While exploring North Carolina and writing about our travels here, we have uncovered some interesting facts along the way. And if you’ve lived here for a while or think you know this state pretty well, I guarantee you there are a few things here that are going to come as a surprise.
Many of these North Carolina facts go back to a time before the state even existed and others continue to play out today. Together, let’s take a break from ticking off our NC Bucket Lists and go over some things you should know but probably don’t.
We originally created this post on March 24, 2020. It has been maintained and updated, as of April 7, 2020.
Facts About North Carolina
For this post, we used a variety of sources. You can read more about them by scrolling to the bottom.
- Our state motto is “Esse Quam Videri,” which translates in English to “To Be Rather Than To Seem.”
- With a total area of 53,819 square miles (139,391 sq km), North Carolina is the 28th largest state in the US, with 100 counties within its borders.
- North Carolina is commonly referred to as “Carolina” (sorry, South Carolina) and goes by two nicknames: The Tar Heel State and Old North State.
- The state flower is the Flowering Dogwood, our state tree is the longleaf pine, and the state bird is the northern cardinal.
Natural Facts About North Carolina
- North Carolina is typically broken down into three regions from West to East: the Mountains, Piedmont, and the Coastal Plains.
- The lowest point in North Carolina is where it meets the Atlantic Ocean (sea level). The stretch that runs along the Outer Banks is so historically rough for sailors that it’s long been referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
- The Venus Flytrap is native to the eastern part of both Carolinas. However, its first written description was recorded in a 1759 letter from North Carolina’s then-colonial Governor Arthur Dobbs to botanist Peter Collinson.
- Another native plant to North Carolina is the Muscadine. It’s typically used for wines, jellies, and juices today. On today’s Roanoke Island, the oldest cultivated grapevine (Mothervine) continues to produce antioxidant-rich juices and health formulas.
- Did you know that the Fall Line (fall zone) divides Eastern and Central North Carolina? It’s a long line of erosion that runs along the east coast, where harder rocks change into softer, erosion-sensitive rocks.
- Western North Carolina is home to the highest mountains in the Eastern US. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell is North Carolina’s highest point and the highest peak east of the Mississippi River. And according to archaeological evidence, the Uwharries are view as the oldest mountains in North America.
- Many diverse social and ecological systems are found in our mountains, and UNESCO recognized one of them (Grandfather Mountain) as an International Biosphere Reserve.
- There are also a large number of waterfalls in Western North Carolina and Whitewater Falls is the highest in the eastern US, falling more than 800 feet.
Native North Carolinian Facts
- When Europeans first arrived in the mid-1500s, estimates say 35,000 to 50,000 Tuscarora, Catawba, and Cherokee lived here.
- A series of trade networks thrived throughout this area, predating many of today’s industries with similar crafts and practices.
- For example, many people know about the Seagrove Potters who live in today’s Randolph County. However, evidence shows that Native Americans had been making and firing items from clay as late as 3,000 years ago.
- Today, 100,000 Native Americans still live in North Carolina. It’s the eighth largest in the US and you won’t find any state east of the Mississippi River with a larger population.
Today, eight tribes are recognized by the state. They include the following:
- Eastern Band of Cherokee
- Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation
Colonial North Carolina Facts
- Roanoke Island is the location of the first attempted English Colony. In 1587, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the colony. Sadly and mysteriously, the colony and all its inhabitants disappeared not long after arriving.
- North Carolina and South Carolina were both one colony (Carolina), named by King Charles II in honor of his father Charles I.
- In 1753, members of the Moravian Church arrived in the Piedmont and in 1766, they began work on a town. Five additional communities surrounded Salem in the Wachovia tract and it was a powerful and profitable religious and economic center for many years.
- Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina today, but it wasn’t the first. Bath served as the first nominal capital and New Bern was established in 1766 as the first permanent capital. The government assembled in multiple other spots until 1792 when Raleigh was finally established as the permanent capital once and for all.
