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Hatteras History

Hatteras Island’s place names provide links to its history. Hatteras, Kinnakeet, Chicamacomico, Avon, Trent, Buxton, Frisco - a lyrical blend of Native American and English words scattered about the island.

The most unusual names stem from the Croatan “Indians,” members of the Algonquin tribe and full-time residents of the island long before Europeans ever saw this slender strip of sand. “Hatteras” is an English rendition of a Native American word that meant “there is less vegetation;” “Kinnakeet” meant “that which is mixed;” and “Chicamacomico” meant “place of sinking down sand.” The other names stem from English settlers who made their way to the island in the 1700s, forming a short-lived melting pot of cultures similar to other colonial areas on the East Coast.

The Croatans were the only Native Americans to live year round on a barrier island. Other tribes lived on the mainland and only visited the barrier islands to hunt and fish, but the Croatans, supported by the bounty of the sea and sound and the protection of wooded areas, found safe haven on Hatteras Island. The Algonquins are believed to have been on the Outer Banks since around 500 A.D.

Native American artifacts are commonly found on Hatteras Island today, especially in Buxton and Frisco. Archaeologists have pinpointed the location of an enormous shell midden (shell repository and trash heap) at Kings Point (now Brigand’s Bay) in Frisco, proof that the native population was large and that they had a healthy diet of oysters and clams. Archaeologists now believe that the natives occupied a huge area starting at about the beginning of the Buxton line and ending south of present-day Frisco. Much of this area was part of Buxton Woods. The land under the Cape Hatteras School in Buxton is regarded as sacred by Native Americans.

Other than archaeological remnants, it is only through the eyes of European explorers that we know much about the Native Americans who inhabited the Outer Banks. In 1524 Florentine explorer Giovanni Da Verrazzano, sailing for France, anchored offshore somewhere between Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras and had a friendly encounter with the native Bankers. All reports of the Native Americans on the island were that they were friendly to European explorers.

The Spanish explored much of this coast before the English, and their maps referred to Cape Hatteras as Cape St. John. English explorers mapped and charted the islands later, and a 1585 English map refers to the island as Croatan Island. John White’s map of 1585 first names the cape as “Hattorask.”

John White and 116 colonists landed on “Hattorask” on June 22, 1587, and they encountered the friendly natives prior to moving on to Roanoke Island, where they set up a colony. When John White came back to his Roanoke Island colony in 1590 after three years of being away in England, the 116 colonists were gone, the only connection to their whereabouts were the letters “CRO” and “CROATAN” carved into a tree. White assumed this meant the missing colonists had gone to Hatteras to live with the Croatan tribe, but he was never able to go there to find out for himself. We may never know what happened to the “Lost Colonists,” but there are some who believe that they did indeed go to Hatteras Island to seek help from the kind natives. Legends of blue-eyed, light-skinned Indians living on the island suggest a mingling of Native American and European genes. And in the 1990s, an archaeologist found a 16th-century English signet ring during a dig in Buxton.

European settlers began making their way to Hatteras Island in the 1700s. These were primarily people of English descent moving to the island from colonies on the Virginia and North Carolina mainland. It appears that Kinnakeet, now Avon, was the first area to be colonized. The first land grant on the island was at Kinnakeet in 1711.

In the colonial period the island was part of Hyde County and was collectively called the Hatteras Sand Banks. The banks were divided into three sections: Cape Hatteras Banks (from old Hatteras Inlet on what is now Ocracoke Island to the cape); Kinnakeet Banks (from the cape to Chicamacomico Banks); and Chicamacomico Banks (through Chickinacommock, or New Inlet, on Pea Island). At this time the banks were heavily forested with live oak and Atlantic white cedar, locally called juniper.

The early settlers only sparsely populated the island. They lived a subsistence lifestyle, gardening, fishing, hunting and raising livestock to provide food for the table. Windmills used for grinding corn bought on the mainland were spotted at Kinnakeet as early as 1723. The islanders also probably did a lot of beach combing. The major shipping routes between Europe, the Caribbean and the New World ran right past Hatteras Island on the Gulf Stream and Labrador Current. Cargo lost overboard or ships wrecked on the island’s dangerous shoals would wash up as bounty for the Bankers.

The 1700s were hard on the Croatan Indians, by then called the Hatteras Indians by the new settlers. The Hatteras Indians were attacked by warring tribes, the Corees and the Machapunga, in 1714, and in addition they had no defenses against the Europeans’ diseases of smallpox and tuberculosis. The native Outer Bankers were reduced to poverty and sickness, and by 1788, the natives had all but disappeared.

