Life in Colonial North Carolina (Primary Source Sets)

About These Materials

This collection of primary source sets allows students to select a topic of interest and evaluate themed primary sources from the Colonial Court Records at the State Archives of North Carolina. Within each category, users will find digital images of the primary source records, transcriptions of these records, and questions to prompt reflection and discussion for each category and for individual records. Materials are available from individual links below, or you may download all the materials as a single zip file to work offline.

Content Warning

The Colonial Court Records have been preserved for their historical significance as government records. However, some records in this collection contain content that may be harmful or difficult to view, including language that reflects outdated, biased, offensive views as well as descriptions of conflict and violence.

Type of Information Definition
Historical Era Colonial North Carolina (1600-1763)
Skills Transcription, reading comprehension, historical analysis, and information literacy
Grade level High school, advanced placement high school, and college level
Standards (as of Fall 2021 North Carolina Social Studies
  • I.1.3 Gathering and Evaluating Sources
    • Summarize the central ideas and meaning of primary and secondary sources through the use of literacy strategies.
    • Determine the origin, context, and bias of primary and secondary sources.
    • Differentiate between facts and interpretation of sources.

North Carolina English Language Arts

  • RI.11-12.9 Analyze foundational U.S. and/or British documents of historical and literary significance for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.

AP American History

  • AH.B.1.3 Critique multiple perspectives of American identity in terms of oppression, stereotypes, diversity, inclusion, and exclusion
  • AH.G.1.2 Explain how geographic conditions and expansion have presented both opportunities and challenges in the development of America
  • AH.H.3.2 Use historical empathy and contextualization to deconstruct multiple perspectives of individuals and groups within various turning points


Primary Source Sets

Slavery and Enslaved Persons

Title Document Transcription
Petition of Nathaniel Chevin, 1712 Document Transcription
Petition of Mary Cole, Undated Document Transcription
Petition of Thomas Pollock, Undated Document
Last paragraph only
Petition of Thomas Sparrow, 1717 Document Transcription
Petition of William Derry, c. 1740 Document Transcription
Petition of Samuel Scollay, 1742 Document Transcription

Discussion Questions:

  • Notice how many of these documents refer to wills. How could individual attempts to list and distribute property disrupt slavery? How could the practice of wills maintain slavery?
  • Several of these documents are evidence of resistance to slavery. What actions could the enslaved take to resist their enslavers and/or emancipate themselves?
  • How did the enslavers in these documents price freedom? What do the variations in value for each case suggest?

Indentured Servitude

Title Document Transcription
Petition of Elizabeth Leverton, undated Document Transcription
Petition of Mary Vallaway, undated Document Transcription
Petition of Edmund Jening, 1699 Document Transcription
Complaint Against Josuah Spivee, 1721 Document Transcription
Petition of Amy Demsy, c. 1744 Document Transcription

Discussion Questions:

  • Contrast the conditions for indentured servants that these documents reflect to what you know about slavery. How might circumstances be different for each of the servants in these records if enslaved?
  • Why might these documents show only mothers petitioning on behalf of their children and not any fathers?

Individual Rights and Accusations

Title Document Transcription
Defamation Complaint Against Mary Jennings, 1691 Document Transcription
Petition of Ann Steward, 1692 Document Transcription
Insult of King William by John Philpott, 1694 Document Transcription
Deposition of Thomas Boucher (Witchcraft Accusation), 1703 Document Page 1, Page 2, and Page 3 Transcription
Information of John Blacknall, 1725, AND Information of William Whitfield, c. 1720 (Interracial Marriage) Document 1 AND Document 2 Transcription

Discussion Questions:

  • Consider that most of the documents in this selection involve women. What can you infer about their role in society from this group of documents?
  • These documents are records of individuals being taken to court and individual complaints against others they believed to be misbehaving. Could such behaviors warrant a court’s attention today?

