Prior to 1500, approximately 30 Native American tribes are scattered across North Carolina. Chief among these are the Cherokee, the Catawba, the Tuscarora, and the Cape Fear Indians. Much of North Carolina’s written history focuses on the English colonization; with little discussion surrounding the Tribes and Free People of Color who helped build North Carolina into what it has become today.
North Carolina came near being the first of the permanent English colonies in America but the Spanish and French had already made attempts to settle the Cape Fear region. Five voyages were made under the Raleigh charter of 1584 with the view of planting a permanent colony on the soil that became North Carolina; but the effort ended in failure, and almost a century passed when other hands carried into effect the noble ambition of Raleigh. Again, the people who founded Virginia had intended to settle in the vicinity of Roanoke Island, but a storm changed their course, and the first colony was planted in the valley of the James.
The first settlements in North Carolina that were destined to live were made by Virginians in 1653, on the banks of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers, in a district called Albemarle from the Duke of Albemarle. A few years later men from New England made a settlement, which they soon abandoned, on the Cape Fear River. In 1665, Sir John Yeamans, an English nobleman of broken fortunes, came from Barbados with a company of planters and joined the few New Englanders who had remained on the Cape Fear River. This district was called Clarendon.
Meantime Charles II had issued a charter, in 1663, granting to eight of his favorites the vast territory1 south of Virginia, and two years later the charter was enlarged and the boundaries defined and made to extend from twenty-nine degrees north latitude to thirty-six degrees thirty minutes, the southern boundary of Virginia, and from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the “South Sea,” or Pacific Ocean, on the west. The grant embraced nearly all the southern portion of the present United States, and the government it created was, like that of Maryland, modeled after the palatinate of Durham. Of the eight men to whom the grant was made the leading spirit was Lord Ashley Cooper, afterward the Earl of Shaftesbury, whose name is still borne by the Ashley and Cooper rivers of South Carolina.
The new country had been named Carolina a hundred years before by Ribault, the Huguenot, in honor of Charles IX of France, and the name was now retained in honor of Charles II of England.
An account of the first attempt to govern this colony fills a curious page in American history. Shaftesbury, who was unmatched as a theoretical politician, conceived a plan of government that seems ludicrous to the American reader of today. The plan was supposed to have been drawn up by John Locke, the philosopher, and was known as the Fundamental Constitutions, or the “Grand Model,” which proved to be grand only as a grand failure and a model only to be shunned by the liberty-loving American of the future. By this plan the essence of monarchy, of aristocratic rule in the extreme, was to be transplanted to America. It divided the land into counties, and for each county there was to be an earl and two barons who should own one fifth of the land while the proprietors retained another fifth. The remaining three fifths were reserved for the people as tenants, who were to be practically reduced to serfdom and denied the right of self-government. Its one good feature was its guarantee of religious liberty, though the Church of England was established by law.
But the settlers in North Carolina had found even the colonial governments too oppressive and had migrated deeper into the wilderness for the purpose of gaining a larger amount of freedom. Could they now accept such a government as proposed by Shaftesbury? Certainly not willingly; nor was it possible to enforce it, and after twenty odd years of futile attempts to do so, the whole plan was abandoned.
Sir William Berkeley, one of the proprietors and governor of Virginia, had appointed as governor of Albemarle, the northern portion of Carolina, William Drummond, a Scotch Presbyterian clergyman, whom he afterward put to death for following Bacon. Samuel Stephens, succeeding Drummond in 1667, called an assembly to frame laws and erelong the settlement was in a steadily growing condition. A law was passed with a view of attracting settlers. It exempted all newcomers from paying taxes for a year, outlawed any debts they may have contracted elsewhere, and provided that for five years no one could be sued for any cause that might have arisen outside the colony. This plan had the effect of attracting many of a worthless class, so that the Albemarle settlement came to be known in Virginia as “Rogues’ Harbor”. Governor Stephens and his successor made strenuous but fruitless efforts to put the Fundamental Constitutions in force.
The Navigation Laws were later put into operation, and they greatly interfered with a lucative trade with New England. The people were heavily taxed and at length, in 1678, they broke out in an insurrection led by John Culpeper, who seized the government and held it for two years. This followed in the train of the Bacon Rebellion in Virginia.
The proprietors next sent Seth Sothel, now a member of the company, to govern the colony. Sothel proved to be a knave; he plundered the proprietors and the people most shamelessly, and after five years of turbulent misrule he was driven into exile — the same year that witnessed the Revolution in England and the exile of James II.
