North Carolina History and Research Overview

North Carolina History and Research Overview

Learn about North Carolina's history and available records in this research guide that includes a map and bibliography.


In the 1650s, before Carolina was an official colony, Virginians began seeking new tobacco-farming land around Albemarle Sound in the northeast corner of what is now North Carolina. Ten years later, the British king granted eight proprietors the region south of Virginia. By 1691, when the northern part of the province settled by the proprietors had acquired the name North Carolina, it had developed a different economy and society from its southern counterpart and was, in effect, a separate colony. Official separation occurred in 1712, and Parliament made both Carolinas royal colonies in 1729.

Many early settlers came from Barbados, Virginia, and Europe, including Swiss, German, French (Huguenots), and English immigrants. Along with tobacco and rice, North Carolina farmers produced foodstuffs for neighboring colonies and the West Indies, and a naval stores industry developed. Because barrier islands and lack of natural harbors discouraged ocean-going vessels, trade and passengers generally went through the harbors at Charles Town and Norfolk. Slavery, though present, developed more slowly in North Carolina than elsewhere. Most of the Indians eventually died of disease or in war with the newcomers, or were forced westward.

As a royal colony, North Carolina saw its population mushroom. From the 1730s, Ulster Scots, Germans, Virginians, and other British colonists arrived in large numbers, many coming via the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road through Maryland and Virginia and settling in the Piedmont. By the 1760s, North Carolinians were spilling over the mountains into eastern Tennessee.

North Carolina’s Continental Congress delegates voted for independence, but during the Revolution, conflict raged between the colony’s patriots and loyalists, who included many Highland Scots. Wary of a strong central government, North Carolina did not ratify the new Constitution until late 1789, after the Bill of Rights was proposed. North Carolina permanently relinquished claim to Tennessee in 1790.

As cotton production increased and farmland wore out, many North Carolinians moved west and southwest to newer states. But in spite of large emigrations, by 1860 North Carolina had almost one million residents, of whom one-third were slaves, about 3 percent were free blacks, and about three-tenths of 1 percent were foreign-born immigrants.

North Carolina did not secede until after Civil War hostilities began. Sending and losing large numbers of men to the war, the state saw limited engagements but experienced a significant peace movement. The state was readmitted to the Union in 1868.

From the Civil War forward, industries developed around natural resources and dominant crops — forests (especially the furniture industry), minerals, commercial fishing, tobacco, and cotton. The 1990 census was the first to show the urban population barely surpassing the rural.

(click to enlarge)
North Carolina state map with county outlines


  • Due to its colonial beginnings, North Carolina is a state land state.
  • Marriage license applications, often made by a friend or relative of the groom, may not be completely accurate.
  • The boundaries of North Carolina were established after settlement began: the Virginia border about 1728; the South Carolina border, 1772. Researchers should consult land records from adjoining states when studying ancestors from border counties.
  • Although numerous church records exist for North Carolina research, no 18th-century Anglican parish registers survive.
  • Someone reporting a North Carolina birth prior to 1796 may have been born in what is now Tennessee.
  • Major archival collections are housed at the North Carolina Division of Archives and History; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; and Duke University, Durham.


  • Federal census population schedules: 1790 (incomplete), 1800, 1810 (incomplete), 1820 (incomplete), 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890 (fragments of Gaston and Cleveland counties), 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal census soundex or miracode: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880
  • Federal slave schedules: 1850, 1860
  • State census: 1784-1787
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890


