History of Burke County NC
The story of Burke County is one filled with excitement, conflict and patriotism. The captivating heritage of the area spans the footprints of Native Americans to Spanish conquistadors and a variety of cultures in between.
More than 40 years before the first successful English colony in Jamestown was established in 1607, about 120 Spanish soldiers arrived at the Native American town of Joara, located just north of present-day Morganton.
“It would be the Catawba Indians who welcomed the army of Captain Juan Pardo in 1566 into the Catawba River Valley,” says Larry R. Clark, a local historian and author of “Burke County: Historic Tales from the Gateway to the Blue Ridge.” “It was here where these Spaniards constructed Fort San Juan, the first European settlement in North Carolina.”
Years later, while America’s founding fathers were signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it would only be a matter of months before the last Provincial Congress of North Carolina would adopt the state’s constitution. Once county lines were in place, on June 1, 1777, Burke County was established out of Rowan County and named after the revolutionary patriot, Thomas Burke.
“At that time ‘Old Burke’ was a vast area of northwestern North Carolina, which eventually gave way to all or part of 17 new state counties,” Clark says.
Burke County’s first inhabitants were the Catawba and Cherokee Indians, as well as English, German and Scots-Irish settlers. Colonists made their way inland via the Great Wagon Road during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The 1800s brought in an exciting time as gold-crazed adventurists flocked to the area. Decades later, the community would see its share of tragedy as the Civil War was in full effect by the early 1860s. Some of Burke County was burnt to the ground, a victim of the vast destruction by Union soldiers.
Nevertheless, Burke County picked itself back up. With enormous growth in timber and lumber industries, Burke was certainly booming once again. Manufacturing took off as the primary source of employment as well.
Today, Burke County continues to entice a diverse group of people. But with a simple stroll down the sidewalk or short drive, history buffs can be immersed into yesteryear. With many structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, markers nestled around the area and exhibits at the History Museum of Burke County, the area’s rich past is closer to the present than one might think.