Owing to incompetent and thieving governors, appointed through favoritism and not fitness for the office, and to abortive attempts to introduce the Fundamental Constitutions on an unwilling people, the Albemarle colony did not prosper, and in 1693 the population was but half what it had been fifteen years before, while the Clarendon colony planted by Yeamans on the Cape Fear had been wholly abandoned. Meantime another colony had been planted at the mouths of the Ashley and Cooper rivers (as will be noticed under South Carolina). These two surviving colonies, several hundred miles apart, now began to be called North and South Carolina. Their governments were combined into one, and better times were now at hand. In 1695, John Archdale, a good Quaker, became governor of both Carolinas, and from this time the settlements were much more prosperous that before.
After 1704, however, North Carolina was again in turmoil, the causes being bad governors and continued attempts to establish the Church of England at the expense of the Dissenters, more than half of whom were Quakers. During this first decade of the eighteenth century, settlers came in increased numbers. Huguenots came from France and settled at Bath near Pamlico Sound; Germans from the Rhine founded New Berne at the junction of the Trent and Neuse rivers. The white population was now about five thousand; Albemarle settlement had extended many miles into the forest; this involved encroachment on the soil of the native red man — and it brought its troubles.
In the autumn of 1711 a terrible Indian massacre took place in North Carolina. Hundreds of settlers fell victims of the merciless tomahawk. The chief sufferers were the inoffensive Germans at New Berne, where one hundred and thirty people were slaughtered within two hours after the signal for the massacre was given. Various tribes, led by the Tuscaroras, engaged in the massacre. Colonists in partnership with tribes like the Waccamaw-Siouan rallied, and, receiving aid from South Carolina, they, led by Colonels John Barnwell and James Moore, hunted the Tuscarora from place to place and in a great battle near the Neuse destroyed four hundred of their warriors. At length the Tuscaroras, whose ancestors had come from New York, resolved to abandon their southern home and return to the land of their fathers. They removed in 1714 and joined the Iroquois or Five Nations of New York, and that confederation was afterward known as the Six Nations.
The people of North Carolina were, in the main, honest and well meaning, and when not goaded by profligate rulers and unjust laws, quiet and peaceable. It is true there were many who had fled from other colonies to escape debts or the hand of the law; but a large portion of society was composed of sturdy, Christian men and women. Religion soon found a footing here as in the other colonies, though there was no resident clergyman in the colony before 1703. The Church of England was supported by taxation, but the Dissenters were in the majority. The Quakers especially became numerous, George Fox himself, the founder of the sect, having visited the place and made many converts.
In 1714, the lords proprietors sent out Charles Eden for governor, and he was the best and ablest governor the colony ever had. But on his death, eight years later, the colony again fell into unworthy hands. A period of great turbulence followed when, in 1729, all the proprietors save one having sold their interests to the Crown, North Carolina and South Carolina were separated and each was henceforth a royal colony.
Of the royal governors sent out after this date, several were tyrannical or worthless; but the people increased rapidly in numbers. There was for many years a steady inflow of Germans from the Rhine by way of Pennsylvania, and, beginning about 1719, a still larger stream of Scotch-Irish from Ulster. During the first sixty-six years — the entire proprietary period — the people of North Carolina clung to the seaboard. But now the eastern slope of the Alleghanies was rapidly peopled, chiefly by Scotch-Irish and Germans, with a large sprinkling of shiftless “poor whites” from Virginia. The settlement of the region of the “back counties” had little connection with those of an earlier date on the coast, and the colony was practically divided into two distinct settlements with a broad belt of forest between them. The conditions of life were very different in the two. The back country was non-slaveholding, and the economic conditions were similar to those of the northern colonies; while the coast settlements were slaveholding and were marked by all the characteristics of southern life, except the aristocratic feature.
The products of the colony were at first tobacco along the Virginia border, rice on the Cape Fear River, and grain, cattle, and especially swine in both these sections. But at length the great pine forests began to yield their wealth, and before the Revolution tar, turpentine, and lumber became the chief products of North Carolina.
Of all the thirteen colonies, North Carolina was the least commercial, the most provincial, the farthest removed from European influences, and its wild forest life the most unrestrained. Every colony had its frontier, its borderland between civilization and savagery; but North Carolina was composed entirely of frontier. The people were impatient of legal restraints and averse to paying taxes; but their moral and religious standard was not below that of other colonies. Their freedom was the freedom of the Indian, or of the wild animal, not that of the criminal and the outlaw. Here truly was life in the primeval forest, at the core of Nature’s heart. There were no cities, scarcely villages. The people were farmers or woodmen; they lived apart, scattered through the wilderness; their highways were the rivers and bays, and their homes were connected by narrow trails winding among the trees. Yet the people were happy in their freedom and contented with their lonely isolation.