Carolina bays are nearly ubiquitous along ~ 1300 km of the North American Atlantic Coastal Plain, but relatively few bays have been examined in detail, making their formation and evolution a topic of controversy. The Lake Mattamuskeet basin, eastern North Carolina, USA, is a conglomeration of multiple Carolina bays that form a > 162 km2 lake. The eastern shoreline of the lake is made up of a 2.9-km-wide plain of parabolic ridges that recorded rapid shoreface progradation. The lower shoreface deposit contains abundant charcoal beds and laminae dated 6465–6863 cal yr BP, corresponding with initiation of a lacustrine environment in the eastern part of the lake. A core from the western part of the lake sampled a 1541–1633 cal yr BP charcoal bed at the base of the lacustrine unit, indicating formation of this part of the basin postdates the eastern basin. Lake Mattamuskeet has no relationship to the Younger Dryas or a linked impact event because rim accretion significantly postdates 12,000 cal yr BP. The shoreline progradation, and association of charcoal beds with the oldest lake sediment in both main parts of the basin, suggest that fire and subsequent hydrodynamic processes were associated with initial formation of these Carolina bays.