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Session 4: Tough Times Lead to Change

Moving Away

By Jackson Marshall, Associate Director for Programming, North Carolina Museum of History

During the 1700s, North Carolina saw tremendous growth as thousands of settlers moved into the colony from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania seeking new land. North Carolina was part of the southern frontier, where land was plentiful and fertile. Much of this migration ended, however, when the Revolutionary War began in 1776. After the war, the state’s population continued to grow because of the natural increase of its citizens. The number of enslaved people also increased when their labor came more in demand for the cultivation of cotton, a chief staple crop, following the invention of the cotton gin in 1793.

By 1800, however, the exodus from the state had already begun. Archibald D. Murphey, a North Carolina statesman, estimated that between 1790 and 1816 the state lost more than two hundred thousand people to emigration, including three future presidents. The Panic of 1819 wrecked the national economy, driving down agricultural profits and land values to an all-time low. By 1820 the state was facing an immense crisis as departing families abandoned numerous farmsteads. In 1827 it was reported that eight to fifteen wagons loaded with people heading west passed through Asheville each day for a four-month period.

The decade of the 1830s was the most disastrous to the state. In that ten-year period, the state’s population grew by only 2 percent, while in states like Mississippi, where many Tar Heels moved, the number of inhabitants grew by over 300 percent. The state lost an estimated sixty-eight thousand white citizens in ten years. The average population growth for North Carolina for the antebellum period was only 15 percent. During the same decade, thirty-two of the state’s sixty-eight counties declined in population.

During the antebellum period, North Carolina gained fewer residents and lost more people through migration than any other state in the Union. By 1860 the state had dropped in ranking from the fourth to the twelfth place in total population. Political leaders identified the causes and results of the out-migration but did little to try to stop the depopulation of the state. They believed that nothing could or should be done. Traditional views on the role of a limited government, steadfast belief in outdated agricultural methods, and self-interest prevented any action for years. So the exodus continued.

In Washington Irving’s story, Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years while the world changed around him. Some people believed that North Carolina's unwillingness to institute new reforms in the early to mid nineteenth century was stifling the state's growth; and thus, North Carolina became known as the Rip Van Winkle state. Illustration by Thomas Fogarty.

The causes for the great migration from North Carolina during the antebellum period are easily identified. Soil exhaustion—the ruination of the fertility of agricultural soil—and the promise of new, fertile land elsewhere were the main reasons people left the state. North Carolina, like Maryland and Virginia, was one of the first southern colonies to be occupied by a largely agrarian population, so its best farmland was exhausted by 1800. Fertilizer was not used in the colonial and antebellum periods because land was plentiful. Few farmers understood the value of fertilizer or accepted its widespread use; moreover, it was expensive to purchase. Once a tract wore out, a farmer simply moved to another piece of land, and then another. Land was cheaper than labor (meaning enslaved persons to a plantation owner) so it became disposable.

Tobacco and cotton, the most important market crops, exhausted the soil rapidly, so planters first bought great tracts of land to farm, and once it was wasted, sold it off in smaller parcels to farmers or abandoned it. In fact, studies show that the greater the density of enslaved persons in an area, the more quickly the land depletion occurred because of a planter’s poor land stewardship. Market-driven planters, called “land killers” at the time, struggled to produce larger and larger crops to increase profits. Thus, they were far more likely to destroy the land than yeoman subsistence farmers. Planters would not engage in crop rotation and utilized fertilizer haphazardly, resulting in a total depletion of the soil and eventual abandonment. If the land was abandoned, soil erosion proceeded rapidly, especially in the Piedmont, often ruining the land for farming permanently.

Other problems facing North Carolina that caused the flight of many of its citizens included poor transportation, the lack of a suitable port, resistance to agricultural reform or other economic opportunities, and entrenched political leadership. The state’s lack of navigable rivers and a decent port along its treacherous coastline prevented the state from capitalizing on the sale of its commerce. Poor roads and an almost nonexistent railway system added to the problem by land-locking planters and farmers far away from any commerce center. There were no large cities in the state from which to market agricultural products. Partly because of this isolation, North Carolinians were slow to engage in outside risky ventures and did not wish to fund improvements unless they had an immediate and personal benefit

Nathaniel Macon

"Nathaniel Macon: Leader of an Agricultural State Resisting Change" By R. Charles Roule III, Reprinted from the Tar Heel Junior Historian 36:1 (fall 1996)

Following the War of 1812, North Carolina seemed to lapse into a “sleep” of comfort. Planters from eastern North Carolina remained perfectly content to raise crops, get them to market, and make money. . . . They saw no reason to change an agriculture-based system that had worked to keep them wealthy and in control of the state since the 1700s.

