Its name was unofficially shortened to "Hillsboro" over the years (beginning in the 19th century) but was changed back to its original spelling in the late 1960s.
Local Native American groups had lived in the Hillsborough area for thousands of years by the time European-American settlers discovered the area. Siouan-language groups such as the Occaneechi and the Eno were living in the Hillsborough area at the time of European contact, before they were displaced. The explorer John Lawson recorded visiting "Occaneechi Town" when he travelled through North Carolina in 1701.
In the early 18th century, the Occaneechi left Hillsborough for Virginia, returning to the area around 1780. An original Occaneechi farming village was excavated by an archaeological team from UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1980s. A replica of an Occaneechi village stands close to the original Eno River settlement.
Colonial period and Revolutionary War
Hillsborough was founded in 1754, and was first owned, surveyed, and mapped by William Churton (a surveyor for Earl Granville). Originally to be named Orange, it was named Corbin Town (for Francis Corbin, a member of the governor's council and one of Granville's land agents), and renamed Childsburgh (in honor of Thomas Child, the attorney general for North Carolina from 1751–1760 and another one of Granville's land agents) in 1759. It was not until 1766 that it was named Hillsborough, after the Earl of Hillsborough, the British secretary of state for the colonies and a relative of royal Governor William Tryon.
Hillsborough was an early Piedmont colonial town where court was held, and was the scene of some pre-Revolutionary War tensions. In the late 1760s, tensions between (in a nutshell) Piedmont farmers and county officers welled up in the Regulator movement, which had its epicenter in Hillsborough. With specie scarce, many inland farmers found themselves unable to pay their taxes and resented the consequent seizure of their property. Local sheriffs sometimes kept taxes for their own gain and sometimes charged twice for the same tax. Governor William Tryon's conspicuous consumption in the construction of a new governor's mansion at New Bern fuelled the movement's resentment. As the western districts were under-represented in the colonial legislature, it was difficult for the farmers to obtain redress by legislative means. Ultimately, the frustrated farmers took to arms and closed the court in Hillsborough, dragging those they saw as corrupt officials through the streets. Tryon and North Carolina militia troops marched to the region and defeated the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance in May 1771. Several trials were held after the war, resulting in the hanging of six Regulators at Hillsborough on June 19, 1771.
The town was used as the home of the North Carolina state legislature during the American Revolution. Hillsborough served as a military base for British General Charles Cornwallis in late February 1781. The United States Constitution drafted in 1787 was controversial in North Carolina. Delegate meetings at Hillsborough in July 1788 initially voted to reject, following Anti-Federalist views. They were persuaded to change their minds partly by the strenuous efforts of James Iredell and William Richardson Davie and partly by the prospect of a Bill of Rights. The Constitution was later ratified by North Carolina at a convention in Fayetteville.
William Hooper, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was buried in the Presbyterian Church cemetery in October 1790. However, his remains were later reinterred at Guilford Court House Military Battlefield. His original gravestone remains in the town cemetery.
The Antebellum Period and American Civil War
The Burwell family ran a girl's academy called the Burwell School from 1837 to 1857 in their home on Churton Street. Elizabeth Keckley was enslaved in the Burwell household as a teenager. She later became the dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln and wrote a memoir.
When the Civil War began, Hillsborough was reluctant to support secession. However, many citizens went off to fight for the Confederacy.
In March 1865, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston wintered just outside of Hillsborough at the Dickson home, which now serves as the Hillsborough Welcome Center in downtown (the house was moved from its original site in the early 1980s due to commercial development). The main portion of the Confederate Army of Tennessee was encamped around Greensboro.
After his March to the Sea, while camped in Raleigh, Union General William T. Sherman offered an armistice to Johnston, who agreed to meet to discuss terms of surrender. Johnston, traveling east from Hillsborough and Sherman, traveling west from Raleigh along the Hillsborough-Raleigh Road, met approximately half-way near present-day Durham (then Durham Station) at the home of James and Nancy Bennett, a farmhouse now known as Bennett Place. The two generals met three times on April 17, 18th, and finally on the 26th, which resulted in the final terms of surrender. Johnston surrendered 89,270 Southern troops who were still active in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. This was the largest surrender of troops during the war, and effectively ended the Civil War.
Occoneechee Speedway, just outside Hillsborough, was one of the first two NASCAR tracks to open and is one of two tracks remaining from that inaugural 1949 season, Martinsville Speedway being the other. The Historic Occoneechee Speedway Trail (HOST), is a three-mile (5 km) trail located on at the site of the former Speedway. Bill France and the early founders of NASCAR bought land to build a one-mile (1.6 km) oval track at Hillsborough, but opposition from local religious leaders prevented the track from being built in the town and NASCAR officials built the large speedway Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama instead.