Although North Carolina was one of the original 13 American colonies, its geography, harsh coastline and system of “proprietor” land grants meant it was settled mostly via older colonies. First, in the 1650s, came Virginians who populated the Albemarle Sound area. Primarily English, these transplants had spread throughout the Coastal Plains region by 1730. Small groups of German Palatines, Swiss, and French Huguenots did settle directly along the coast in the early 1700s, followed by Scots-Irish in the upper Cape Fear Valley from 1729 to 1775. But other Scots and Germans trekked the Great Wagon Road south from Pennsylvania and Virginia to fill the Piedmont region.
This adventurous spirit persisted, so your ancestors may have been just passing through: By 1850, a quarter of all North Carolina natives had gone on to live in other states. Whether your Tar Heel kin stuck around or moved on, this guide will help you start your research on solid footing.
Because the Southeast was home to Cherokee Indians, one of the Five Civilized tribes, many North Carolinians’ family lore tells of Indian ancestry. While not all these stories are true, they’re worth investigating when ancestors lived in areas where they would’ve encountered Indians. In 1817, some Cherokee voluntarily migrated to what’s now Oklahoma and Arkansas; descendants of these “Old Settlers” are now the federally recognized United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. Indian removals in the 1830s, culminating in a forced march known as the Trail of Tears, relocated most remaining Cherokee to Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the largest federally recognized tribe. A few small groups living on private land weren’t removed and later formed the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina. Start researching American Indian ancestry in tribal census, allotment and other records with our guide in the October/November 2016 Family Tree Magazine.
Records of early settlers
North Carolina’s mobile population led to an evolving crazy-quilt of counties. Today’s 100 counties weren’t finalized until 1911, and six counties went extinct in the process (Albemarle, Bath, Bute, Dobbs, Glasgow and Tryon). For help figuring out when counties were formed and re-formed, an online chart. Visualize boundary changes with the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries site. It’s important to know the name of the county at the time your ancestor lived there: Some newly created counties re-recorded deeds and other records, but in general, county records stayed in the county where they were created.
All this settlement also created land records. In 1663, King Charles II of England rewarded eight supporters with lands in the New World, making them Lords Proprietor of Carolina. They began granting land in 1669; surviving records from 1679 to 1729 are at the North Carolina State Archives (NCSA). Part of an index to these records has been microfilmed, and you can borrow it from the Family History Library (FHL) for viewing at a branch Family-Search Center near you.
Carolina became a royal colony in 1729, when seven of the proprietors sold their shares to King George II. The holdout proprietor was Lord Granville, and his domain—roughly the state’s northern half—became known as the Granville District. Check the aforementioned index for published abstracts of this era’s land records; the originals are at NCSA.
Keep in mind that the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina was fluid, and the border with South Carolina was mostly finalized by 1772 (a 2017 adjustment “relocated” 19 homes). Your ancestors’ land records might be in these states. Similarly, Tennesseans’ records may be in North Carolina, which ceded its western claims—what’s now Tennessee—to the federal government when North Carolina became a state in 1789. You can find early land grant records from this area on subscription site Ancestry.com.
NCSA has land grants from the Revolutionary War and statehood periods. You can find searchable data and some patent images on the website North Carolina Land Grant Images and Data (you’ll want to look over this site’s Getting Started page before you search). Thousands of county records of subsequent land exchanges (deeds), however, are on FHL microfilm.
Censuses and more
With independence came statehood and then the first federal census in 1790. Although that enumeration included North Carolina, the schedules for Caswell, Granville and Orange counties haven’t survived. Federal census records are available on several websites, including Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and FamilySearch. If your ancestors predate that census, you can find transcribed records for 24 of 50 counties in State Census of North Carolina, 1784–1787 by Alvaretta K. Register (Genealogical Publishing Co.). This book is digitized and searchable on Ancestry.com.
African-Americans aren’t fully identified in censuses until 1870. Enslaved individuals are described—but not named—in 1850 and 1860 slave schedules, which name slaveholders. For help tracing African-American ancestors, see Preliminary Guide to Records Relating to Blacks in the North Carolina State Archives, a free downloadable guide.
Tax lists and court records are excellent sources for finding North Carolina ancestors as far back as the 1600s. Both the NCSA and FHL have microfilmed tax lists; several are indexed at Ancestry.com. Most 1800s court records are at the archives and on FHL microfilm. The first two volumes of the three-volume North Carolina Historical and Genealogical Register edited by James R.B. Hathaway are free to download at Google Books. North Carolina wills and probate records are becoming more accessible online. FamilySearch has browsable digitized estate files (1663-1979) and probate records (1735-1970). Ancestry.com has digitized and indexed probate records, as well as a collection of will abstracts. Original pre-1760 wills are at NCSA and later wills are in county offices.</p> <p>Cemetery records are another good source for tracing 18th- and 19th–century North Carolinians. The Works Progress Administration created an index of North Carolina cemetery inscriptions, available on FHL microfilm and at NCSA. Also search websites such as Find A Grave and Billion Graves.
North Carolina’s rugged coastline didn’t allow for many ports, but immigrants did arrive at several, including Wilmington, Beaufort and New Bern. Surviving records are part of passenger list collections on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.
