The first European settlement in the interior of North Carolina (and what would become the United States) was made by a Spanish expedition in 1567, when they built Fort San Juan at the large Mississippian culture Native American chiefdom of Joara. Present-day Morganton later developed at this site. The Spanish renamed the settlement Cuenca. The following year the Indians killed nearly all the Spanish garrisoned at this and five other interior forts, and burned Fort San Juan. It was two centuries before Europeans tried to settle again this far west in the colony.
Indigenous peoples inhabited the interior as well as the coastal areas for thousands of years. Native Americans of the Mississippian culture inhabited the county long before Europeans arrived in the New World. The largest Mound Builder settlement was at Joara, a site and regional chiefdom near present-day Morganton. It was the center of the largest Native American settlement in North Carolina, dating from about 1000 AD and expanding into the next centuries.
In 1567, a Spanish expedition arrived and built Fort San Juan, claiming the area for the colony of Spanish Florida. They had been sent by the governor at Santa Elena (Parris Island) in South Carolina. Captain Juan Pardo, leader of the expedition, left about 30 soldiers at the fort while continuing his exploration. In the spring of 1568 the Indians attacked the fort, killing the soldiers and burning the fort. Indians killed the garrisons at five other Spanish forts in the interior. Introduction of European diseases caused high fatalities among the Mississippians, and takeover of survivors by larger tribes led to Native American abandonment of the area. Two hundred years passed before the next Europeans: English, Scots-Irish and German colonists, attempted to settle here again.
In 1777, Burke County was formed from Rowan County. It was named for Thomas Burke, then serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1777 to 1781). He was later elected as Governor of North Carolina, serving from 1781 to 1782. The western Piedmont was settled by many Scots-Irish and German immigrants in the mid-to-late 18th century. They were generally yeoman farmers and fiercely independent. Few families were slaveholders; however, some researchers have reported that, by 1833, 5000 slaves were mining gold in Burke County (Speculation Lands Collection of the University of NC at Asheville).
As population increased, the county was divided to form other jurisdictions. In 1791, parts of Burke County and Rutherford County were combined to form Buncombe County. In 1833, parts of Burke and Buncombe counties were combined to form Yancey County. In 1841, parts of Burke and Wilkes counties were combined to form Caldwell County. In 1842 additional parts of Burke and Rutherford counties were combined to form McDowell County. Finally, in 1861, parts of Burke, Caldwell, McDowell, Watauga, and Yancey counties were combined to form Mitchell County.
Burke County citizens participated in the Battle of Kings Mountain, which pitted Appalachian frontiersmen against the Loyalist forces of the British commander Ferguson at Kings Mountain, SC in the American Revolution. Rather than waiting for Ferguson to invade their territory, militiamen throughout the Blue Ridge crossed over the mountains and thus were called the "Over Mountain Men". (Clark, "Burke County," pp.37-39)