landed in Virginia and trekked overland to North Carolina, arriving too late to plant and harvest crops. The settlement survived and flourished, however, and New Bern became the largest town in North Carolina during the colonial period. The New Bern settlement, however, was located in the Tuscarora hunting grounds, and the Cary Rebellion in 1711 left the colonists open to attack. The Tuscarora Indian War (1711–15) was the result.

In 1729 the Lords Proprietors, except for John Carteret, Earl Granville, sold their shares in the provinces of North and South Carolina to King James II of England, ending the proprietary period. North Carolina was the most sparsely settled English colony in America at that time. The end of the proprietary period marked the beginning of a period of great expansion and growth. A steady stream of Scots-Irish and German immigrants traveled over the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to North Carolina. The only significant migration that sailed directly to North Carolina was a small group of Highland Scots. The Moravians purchased nearly 100,000 acres in present-day Forsyth County from Earl Granville in 1753 and settled the tract they called “Wachovia.”

The movement for independence from England was strong in North Carolina, and a provincial congress met in New Bern in 1774. Yet not all North Carolinians supported the revolution. The Highland Scots, in particular, remained loyal to the crown and recruited Loyalist military units.

In 1789, North Carolina ratified the United States Constitution and ceded its western lands, now known as Tennessee, to the federal government. The site for North Carolina’s state capital was located and named Raleigh three years later. Dissatisfaction with the state constitution of 1776, which heavily favored the eastern counties and towns, resulted in the constitutional convention of 1835 and the adoption of a new state constitution.

North Carolina was not ardently secessionist in 1860, but when the federal government requested troops to quell the Southern rebellion, Governor John W. Ellis refused and North Carolina soon joined the Confederacy. North Carolina supplied about 125,000 troops to the Confederacy, more than any other southern state, and over 14,000 North Carolinians were killed in action. After the Civil War, North Carolina rapidly developed as an industrial state. Governmental support fostered the growth of the textile, tobacco, and furniture industries for which North Carolina is known.

See Powell, North Carolina through Four Centuries, cited in Background Sources, for a more comprehensive history of the Tarheel State.

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