- Many folks know our “First in Flight” license plates but there’s also “First in Freedom.” That’s because of the Mecklenburg Declaration of 1775, which made us the first state to declare independence.
- Fayetteville may have lost out to Raleigh as the permanent capital of North Carolina, but it wins the title of “First Place in North America Named for Marquis de Lafayette.” Today, numerous cities, counties, streets, and other places bear his name.
- North Carolina is one of our country’s 13 original states. It was admitted to the union on November 21, 1789.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of three institutions (along with the University of Georgia and College of William and Mary) to claim the title of the nation’s oldest public university. One thing not up for debate is that UNC was the first to hold classes (1795) and graduate students (1798).
- Another North Carolina first is the Carolina Gold Rush, which officially started in 1799. You can learn about it and even pan for some take-home treasure of your own at the Reed Gold Mine in Cabarrus County.
- Hiram Rhodes Revels was born in Fayetteville (1822) and among other accomplishments, was the first African-American member of the United States Congress, representing Mississippi.
- North Carolina’s place in the Civil War is well-known, too. But did you know that Bennett Place in now-Durham is the site of the last and largest surrender of a major Confederate army? It took a couple of meetings but on April 26, 1865, General Johnston surrendered to General Sherman and the Union.
- People would not be happy with us for leaving out Biltmore Estate in this post about North Carolina facts. And how could we leave out America’s largest privately-owned house? It was completed in 1895 and is still owned by George Vanderbilt’s descendants.
20th Century Facts
- Speaking of “First in Flight,” the Wright Brothers (Orville and Wilbur) successfully flew the first self-propelled aircraft near Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. Each December, the Wright Brothers National Memorial celebrates their “First Flight” with fun throughout the entire day.
- You might remember Salem from our “Colonial” section and don’t worry. It’s still with us, just in hyphen form. In 1913, Salem joined the adjacent town of Winston to become our state’s best-known dash city of Winston-Salem.
- And Fayetteville has another contribution to the “First” fun. There, you’ll find a historic marker that commemorates Babe Ruth hitting his first professional home run there in 1914.
- In 1917, Jacques and Juliana Busbee arrived in Seagrove in search of the person who created their orange pie dish. In doing so, they discovered an entire community of potters and wanted to let the whole world know about them. The artist couple opened Jugtown Pottery nearby and Juliana opened a shop in New York City, which featured pottery from Seagrove and put it on the map. New waves of potters have moved there over the years, with current tallies at around 100 within the community of 200.
- It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know about the Empire State Building in New York. But did you know that the Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem (completed in 1929) was its prototype? Each year, the Empire State Building sends a Father’s Day card just to say thanks.
- America’s first state-supported symphony, the North Carolina Symphony, officially started in 1932 and continues on through today.
- In 1942, construction began on Fontana Dam in Graham and Swain counties and completed in 1944. It is the tallest dam in the Eastern US, at 480 feet.
Post-WWII North Carolina
- The amazing North Carolina Museum of Art, which established its collection in 1947. It’s the first state art museum.
- In 1959, Research Triangle Park (RTP) was established near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. More than 300 companies are headquartered here, including big names in tech, health, research, and other sectors. RTP is the largest research park in the United States.
- The 1960s began with one of the most famous moments in Civil Rights History, and it happened right here in North Carolina. The “Greensboro Four” led a series of Sit-Ins at a Woolworth’s Lunch Counter and sparked similar protests in cities throughout North Carolina and elsewhere in the South.
- In 1974, the North Carolina Zoo opened in Asheboro and today is known as the world’s largest natural habitat zoo.
- Folks had been coming to Beech Mountain for years to enjoy skiing and the Land of Oz for years before its incorporation in 1981. With that official designation, it became the highest elevated town in the US, at 5,506 feet above sea level.
- In the 1990s, North Carolina earned two professional sports teams. The NFL’s expansion Carolina Panthers started play in Charlotte in 1995 and the NHL’s Hartford Whalers moved to Raleigh and became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997.