  • The American Indian in North Carolina by Douglas L. Rights (J.F. Blair, 1957)
  • Archival and Manuscript Repositories in North Carolina: A Directory (Society of North Carolina Archivists, 1993)
  • Biographical History of North Carolina From Colonial Times to the Present edited by Samuel A’Court Ashe (C.L. Van Noppen, 1905-1917)
  • A Bibliography of North Carolina, 1589-1956 by Mary Lindsay Thornton (Greenwood Press, 1973, ca. 1958)
  • The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution by Charles Woodmason (Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by University of North Carolina Press, 1953)
  • Carolina Cradle; Settlement of the Northwest Carolina Frontier, 1747-1762 by Robert W. Ramsey (University of North Carolina Press, 1964)
  • Carolina Families: A Bibliography of Books About North and South Carolina Families by Donald M. Hehir (Heritage Books, 1994)
  • Colonial Families of Virginia and North Carolina compiled by Motte Alston Read (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1952)
  • The Colonial Records of North Carolina, 10 vols., collected and edited by William L. Saunders (P.M. Hale State Printer, 1886-90)
  • The Country Church in North Carolina by Jesse Marvin Ormond (Duke University Press, 1931)
  • Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 vols., by William Stevens Powell (University of North Carolina Press, ca. 1979-1996)
  • Directory of Scots in the Carolinas, 1680-1830 by David Dobson (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986)
  • Early Methodism in the Carolinas by A.M. Chreitzberg (Reprint Co., 1972)
  • Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy by William Wade Hinshaw, compiled by Thomas W. Marshall (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969)
  • The Episcopal Church in North Carolina, 1701-1959 edited by Lawrence Foushee London and Sarah McCulloh Lemmon (Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, 1987)
  • Exploring Your Cherokee Ancestry: A Basic Genealogical Research Guide by Thomas G. Mooney (Cherokee National Historical Society, 1988, ca. 1990)
  • The Flowering of Methodism in Western North Carolina by George William Bumgarner and James Elwood Carroll (Commission on Archives and History of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, 1984)
  • The Formation of North Carolina Counties, 1663-1943 by David Leroy Corbitt (State Department of Archives and History, 1969)
  • Guide to Genealogical Research in North Carolina by Wendy L. Elliott (W.L. Elliott, ca. 1988)
  • Guide to Manuscripts in the Archives of the Moravian Church in America, Southern Province by the Historical Records Survey (Historical Records Survey, 1942)
  • Guide to Manuscripts in the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina by the Historical Records Survey (University of North Carolina Press, 1941)
  • Guide to North Carolina Newspapers on Microfilm: Titles Available From the Division of Archives and History compiled by Roger C. Jones (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1984)
  • Guide to Private Manuscript Collections in the North Carolina State Archives compiled and edited by Barbara T. Cain et al. (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1981)
  • Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives: County Records (North Carolina Division of Archives and History)
  • Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1995)
  • The Heritage of Blacks in North Carolina by Linda Simmons-Henry; edited by Phillip N. Henry and Carol M. Speas (North Carolina African-American Heritage Foundation and the Delmar Co., 1990)
  • The Historical Records of North Carolina edited by Charles Christopher Crittenden and Dan Lacy (North Carolina Historical Commission, 1938-39)
  • Historical Sketches of North Carolina, From 1584 to 1851, Compiled From Original Records, Official Documents and Traditional Statements by John H. Wheeler (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1980)
  • A History of African Americans in North Carolina by Jeffrey J. Crow et al. (North Carolina Divions of Archives and History, 1992)
  • History of the German Settlements and of the Lutheran Church in North and South Carolina, From the Earliest Period of the Colonization of the Dutch, German and Swiss Settlers to the Close of the First Half of the Present Century by Gotthardt Dellmann Bernheim (The Lutheran Book Store, 1872)
  • History of North Carolina, 4 vols., by Hugh Talmage Leffer (Lewis Historical Publishing Co., 1956)
  • History of the North Carolina Baptists by George Washington Paschal (Church History Research and Archives, 1990, 1955)
  • History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in North Carolina by the Prostestant Episcopal Church (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1961)
  • I Have Called You Friends; the Story of Quakerism in North Carolina by Francis Charles Anscombe (Christopher Publishing House, 1959)
  • Index to the North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register: Hathaway’s Register by David O. Hamrick (D.O. Hamrick, 1983)
  • An Index to North Carolina Newspapers, 1784-1789 by Alan D. Watson (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1992)
  • An Intermediate Short, Short Course in the Use of Some North Carolina Records in Genealogical Research by Margaret M. Hofmann (Copy-It-Print, 1990)
  • Introductory Guide to Indian-Related Records (to 1876) in the North Carolina State Archives by Donna Spindel (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1977)
  • Inventory of the State Archives of North Carolina (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1986)
