The first permanent European settlers of North Carolina were British colonists who migrated South from Virginia, following a rapid growth of the colony and the subsequent shortage of available farmland. Nathaniel Batts was documented as being one of the first of these Virginian migrants. He settled South of the Chowan River and East of the Great Dismal Swamp in 1655. By 1663, this Northeastern area of the Province of Carolina, known as the Albemarle Settlements, was undergoing full-scale British settlement. During the same period, the English monarch Charles II gave the province to the Lords Proprietors, a group of noblemen who had helped restore Charles to the throne in 1660. The new province of “Carolina” was named in honor and memory of King Charles I. In 1712, North Carolina became a separate colony. With the exception of the Earl Granville holdings, it became a royal colony seventeen years later.
Differences in the settlement patterns of Eastern and Western North Carolina, or the low country and uplands, affected the political, economic, and social life of the state from the eighteenth until the twentieth century. Immigrants from England and the Scottish Highlands chiefly settled the Tidewater in Eastern North Carolina. Scots-Irish and German Protestants, the so-called “cohee”, chiefly settled the upcountry of Western North Carolina. Arriving during the mid-to-late 18th century, the Scots-Irish from Ireland were the largest immigrant group before the Revolution. During the Revolutionary War, the English and Highland Scots of Eastern North Carolina tended to remain loyal to the British Crown, because of longstanding business and personal connections with Great Britain. The Scots-Irish and German settlers of Western North Carolina tended to favor American independence from Britain.
Most of the English colonists arrived as indentured servants, hiring themselves out as laborers for a fixed period to pay for their passage. In the early years the line between indentured servants and African slaves or laborers was fluid. Some Africans were allowed to earn their freedom before slavery became a lifelong status. Most of the free colored families formed in North Carolina before the Revolution were descended from relationships or marriages between free white women and enslaved or free African or African-American men. Many had migrated or were descendants of migrants from colonial Virginia. As the flow of indentured laborers to the colony decreased with improving economic conditions in Great Britain, more slaves were imported and the state’s restrictions on slavery hardened. The economy’s growth and prosperity was based on slave labor, devoted first to the production of tobacco.
On April 12, 1776, the colony became the first to instruct its delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence from the British crown, through the Halifax Resolves passed by the North Carolina Provincial Congress. The dates of both of these independence-related events are memorialized on the state flag and state seal. Throughout the Revolutionary War, fierce guerilla warfare erupted between bands of pro-independence and pro-British colonists. In some cases the war was also an excuse to settle private grudges and rivalries. A major American victory in the war took place at King’s Mountain along the North Carolina–South Carolina border. On October 7, 1780 a force of 1000 mountain men from western North Carolina (including what is today the State of Tennessee) overwhelmed a force of some 1000 British troops led by Major Patrick Ferguson. Most of the British soldiers in this battle were Carolinians who had remained loyal to the British Crown (they were called “Tories”). The American victory at Kings Mountain gave the advantage to colonists who favored American independence, and it prevented the British Army from recruiting new soldiers from the Tories.
The road to Yorktown and America’s independence from Great Britain led through North Carolina. As the British Army moved north from victories in Charleston and Camden, South Carolina, the Southern Division of the Continental Army and local militia prepared to meet them. Following General Daniel Morgan’s victory over the British Cavalry Commander Banastre Tarleton at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, Southern commander Nathanael Greene led British Lord Charles Cornwallis across the heartland of North Carolina, and away from Cornwallis’s base of supply in Charleston, South Carolina. This campaign is known as “The Race to the Dan” or “The Race for the River.”
Generals Greene and Cornwallis finally met at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in present-day Greensboro on March 15, 1781. Although the British troops held the field at the end of the battle, their casualties at the hands of the numerically superior American Army were crippling. Following this “Pyrrhic victory”, Cornwallis chose to move to the Virginia coastline to get reinforcements, and to allow the Royal Navy to protect his battered army. This decision would result in Cornwallis’s eventual defeat at Yorktown, Virginia later in 1781. The Patriots’ victory there guaranteed American independence.