European Contact (1524 to 1663)

Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to explore North Carolina. Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon and his ships were blown off course and some scholars believe he landed at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in 1526. Hernando de Soto and his men arrived in western North Carolina in 1540. Captain Juan Pardo traveled from Santa Elena (near present-day Beaufort, South Carolina) through western North Carolina in 1566 and 1568. He and his men built several small fortifications. Despite these early forays, the Spanish never attempted to establish a permanent settlement in the state. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted land in present-day North Carolina to Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh made two attempts to establish a colony on his New World holdings. Both ended in failure. Indeed, the fate of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony of Roanoke Island remains a great American mystery.

In 1662, Captain William Hilton traveled up the Cape Fear River where he met and visited with local indigenous people.

“ye [þe] 4th Octob. we weighed, and went into ye Haven, where was fathoms water, and in a weeks time, spent with ye indians, and in sounding ye River and ye ship turning up alway against ye wind, we gott up 15. or 16. leagues into ye river; and after in our long boate, half of us went 15. leagues further, till at ye head of ye river we could not tell, which of ye many rivers to take, and so returned to our ship, and as we went and came, we found many faire and deep rivers, all ye way running into this Charles River.”
William Hilton, October 4, 1662

He described an “Indian plantation” which archaeologists have interpreted to mean that Indian people were growing large fields of corn and other foods. However, period descriptions of the Sandhills suggest this area was still used primarily for hunting. From his visit to the region Hilton described people hunting with bows and arrows tipped with stone points. He and his men established a small colony near the mouth of the Cape Fear, but it was abandoned by the fall of 1663.

A second attempt at settlement in the Cape Fear River region was made in 1664 and a number of small farms were scattered along the river by 1666. The deerskin trade was the principal source of income for the settlers of this small colony known as Charles Town. However, poor leadership, pirate attacks, conflicts with local Cape Fear Indians, and lack of military and financial support from England hindered the success of this fledgling settlement and it was abandoned by 1670.

In the earliest years after the arrival of Europeans in North Carolina, Indian people continued to live in the same manner they had throughout the Late Woodland period. Their economy was based on hunting, gathering, fishing, and agriculture. They continued to make pottery and a wide variety of tools, decorative items, clothing, smoking pipes, and baskets. However, as more and more settlers moved in disease, warfare, and slavery took their toll on Indian communities.

In 1663, King Charles II granted the Carolina Colony to eight powerful noblemen who had supported his return to the throne. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon; George Monck, Duke of Albemarle; William Craven, Earl of Craven; John Berkeley, Baron Berkeley of Stratton; Sir John Colleton; Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury; Sir George Carteret; and Sir William Berkeley were declared the “true and absolute lords and proprietors” of the province. The Carolina Colony stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and included most of the Southeast.

In 1712, North and South Carolina became separate colonies. From 1712 until 1776, the two new colonies argued over who controlled the area that now includes Robeson County. As a result, this disputed territory became a haven for Indian people displaced by continuing European expansion. As Indian tribes were decimated by warfare and disease, remaining tribal members left their traditional lands and took refuge near the Lumber River. By the end of the 18th century, this region became the home of the Lumbee Indians, an amalgam of Coastal Siouan Cape Fear and Waccamaw Indians and other Indian people displaced from various parts of North and South Carolina.