  • King’s Mountain and Its Heroes; History of the Battle of King’s Mountain, October 7th, 1780, and the Events Which Led to It by Lyman Copeland Draper (Reprint Co., 1967)
  • Lawson’s History of North Carolina: Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country, Together With the Present State Thereof and a Journal of a Thousand Miles Traveled Through Several Nations of Indians by John Lawson and Frances Latham Harriss (Garrett and Massie, 1937)
  • Lost Tribes of North Carolina. Where did They Come From? Where did They go? by Worth Stickley Ray (1947)
  • “A Master Plan for North Carolina Research” by Helen F.M. Leary in National Genealogical Society Quarterly vol. 75 (March 1987), pages 15-36
  • McCubbin’s Collection by Mamie McCubbins et al. (filmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah, 1956)
  • The Melungeons: Notes on the Origin of a Race by Bonnie Ball (Overmountain Press, 1992)
  • Melungeons Yesterday and Today by Jean Patterson Bible (J.P. Bible, 1975)
  • More Than Petticoats. Remarkable North Carolina Women by Scotti Kent (TwoDot, 2000)
  • North Carolina Bible Records; Dating From the Early Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, Including Genealogical Notes and Letters Found in Some Bibles compiled by Wilma Cartwright Spence and Edna Morrisette Shannonhouse (Unique Print Service, ca. 1973)
  • North Carolina Disciples of Christ: A History of Their Rise and Progress, and of Their Contribution to Their General Brotherhood by Charles Crossfield Ware (University of Microfilms International, 1982)
  • The North Carolina Experience, an Interpretive and Documentary History edited by Lindley S. Butler and Alan D. Watson (University of North Carolina Press, 1984)
  • North Carolina Genealogical Reference: A Research Guide for all Genealogists, Both Amateur and Professional compiled and edited by Wallace R. Draughon and William Perry Johnson (s.n., 1966)
  • North Carolina Genealogical Research by George K. Schweitzer (G.K. Schweitzer, 1984)
  • North Carolina Higher Court Records edited by Mattie Erma Parker (State Dept. of Archives and History, 1968-1981)
  • North Carolina Lives: The Tar Heel Who’s Who; a Reference Edition Recording the Biographies of Contemporary Leaders in North Carolina With Special Emphasis on Their Achievements in Making it one of America’s Greatest States by William Stevens Powell (Historical Records Association, 1962)
  • North Carolina Local History, a Select Bibliography compiled by George Stevenson (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1984)
  • North Carolina Portraits of Faith: A Pictorial History of Religions by Anne Russell and Marjorie Megivern (Donning Co., 1986)
  • North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, 2nd edition, by Helen F.M. Leary, ed. (North Carolina Genealogical Society, 1996)
  • North Carolina Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (online at
  • North Carolina Through Four Centuries by William Stevens Powell (University of North Carolina Press, ca. 1989)
  • Old Cherokee Families: Notes of Dr. Emmet Starr, 3 vols., edited and annotated by Jack D. Baker and David Keith Hampton (Baker Pub. Co., 1987)
  • One Dozen Pre-Revolutionary War Families of Eastern North Carolina, and Some of Their Descendants by Primrose Watson Fisher (New Bern Historical Society Foundation, 1958)
  • Paths Towards Freedom: A Biographical History of Blacks and Indians in North Carolina by Frank Emory (Center for Urban Affairs, North Carolina State University, 1976)
  • Quaker Women of Carolina: Freedom, Achievement by Seth B. Hinshaw and Mary Edith Hinshaw (North Carolina United Society of Friends Women, 1994)
  • Records of the Executive Council, 1644-1734 edited by Robert J. Cain (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1984)
  • Records of the Executive Council, 1735-1754 edited by Robert J. Cain (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1988)
  • Records of the Executive Council, 1755-1775 edited by Robert J. Cain (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1994)
  • Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians by John H. Wheeler (Genealogical Publishing Co., 1966)
  • A Selective Guide to Women-Related Records in the North Carolina State Archives by Catherine E. Thompson (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1977)
  • Sketches of North Carolina, Historical and Biographical, Illustrative of the Principles of a Portion of Her Early Settlers by William Henry Foote (filmed by the Library of Congress, ca. 1980)
  • Sketches of the Pioneers of Methodism in North Carolina and Virginia by M.H. Moore (Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1884)
  • Sketches of Western North Carolina, Historical and Biographical; Illustrating Principally the Revolutionary Period of Mecklenburg, Rowan, Lincoln, and Adjoining Counties, Accompanied With Miscellaneous Information by C.L. Hunter (Regional Publishing Co., 1970)
  • Slavery in the State of North Carolina by John Spencer Bassett (AMS Press, 1972)
  • Sojourners no More: The Quakers in the New South, 1865-1920 by Damon D. Hickey (North Carolina Friends Historical Society, 1997)
  • Some Colonial and Revolutionary Families of North Carolina, 3 vols., by Marilu Burch Smallwood (1964-1976)
  • The Southern Historical Collection; a Guide to Manuscripts by Susan Sokol Blosser and Clyde Norman Wilson, Jr. (1970)
  • Union Lists of North Carolina Newspapers, 1751-1900 edited by H.G. Jones and Julius H. Avant (State Department of Archives and History, 1963)

Return to the main North Carolina page

From the Family Tree Sourcebook
Also available: the State Research Guide Book, State Research Guides CD and The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy.

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