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Outer Banks History

North Carolina's Outer Banks are part of a long chain of barrier islands stretching from Virginia to the Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico. Devoid of fresh water with a constant shifting of sand and frequent overwash by the Atlantic Ocean, they were not suitable for habitation, at least not for very long. Over many long years, giant sand dunes have built up with constant wind pressures changing the landscape on a daily basis. Visitors to the Outer Banks today could never imagine what the islands were like in the early days, now with modern roads, bridges and ferry boats but the history of the Outer Banks goes back to the first days when our country was new.

Early American settlers, pirates, the first powered flight and the first wireless telegraph are just a few of the many stories of the Outer Banks - a land steeped in tradition and history.

And it all began right here, on the North Carolina Outer Banks.

The Lost Colony

History of the first Englishmen settlers arriving in America began when Sir Walter Raleigh, along with John White and 116 colonists, landed on Hattorask (Hatteras) Island on June 22, 1587. They found the island low, unprotected, almost barren of trees, not suitable to establish a colony. They then sailed up the Pamlico Sound to Roanoke Island, an inland island protected by outer barrier islands to set up their new home. There were large oak forests and plenty of natural cover, fresh water ponds and tillable land, much different than that on Hatteras. It was also home for a friendly tribe of Croatian Indians.

John White sailed back to England for more supplies, telling those he left behind that he would be back within the year, but was delayed for almost three years due the war between England and Spain. When he returned, there was no trace of the Colony, except for two words carved in a tree, "CRO" and "CROATOAN." He left without knowing what had happened to his friends and so began the story of "The Lost Colony."

Some scholars think Indians killed the colonists while others think the English settlers moved farther inland to better farm land. Others suggest that they may have died of starvation but no one knows for certain. However, interesting news has broken out this last year, a group of archaeologists and historians met in Chapel Hill and want to begin new archaeological excavations for the lost Roanoke Settlement. They plan to start digging to try and examine what happened. We may soon know what became of the colonists but as of today, it remains one of the most intriguing mysteries in early American history.

Pirates Arrive

The first visitors to the barrier islands that stretched from the Virginia Cape's to Georgia during the period from 1500's to 1725 were pirates and former privateers who had been under the protection of the British Crown. The Privateers decided that any ship with cargo was fair game, which included the British. It was easy to become a pirate as one Stede Bonnet found out, get a fast ship, a destitute crew that would do anything and go "a pirating."

The ships going back to Europe were usually lightly armed, slow and laden with gold and silver, well worth the pirate's effort. Capturing a Spanish ship taking treasures from Central and South America back to Spain could make a crew rich for life. With the route back to Spain passed close to the eastern coastline, and the small barrier islands offered great protection for pirate ships lying in a wait for their next prize. The waters were too shallow for heavy draft vessels to navigate, and the pirate's lighter ships, usually a sloop or cutter was relative safe from the heavy British Man-O-Wars. At one time there were more than two thousand pirate ships operating off the east coast and using smaller, faster boats with large crews, the slow galleons were no-match for the pirate ships.

The shallow bays were also handy for careening a ship because barnacles and sea worms would cover the hull below the water line in a short time. They would sail into the mud banks on a high tide and as the tide fell, the ship would keel over. This exposed one side under the waterline, allowing the crew to scrape off the barnacles and pour tar and creosote on the exposed wood. It took several weeks to treat an entire ship.

One pirate named Blackbeard, a frequent visitor to the Outer Banks, was considered the devil by most seafaring men. He was a large man, very muscular, with long black hair and beard braided in piglets tied with colorful bows. Just before he boarded a prize, he inserted slow burning matches in the bows giving off wisps of smoke. He dressed in Black, from his cocked hat to his tall leather boots and wore a pistol, dagger and heavy cutlas on his belt, with a bandolier holding six cocked pistols on his chest. He would appear on deck with a cutlas in one hand, a pistol in the other and smoke curling from under his hat and his dark eyes flashing.

The early history of the Outer Banks is about the people that lived there almost from the time of the early pirates, most of them drawn by the wreckage that littered the beaches and surrounding bays. They were hearty, self sufficient, private and comfortable with the isolation on the islands. Living in the most dangerous part of the new world was very hard, no real shelter from the raging storms, no fresh water except what they were able to catch in canvas catch basins and store in barrels, a daily battle with the elements of heavy tides, surf and frequent storms, always just a step away from death. These were the first residents of the "Banks" as it was known.

The area east of Hatteras Island known as the Diamond Shoals were especially dangerous because of the warm Gulf Stream current from the South and cold Labrador Current from the north meeting at this point, creating shifting sandbars, frequent wind and rainstorms, high seas and dangerous currents that would drive an unwary sailing ship onto the shoals, or carry an unwary fisherman out to sea.

Sinking Ships and Settling the Outer Banks

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are next to the area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Low sandy islands stretched for many miles along the Carolina coast, uninhabited except for scavengers or salvagers as some were known, drawn by the frequent shipwrecks on the treacherous shoals.

The miles of beaches and tall dunes were littered with ship wreckage, boxes, crates and barrels of merchandise, rum, whisky, sugar, gold, silver, furniture and the list went on. Occasionally, bodies of hapless sailors washed up on the beach.

The salvagers or scavengers built small shacks mostly on the mainland side of the islands away from the heavy surf and tidal overwash. There were plenty of building supplies such as timbers, lumber, dunnage and sail canvas from the ship wreckage to protect them from the elements.