Visit NCGenWeb for transcribed militia lists from various Colonial-era conflicts North Carolinians served in. If your ancestor was born between about 1710 and 1765, look for him in records of the American Revolution. The 1776 Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge pitted British forces and local Loyalists (many of them Scottish settlers along the Cape Fear River) against Patriot troops organized by the state’s Council of Safety. Look for your soldier in databases such as Ancestry.com’s Roster of Soldiers from North Carolina in the American Revolution (created from a 1932 Daughters of the American Revolution book of the same name) and FamilySearch’s North Carolina Revolutionary Pay Vouchers. Fold3 has pension and service records. Tories may be in Loyalists in North Carolina During the Revolution by Robert O. DeMond (Genealogical Publishing Co.).
North Carolina wasn’t strongly pro-secession during the Civil War—some of your Tar Heel ancestors might’ve even fought for the Union—but nonetheless, it contributed 125,000 men to the Confederate cause, more than any other state. Key battles fought on Tar Heel soil include the battles of Roanoke Island, New Bern, Averasborough and Bentonville. Once you’ve found a soldier’s name using the free Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, consult the 15-volume North Carolina Troops, 1861–1865: A Roster, edited by Matthew Brown (North Carolina Office of Archives and History), available in major genealogical libraries.
Whether your ancestor served with the Union or Confederacy, you can search an index to their service records at FamilySearch (results link to records at Fold3.com, where you’ll need a subscription to view the records). It was left to the defeated Southern states to grant pensions to their Civil War veterans and widows: North Carolina did this in 1885 and 1901. The NCSA and FHL have these records, which are browsable at the free FamilySearch. Additional NCSA holdings relating to the Civil War, including payrolls, correspondence, commission applications and more, are described online.
Like many other Southern states, North Carolina was tardy in adopting statewide vital record-keeping. State-level registration of births and deaths didn’t begin until 1913. Each county’s register of deeds keeps originals, but you can order records of births starting in 1913 and deaths starting in 1930 from the state vital records office (see Fast Facts). Birth indexes at Family-Search and Ancestry.com include earlier delayed birth records (order copies from the county register of deeds) and birth information from other sources. The FHL also has microfilmed death records (1906-1994). You can search a variety of databases of North Carolina deaths at both these websites; Ancestry.com even has some digitized record images.
From 1741 to 1868, banns had to be published or a bond posted before a couple could marry. Look for pre-1851 banns in church records; thereafter, copies were filed with county clerks. Marriage bonds survive for about half the counties; NCSA has abstracts, and you can search an index at Ancestry.com. Each county’s register of deeds keeps marriage records dating from 1868 to 1962, with most also on FHL microfilm. FamilySearch also has digitized county marriage records, and both FamilySearch and Ancestry.com have searchable statewide indexes to more than 2 million marriages. The state vital records office has marriage records from 1962 on.
Still stuck? You can look for other clues about your ancestors in North Carolina’s centuries of county records, collected at NCSA and indexed in its online catalog. Also download NCSA’s County Records Guide. Just dig in your heels, and you’ll soon be adding branches to your North Carolina family tree.
- Statehood: 1789
- First federal census: 1790
- Available colonial censuses: 1775 (Pitt County), 1784 through 1787
- Statewide birth and death records begin: 1913
- Statewide marriage records begin: 1962
- State-land state
- Counties: 100 (first established 1664)
- Contact for vital records: North Carolina Vital Records, 1903 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699, (919) 733-3000,
1585: Settlers land at Roanoke; “The Lost Colony” later disappears mysteriously
1650: Permanent settlement begins in Albemarle area
1663: Charles II grants land to Lords Proprietor
1729: North Carolina becomes a royal colony
1775: Gov. Josiah Martin flees, ending British rule
1795: The University of North Carolina’s first student, Hinton James, arrives on campus
1861: North Carolina secedes from the Union
1868: North Carolina rejoins the Union
1903: Wright Brothers make their first powered flight in Kill Devil Hills
1911: Hoke County completes the state’s current 100-county organization
1960: “The Andy Griffith Show,” set in fictional Mayberry, NC, first airs on TV
1999: Hurricane Floyd devastates parts of eastern North Carolina
- Avenues of Early NC Settlement
- Finding Slave Records
- Military Organizations in Colonial North Carolina
- North Carolina GenWeb
- Family History of Western North Carolina, second edition, by Joyce Justus Parris (Clearfield)
- The Formation of the North Carolina Counties, 1663–1943 by David Leroy Corbitt (North Carolina State Archives)
- Guide to Private Manuscript Collections in the North Carolina State Archives edited by Barbara T. Cain (North Carolina State Archives)
- Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives: County Records (North Carolina State Archives)
- Guide to Research Materials in the North Carolina State Archives: State Agency Records (North Carolina State Archives)
- North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal CD (North Carolina Genealogical Society)
- North Carolina Research: Genealogy and Local History, 2nd edition, edited by Helen F.M. Leary (North Carolina Genealogical Society)
- North Carolina Through Four Centuries by William S. Powell (University of North Carolina Press)
- The State of North Carolina with Native American Ancestry by Milton E. Campbell (Trafford Publishing)
Archives & Organizations