They [many of these eastern planters] were also largely “old-timers” who could remember the domineering and interfering British government. They had lived through the American Revolution (1776–1783) that ended that rule. They mistrusted big government, especially a strong federal government (which they equated to the royalty of Britain), and believed that governments should exist only to protect property, preserve order, and enforce private contracts.


Nathaniel Macon.
Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.



A leader that represented them 

Because they were happy and satisfied with their lives and because they were hesitant to increase the role of government in their daily lives, these eastern planters, who had basically always controlled the state’s government, supported a man who had long been a part of it—Nathaniel Macon.

Macon was a Warren County tobacco planter, born in 1758, when North Carolina was still a colony ruled by the king of England. After fighting in the Revolutionary War, he went into politics. He served first in the North Carolina Senate (1781–1785), then in the North Carolina House of Commons, then in the United States House of Representatives (1791–1815), where he was once Speaker of the House (1801–1807), and finally in the United States Senate (1815–1828). Macon became known as a strong states’ rights advocate and a stout guardian of the agrarian lifestyle familiar to the planters of eastern North Carolina.

“Why depart from the good old way, which has kept us in quiet, peace, and harmony . . . why leave the road of experience, which has satisfied all, and made all happy, to take [a] new way, of which we have no experience?” he once asked.

North Carolina becomes a one-party state 

At the beginning of the 1800s, two political parties were rivals in North Carolina. The Federalists had been in control of the new nation from its formation until 1801, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party came into power. Jefferson’s party, once called the Antifederalists, promoted agrarian lifestyles and small government. North Carolina’s planters naturally followed these Jeffersonian philosophies.

And they followed Macon as a representative of Jefferson. Macon was a Democratic-Republican. Under the administrations of Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, Macon supported his party’s additional beliefs in a strict interpretation of the United States Constitution; limited national economic policies; and states’ rights. He also consistently opposed a national defense program; a national bank; and any kind of taxation or spending plan on a federal scale.

In 1814, following the end of the War of 1812, the Federalist Party lost its popularity in the state, and North Carolina came to have only one political party—the Democratic-Republican Party. Elections between its competing candidates often became personality battles, not issue battles. So for the next twenty years (or until the Constitutional Convention of 1835 changed the power structure of the General Assembly), control of the state’s government came to rest with eastern planters, Democratic-Republicans like Macon, who continued to see little reason for change.

No changes under Macon 

Macon did not want to fund public education or change the state’s electoral process, even though to do so would have allowed smaller landowners and more common people to vote for more offices. He also disagreed with the idea of having the state fund roads, canals, railroads, or other transportation improvements, known then as “internal improvements.” He insisted these improvements would not stimulate the economy, just waste money. His resistance to change and progress was particularly strong regarding internal improvements directed or funded by the federal government. Macon and the planters he represented feared northern interference, especially because of abolitionist feelings in the North. Macon said, “If Congress can make canals, they can with more [justification] emancipate [the slaves].”

Macon’s influence diminished later in his political career, but his prestige did not. Even at the age of seventy-seven, two years before his death, he was chosen president of the state’s Constitutional Convention of 1835. Following the convention, the Democratic-Republican Party began to lose its influence. Representatives from western North Carolina became the state’s new leaders and started changing the state.

Recreation of Nathaniel Macon's home with the original smokehouse in Warrenton, Warren County. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Internal Improvements

By RaeLana Poteat, Curator of Political and Social History, North Carolina Museum of History

Ongoing political power struggles between the eastern and western portions of the state contributed to North Carolina’s inability to improve its infrastructure. Political power was concentrated in eastern counties, although the majority of the state’s population lived west of the capital in Raleigh. Wealthy easterners wanted to maintain the status quo. Even in other portions of the state, conservative ideas about the role of state government, high levels of individualism, and a dislike of the increased taxation and statewide cooperation necessary to effect change stifled reform. A few enlightened individuals saw that major changes were needed to reverse the state’s decline and began to call for “internal improvements”—new methods of transportation and education for the masses—but eastern legislators continued to squelch any attempts at reform.

Despite the opposition to reform by eastern legislators, some measures to improve the state’s transportation system were implemented. Early internal improvements in the state focused on waterways. Between 1784 and 1825, the legislature incorporated thirty-three navigation companies, whose purpose was to supervise clearing streams and rivers. Most of these companies relied on public subscriptions, however, and general failures of that method of funding led to an increase in toll organizations. Eventually, state aid to key projects was deemed necessary. By the mid-1830s, navigation improvements in the state were considered disappointing and rather unsuccessful. While the legislature continued to support increasing navigability, it turned its support to other types of improvements.