What they couldn't use, they traded to the mainlanders or passing ships that frequented the small ports. Soon small settlements appeared on the high ground as more people came to live on the islands, drawn by the lure of treasures on the beach, theirs for the taking.

Many stories of heroic actions by the villagers are told today, about saving many men and women from shipwrecks, sometimes in storms and heavy surf. They were hardy people, used to living in a lonely and desolate land surviving by their wits and depending on one another, ready to help if needed. Staring death in the face became a daily thing. The Outer Banks was not a place for the weak or fainthearted.

Their diet was mostly fish, shellfish and water fowl, all plentiful in the surrounding bays and inlets. At first, cattle and pigs were scarce but soon small herds which included "Banks" ponies could be spotted in the marshes around the islands. They supplemented their existence with salvage goods which they took over to the mainland to barter for clothes, flour, oil and some meat products. They had no use for money, something almost unknown on the "Banks."

Because of the isolation, the workers lived with their families in nearby hamlets. It was a lonely life, often interrupted by bad storms known as Nor'Easters and hurricanes. Frequent over washes during extreme high tides destroyed many of the early homes, even carried some, including the residents out to sea or into the bays but the "Bankers" as they came to be known persevered. They just moved to higher ground and built again.

Small villages began to spring up all along the banks to support the various government activities such as building lighthouses, manning the life stations, weather stations and post offices. Other jobs including running supply boats back and forth to the mainland, fishing, building special designed boats to take the heavy surf and offshore currents that would sink an ordinary boat. This was the beginning of the Hatteras design, now used by many large boat builders.

Building the Lighthouses

The maritime industry shipowners urged the government to do something to protect ships and sailors in the treacherous waters off of Hatteras Island. Congress approved a lighthouse on Cape Hatteras, as well as lifesaving stations. Others would follow up and down the long chain of islands.

For the first time, many workers were needed for a major project when the first light house was built. Construction started in 1796 and was operational in 1802. It proved to be very ineffective because it was too low and the light was too weak. It was refitted with a better light and raised 60 feet in 1854.

As money became available, others followed for a total of five lighthouses as far north as Corolla. The government also established lifesaving stations up and down the islands which provided work for many people.

A new industry was born, Tourism.

Shortly after the Civil War, tourists from New York began to arrive to hunt duck and geese. During the fall, flocks of water fowl as far as the eye could see, darkening the skies. This area was the winter grounds for Snow, Canada geese, swans, ducks and many varieties of smaller water birds.

To support this new industry, hotels, rooming houses and cafes were built, locals worked as hunting guides and provided water transportation. Most of the roads and bridges had to be built across the sand dunes and inlets separating the islands, providing year round employment for the "Bankers."

At first tourism was just a trickle, but as the word spread about this wonderful place called the Outer Banks, fish stories were told of the big one's that didn't get away, of the miles and miles of long white beaches, millions of birds, large schools of dolphin, and a place unlike anywhere else on the east coast, tourists began to show up on the mainland, anxious to visit this utopia.

The Wright Place... for the First Powered Flight

On December 17, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright flew the first heavier-than-air powered flight from a small spot on the Outer Banks called "Kill Devil Hill." Four flights followed and the whole world now knew about a place called Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks. Now millions would travel to the Outer Banks in later years just to visit this spot.

At first, private ferries traveled between the islands, carrying passengers, mail and supplies from the mainland, picking up fresh fish, shellfish and other products for the mainland market. Eventually the small shallow inlets were filled in, bridges were built over the deeper ones and roads were built throughout the islands. It still required some effort to travel to Hatteras Island and it was not until the middle 1950's that a bridge was built across Oregon Inlet.

Now the islands were accessible from one end to another. Scheduled ferries from the mainland transported cars and visitors to and from Hatteras where they could continue up the island chain.

Today, Visitors to the Outer Banks enjoy things that years ago were considered impossible.

To visit the Outer Banks is a thrilling experience. One can live in luxury, or camp out on miles of white sandy beaches, eat hotdogs, hamburgers or the finest gourmet dinner, or maybe take a charter boat out to the deepwater fishing ground where an elusive 800-pound Marlin awaits your hook. Perhaps search for buried treasure in the surf or on the beach.

If you're bored, although I can't understand why, you could walk out on one of the many fishing piers that dot the coastline and just and watch the sea life or maybe wet a hook. Perhaps you would like to scuba-dive around one of the thousands of wrecks that dot the ocean floor. Maybe a quiet day or a week in one of the luxury resorts is more your style for that pampered feeling.

If history is your thing, visit the various museums showing everything from old ships to recovered objects from the sea floor, or visit the Blackbeard museum. A new Maritime Museum will fully open shortly.

If you like excellent food at a reasonable price, visit the many restaurants and cafes that serve authentic Outer Banks dishes.

Nothing is impossible on the Outer Banks - You'll want to come back time after time, because one can never cover all there is to do in one visit. Who knows, you might contribute to the history of the "Banks."

As a writer, I found it difficult to describe all the wonders of the Outer Banks in this article. I've only scratched the surface and will leave it up to you to explore the islands and discover the rest.

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More Outer Banks History:

You’ll be amazed by more than 400 years of Outer Banks history . . . and learn about the 16th-century English colonization efforts, a Freedman’s Colony established on Roanoke Island during the Civil War, the wreck of the USS Monitor, the story of Wilbur and Orville Wright and the monument to their achievements in flight in Kill Devil Hills, shipwrecks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic and much more.

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