- Both the Hurricanes and Panthers have the distinction of being the only two major pro sports teams with the same geographic designation (Carolina) while playing in different metropolitan areas.
- To close out the 20th century, the Cape Hatteras Light Station (including its lighthouse) was moved in 1999 due to shoreline erosion. Today, it sits a safe distance from the ocean. The lighthouse is the largest to be moved due to erosion.
Facts About Today’s North Carolina
- As we progress through the 21st century, there are some interesting facts about North Carolina that keep popping up.
- The state leads the nation in a variety of industries. Our farmers produce the largest quantity of sweet potatoes in the nation.
- High Point is known as the Furniture Capital of the World. Not only is North Carolina the leader in furniture, but also tobacco, brick, and textiles.
- North Carolina also has the highest concentration of breweries per capita in the South, with over 300. You can celebrate that fact any time of year, but Beer Month in April would be the most proper time to do it.
- While the North Carolin Christmas Tree Industry ranks second in the nation, our Fraser Firs are known as the best (no debate!). They’ve featured as the White House Christmas tree more than a dozen times, making Fraser Firs the most popular species.
- Not all industries have survived during North Carolina’s existence. But even when one industry goes away, something else typically comes along and carries the torch. With Asheville’s River Arts District (RAD), that’s absolutely the case. Formerly a collection of industrial buildings that were abandoned following a flood, RAD now houses more than 150 artists in 19 buildings.
Businesses Started in North Carolina
- Family Dollar
- Food Lion
- Harris Teeter
- Hendrick Motorsports
- Krispy Kreme
- Mt Olive Pickle Company
- NC Mutual
- Pepsi Cola
- Putt-Putt Golf
- RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company
- Wrangler Jeans
Famous People from North Carolina
- Many famous people have also called North Carolina “home,” either born here or spending parts of their lives here. You might not consider all these people “facts” but some were really fun to uncover!
- It’s disputed between the two Carolinas about Andrew Jackson’s birthplace, but we’ll take it. However, Presidents James K Polk (Pineville), Andrew Johnson (Raleigh), and First Lady Dolley Madison (Greensboro) were clearly born on the north side of the border.
- An eclectic collection of musicians either born in or hailing from North Carolina include Earl Scruggs, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Doc Watson, Thelonius Monk, James Taylor, George Clinton, Tori Amos, Scott and Seth Avett, and Jay Cole. We also need to include Robert Moog, known for the namesake synthesizer. Moog spent many years living in Asheville and his legacy remains with the Moogseum and Moog Factory both in town.
- Actors and actresses from North Carolina include Pam Grier, Andy Griffith, Soupy Sales, Ava Gardner, Julianne Moore, Zach Galifianakis, and Evan Rachel Wood.
- Authors Thomas Wolfe, Sarah Desson, and William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) are all native North Carolinians. Nicholas Sparks, Maya Angelou, and David Sedaris all have spent or spent large portions of their lives in North Carolina.
- We had to make a separate category for famous athletes because there are so many from North Carolina.
- It’s not just basketball, but North Carolinians who’ve made great contributions to hardcourt starts with His Airness Michael Jordan. Even if he was born in New York City, Jordan’s family relocated to Wilmington when he was a toddler and the rest is history.
- Charlotte Smith, Steph Curry (raised in Charlotte), James Worthy, Chris Paul, and Bob McAdoo are a few of the many talented basketball players from North Carolina.
- There are other sports in North Carolina and NASCAR Racers Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr (and Jr, too) are absolutely worth remembering.
- Other big names in sports include the Negro leagues’ Buck Leonard and MLB’s Catfish Hunter, the NFL’s Dwight Clark and Sonny Jergonsen, Charles Sifford (instrumental in desegregating the PGA), the USMNT’s Eddie Pope, and the iconic voice of Howard Cosell.
Had Enough or Got More Facts for Us?
If you’ve had enough North Carolina facts for one reading, congratulations! This is the end. But if you have any additional facts for us, we’d love to know them. Let us know in the comments section and if it’s a really good one, we’ll have to investigate further!