The western part of the state, where navigable rivers were geographically impossible, had to rely on roads to get goods to market. Between 1817 and 1861, the legislature passed laws calling for the construction of ninety-three roads, sixty-eight of which were in the Mountain region. At the same time, the legislature approved the construction of turnpikes (toll roads) to supplement the state road system. Seventy-three of the 109 turnpikes approved by the legislature were in the Mountains. While these roads and turnpikes were a vast improvement over earlier trading paths, they were at best “good dirt roads” and at worst muddy, tedious enterprises. People throughout the state, particularly farmers, began calling for a new type of road that was easy to travel and haul on at all times of the year. Plank roads seemed to be the answer. Between 1849 and 1861, the legislature chartered eighty-four plank road companies, and five hundred miles of plank roads were built in the state. Unfortunately, plank roads were very expensive to build and maintain. Most of the privately owned plank roads in the state, like most of the canals, did not pay large dividends to their stockholders.











Image on the left:A toll ticket from the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road, dated 1857. 
Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Image on the right: Excavating the plank road In the 1980s, the City of Fayetteville sponsored archaeological investigations during the construction of a downtown street transit mall. Beneath the pavement were foundation logs of the Fayetteville and Western Plank Road, visible in this photograph.

Railroads became the real solution to North Carolina’s transportation problems. During the 1830s, the legislature chartered twenty-five railroads, but only two, which received massive state investment, were ever built—the Wilmington and Raleigh (later renamed the Wilmington and Weldon) and the Raleigh and Gaston lines. When both were completed in 1840, the Wilmington and Weldon, at 161 miles, was the longest railroad in the world. Between 1847 and 1861, the legislature chartered thirty-seven more railroads, but only those that received financial support from the state were actually built. They were the North Carolina; Atlantic and North Carolina; Western North Carolina; Western; Wilmington and Manchester; and Wilmington, Charlotte, and Rutherford lines. The government’s true commitment to railroad construction was cemented when it purchased the majority of the stock in the North Carolina Railroad (which eventually stretched from Goldsboro to Charlotte) in 1849.

During the antebellum period, idea of reform began to take hold. Roads and railroads were built with government support. By the 1840s, trains like this one in Raleigh, were beginning to take the place of river transportation. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

North Carolina's railroad system in 1856

Internal improvements in North Carolina, 1776-1860

Archibald D. Murphey

By RaeLana Poteat, Curator of Political and Social History, North Carolina Museum of History

Archibald Murphey.
Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.

Chief among those pressing for internal improvements was Archibald D. Murphey, who served as a representative for Orange County in the North Carolina Senate from 1812 until 1818. Murphey felt it was imperative for North Carolina to catch up with its neighbors and pull itself out of decline. As chairman of the Committee on Internal Improvements, Murphey produced several important reports detailing plans for a system of improved inland navigation, which included the construction of canals and connecting roads, and for the establishment of a public education system. He and his committee also recommended that the state create a Board of Internal Improvements to oversee improvement projects in the state. In addition, he worked to create a Fund for Internal Improvements, which (theoretically) created a permanent source of revenue to finance improvements. The fund was made up of capital from the sale of Cherokee lands and dividends from state-owned bank stock.

Early improvement efforts, geared toward increasing navigability of the state’s waterways to create a system of water transport, met with varied success. In general, Murphey was a man ahead of his time. Although few of the improvements he envisioned in transportation and education came to fruition during his lifetime, he laid the blueprints for an amazing turnaround in the state between 1835 and 1860. Unfortunately, most of Murphey’s calls for improvements went unheeded because the legislature was unwilling to act on them.

Click here for a map of the Murphey Plan for Internal Improvements.


Is Anything Free?: Debates Regarding Internal Improvements in Antebellum North Carolina
An article from the website North Carolina History Project.

N.C.—the Rip Van Winkle State
This lesson plan introduces students to Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” and correlates it with the history of North Carolina.

Assignment 4

Complete one of the following assignments:

Option 1: 
Design a lesson plan in which your students discuss the pros and cons of instituting a series of internal improvements within North Carolina during the early to middle nineteenth century. You may want to have your class divide up into sections, with one section representing the point of view of westerners and the other section representing easterners. List some of the resources your students could use to conduct research. For younger students, design a lesson plan in which you explore what the term “internal improvements” means.

Option 2: 
Was it fair to characterize North Carolina as the Rip Van Winkle State? Give and defend your opinion in a one-page essay.

Option 3: (Choose this option if you are seeking reading credits.)*
Create a lesson plan in which your students pretend that they are living in North Carolina in the 1830s. What do the families do to support themselves? What are their political beliefs? Do they support internal improvements like more railroads and plank roads, even if it increases their taxes? Will they stay in North Carolina or leave the state to take their chances out west? List some sources, either in print or on the web, that your students may use as resources.

Submit your answers via e-mail to

* If you are interested in this option, we encourage you to contact your principal or LEA to receive prior approval. If questions arise, please contact Sally Bloom at 919-807-7965 or

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