Interactions Between Colonists and Native Americans

Title Document Transcription
Articles of Agreement, 1699 Document Transcription
Petition of Thomas Garrett, 1706 Document Transcription
Town Petition for Aid Against Potential Attack, 1716 Document Transcription
Testimony and Verdict in John Cope Case, 1722 Document 1 and Document 2 Transcription
Petition of Chowan Indians, undated Document Transcription
Deposition of Richard Nixson, 1722 Document Transcription
Complaint Against John Allen, 1769 Document Transcription

Discussion Questions:

  • This selection of seven records spans seventy years. Can you identify any patterns of change over time for interactions between the colonists and native communities? What clues to pre-colonial life might the earlier documents provide?
  • Several of these documents show different behaviors among English colonists toward the indigenous communities. Why might some be more sympathetic?

Economy and Trade Goods

Title Document Transcription
Customs Declaration, 1697 Document Transcription
Whaling License, 1725 Document Transcription
Manifest of Goods, 1735 Document 1 and Document 2 Transcription
Smuggling Charge, 1735 Document Transcription

Discussion Questions:

  • Consider that all economic activities in these documents focus on maritime trade. Which ports are important? What types of ships do the documents reflect?
  • What kinds of trade goods are leaving the North Carolina colony; what kinds are coming in? How are buyers and sellers measuring different products?
  • British regulation of its colonies’ exports increased from the 17th to the 18th centuries, and the enforcement of levies and duties limited the colonists’ maritime commerce. How might those regulations have affected colonists’ daily life and livelihoods?

Background: Colonial Government in North Carolina

Adapted from NCpedia.

The first permanent English settlers in North Carolina emigrated from the tidewater area of southeastern Virginia. The first of these settlers moved into the area of the Albemarle Sound in northeast North Carolina around 1650. In 1663, Charles II granted a land charter to eight English noblemen, called Lords Proprietors, who had helped him regain the throne of England. The territory—though many indigenous communities already called it home—was to be called Carolina in honor of Charles I.

Between 1663 and 1729, North Carolina was under the control of the Lords Proprietors and their descendants. The small group commissioned colonial officials and authorized the governor and his council to grant lands in the name of the Lords Proprietor.

In 1729, seven of the Lords Proprietors sold their interests in North Carolina to the king and North Carolina became a royal colony. The eighth proprietor, Lord Granville, retained economic interest and continued granting land in the northern part of North Carolina. The king’s officials supervised all political and administrative functions in the colony until 1775.

Colonial government in North Carolina changed little between the proprietary and royal periods, the only major difference being who appointed colonial officials. There were two primary units of government—the governor and his council and a colonial assembly with representatives elected by the qualified voters of the county. Colonial courts, unlike today’s courts, rarely involved themselves in formulating governmental policy. All colonial officials were appointed by the Lords Proprietors until 1729 and by the king afterwards. Members of the colonial assembly were elected from the various precincts (which became known as counties after 1735) and from certain towns which had been granted representation.

Suggested Classroom Activities

Classroom Activity

For this activity, curated records have been organized into thematic categories that provide clues about life in the North Carolina colony. Students may work individually or work in small groups. They may review all the records for one category or specific records from multiple categories.

For each record, complete the following steps:

  1. Observe the document. What is it? When was it made? By whom?
  2. Transcribe the text. Use these tips for transcribing historical documents. (Educator’s note: the length and legibility of each record varies. Some students will be able to transcribe a record quickly, but others will not be able to transcribe everything. Determine how much time you will allot to this part of the exercise in advance. Discuss what challenges and surprises students found as they began this transcription activity. Then offer the transcriptions provided here so that students can complete the rest of the exercise.)
  3. Compare your transcription to the one provided.
  4. Analyze the text. Use the discussion questions provided in each transcription to prompt your analysis. What conclusions can you interpret from the document? What clues might you draw about the people involved? What additional questions does it raise? What biases or silences in the record do you observe? If you wanted to continue to research one of the individuals named in the documents, how would you use this document as a steppingstone for more information?

Follow-Up Activity

Have students become historians. Based on the records they transcribed and analyzed, ask students to write a short narrative to describe the document(s) and the stories of the people named within them. They should use information gleaned from the primary source sets, along with secondary sources to develop historical context, to paint a picture of what life was like in colonial North Carolina. Students should cite their sources.