Historical Highlights Of North Carolina

Early History

At the time of the first European contact, North Carolina was inhabited by a number of native tribes sharing some cultural traits, but also distinguished by regional and linguistic variations. Three major language families were represented in North Carolina: Iroquoian, Siouan, and Algonquian. The Iroquoian tribes--the Cherokee, Tuscarora, Meherrin, Coree, and Neuse River (which may have been Iroquoian or Algonquian)--were related linguistically and culturally to the Iroquois tribes to the north. The Cherokee were located in the mountains on the western boundaries of the state and the Tuscarora, Meherrin, Coree, and Neuse River were located in the coastal plains. Located primarily in the piedmont area, or central portion, of the state were the Siouan tribes: the Cape Fear, Catawba, Cheraw, Eno, Keyauwee, Occaneechi, Saponi, Shakori, Sissipahaw, Sugaree, Tutelo, Waccamaw, Wateree, Waxhaw, and Woccon. The Algonquian-speaking tribes represented the southernmost extension of predominantly Northeastern Woodlands tribes and were located entirely in the tidewater area of the state. These were the Bear River, Chowan, Hatteras, Nachapunga, Moratok, Pamlico, Secotan, and Weapomeoc.

Since most historical accounts of travelers and settlers dealt with either the Cherokee or the Algonquian, little is known about the Siouan peoples and their pre-contact cultures. The descriptions which follow will deal with the Cherokee as representative of the Iroquoian, with the Catawba as representative of the Siouan-speakers and the piedmont tribes, and the coastal Algonquian.

Coastal Algonquian

At the time of the first contact of Europeans with the Indians, the Algonquian tribes occupied the tidewater areas of the Atlantic Coast extending from Canada to as far south as the Neuse River in North Carolina. In 1584, the estimated 7,000 Algonquians living in North Carolina were relative newcomers to the Southeast, having come in a series of migrations. To some extent, they retained cultural elements from their Northeastern Algonquian traditions, but there was also a great deal of cultural borrowing from their southern neighbors as they adapted to the geographical and climatic conditions of the area, in that they were more water-oriented and placed more emphasis upon hunting, fishing, and gathering than did most of their neighbors.


The Catawba was one of the Siouan-speaking tribes of the piedmont area of the Carolinas at the time of the first European contact. Little is known of their culture and life style at that time, since contact was few and sporadic and little was documented of their culture. What is known, is based largely on the writings of John Lawson, who explored the piedmont territory and visited the Catawba in 1701.

Not only is little known about the Catawba culture, there is also confusion as to exactly who the Catawba were. The Catawba Nation was actually a military alliance of several Siouan tribes and remnants of tribes or bands decimated by war and disease who joined the Catawba. In the historical records, they have been known by several different names: the Spanish referred to them as the Issa, the Ysa, or the Usi and the 17th century Virginians called them the Usheree or Ushery. After the Yamasee War they became known as the Catawba, which means "cut off," apparently referring to their being cut off from other Siouan tribes. Their name for themselves was I Ye Ye, "people," or Nieye, "real people." At the time of contact, there were approximately 6,000 Catawbas, equal in size to the Tuscaroras. The only tribe larger than these two groups was the Cherokee.


At the time of their first contact with Europeans, in the mid-16th century, the Cherokee lived in the isolated hills and valleys of the highest portions of the Southern Appalachians. Related linguistically to the Iroquois to the north, some scholars believe that successive groups of Cherokee were driven southwards in pre-Columbian times until they settled in the Southern Appalachians.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the Cherokee territory had expanded to include Allegheny County in southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, northwestern South Carolina, eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia and Alabama. Abundant in natural resources, this area provided over 800 species of plants used for food, medicines, and crafts. A wide variety of trees in the dense forests was available for fuel, weaving fibers, twine, medicinal barks and the framework and covering of dwellings, while plentiful animals provided food, clothing, shelter, and medicine.

The first known European exploration of North Carolina occurred during the summer of 1524. A Florentine navigator named Giovanni da Verrazano, in the service of France, explored the coastal area of North Carolina between the Cape Fear River area and Kitty Hawk. A report of his findings was sent to Francis I and published in Richard Hakluyt's Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America. No attempt was made to colonize the area.

Between 1540 and 1570 several Spanish explorers from the Florida Gulf region explored portions of North Carolina, but again no permanent settlements were established.

Coastal North Carolina was the scene of the first attempt to colonize America by English-speaking people. Two colonies were begun in the 1580's under a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth to Sir Walter Raleigh. The first colony, established in 1585 under the leadership of Ralph Lane, ended in failure.

A second expedition under the leadership of John White began in the spring of 1587 when 110 settlers, including seventeen women and nine children, set sail for the new world. The White Colony arrived near Hatteras in June, 1587, and went on to Roanoke Island, where they found the houses built by Ralph Lane's expedition still standing. Two significant events occurred shortly after the colonist's arrival: two "friendly" Indians were baptized and a child was born. Virginia Dare, as the baby was named, became the first child born to English-speaking parents in the new world.

The colonists faced many problems. As supplies ran short White was pressured to return to England for provisions. Once in England, White was unable to immediately return to Roanoke because of an impending attack by the Spanish Armada. When he was finally able to return in 1590, he found only the remnants of what was once a settlement. There were no signs of life, only the word "CROATAN" carved on a nearby tree. Much speculation has been made about the fate of the "Lost Colony," but no one has successfully explained the disappearance of the colony and its settlers.

Colonial Period

The first permanent English settlers in North Carolina were immigrants from the tidewater area of southeastern Virginia. These first of these "overflow" settlers moved into the Albemarle area of northeast North Carolina around 1650.

In 1663, Charles II granted a charter to eight English gentlemen who had helped him regain the throne of England. The charter document contains the following description of the territory which the eight Lords Proprietors were granted title to:

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