By the end of the Revolutionary War, which did not bring much action to Hatteras, settlement was growing on the island, but still the population was sparse. More people were moving over from the mainland, and some new residents were shipwreck victims who decided to stay on the island. Longtime island names like Austin, Oden, Gray, Etheridge, Willis, O’Neal and Scarborough all reportedly owe their Hatteras heritage to shipwrecks.

The residents lived on the soundside of the island, in small villages oriented toward the mainland and away from the harshness of the ocean, surrounded by healthy stands of trees that protected them from the elements. The Bankers were farmers, mariners and livestockmen. They fished for their own sustenance, but commercial fishing wasn’t a viable trade at the time. They also cut trees and exported them for use in building houses and ships.

Unfortunately, the combination of logging and allowing livestock to run freely all over the island destroyed much of the island’s natural vegetation, leaving great bare spots of sand. The sand blew freely in the constant winds and, at Kinnakeet, began to form great migrating sand dunes that could be quite destructive to property and any remaining plants.

In the late 1700s shipwrecks were common off the North Carolina coast, particularly at Diamond Shoals off Cape Hatteras. Two strong ocean currents, the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream, collide near Cape Hatteras, and sail-power vessels had to draw close to the Outer Banks to hitch a ride on either of these currents. This should not have been a problem except that the winds and storms so common to the Outer Banks often drove the ships ashore or landed them on shoals. Plus Hatteras Island was so flat with no visible landmarks that ships often didn’t realize where they were until they were running aground on its shoals.

So many shipwrecks occurred off the Outer Banks that salvaging the beach for loot was a viable occupation. Eventually, to keep order among salvagers, wreck districts were established to keep track of the numbers of wrecks, and vendue masters were hired to handle the sale of salvageable goods.

In 1773 a teenager named Alexander Hamilton was a passenger on a ship that nearly sank off Cape Hatteras, and he experienced first hand the danger of the cape’s dreaded Diamond Shoals. Seventeen years later, when Hamilton was the second-ranking member of George Washington’s cabinet, he still heard terrifying tales of shipwrecks at Cape Hatteras. In 1789 Hamilton, who is reputedly the one who coined the moniker “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” urged Congress to investigate the possibility of establishing a lighthouse on the Hatteras Sand Banks. The lighthouse wasn’t authorized until 1794, and it wasn’t constructed until 1802. Mariners were not impressed with the lighthouse, which they said was not sufficiently bright or reliable.

In 1812 shipwreck victim Sarah Kollock Harris found herself on Kinnakeet Banks in contact with the native residents. Harris, the wife of a North Carolina judge, had this to say about the Hatteras islanders: “The wretches on this island are a disgrace to humanity. I could not have believed that so much depravity was in human beings. Exulting in the calamity which has thrown us among them, though pretending to sympathize in our distress, they would steal the wet clothes which we took from our backs and hung out to dry, and everything belonging to us which they could lay their hands on.” Let’s hope she just ran into a few bad seeds.

In an 1846 hurricane, a new inlet opened on Hatteras Island, which caused Hatteras Island to separate from Ocracoke Island. Another inlet was also formed to the north — Oregon Inlet, which separated Pea Island from Bodie Island.

Hatteras Inlet brought prosperity to Hatteras Village and doom to Portsmouth and Ocracoke. The new inlet was deep and navigable, and the steady stream of maritime traffic that had always used tricky and unreliable Ocracoke Inlet began to use Hatteras Inlet instead. This brought new work for the people in Hatteras Village as pilots, mariners and boat builders. Island residents also found work in exporting lumber. They cut trees to build boats and houses and to sell. Before the Civil War, live oak was in demand for building Yankee Clippers.

The 1850 census provides a clue as to how many people were living on the Hatteras Sand Banks: Buxton - Cape Hatteras: 661 people, 84 of them slaves; Kinnakeet: 318 people; Chicamacomico: 206 people. This meant almost half the population lived around Buxton, west of the cape. There were two new lighthouses on the Outer Banks, a replacement for the old one at Cape Hatteras and a new one south of Oregon Inlet. At this time, present-day Rodanthe and Waves were known as Chicamacomico, Salvo was Clarks, north of Avon were Little Kinnakeet and Scarborotown, Avon was Big Kinnakeet, Buxton was The Cape, Frisco was Trent and Hatteras was Hatteras.

Hatteras Island played a large role in the early Civil War. Both the North and the South recognized that whoever controlled Hatteras Inlet would control the sounds, rivers and seaports of North Carolina. In 1861, Confederate troops quickly erected two forts to protect Hatteras Inlet, the only North Carolina passage that could admit large, ocean-going vessels. Forts Hatteras and Clark, on the eastern bank of the inlet, were completed in July of 1861. Only a month later, Federal forces under General Benjamin Butler appeared and bombarded the forts. In only one day of fighting, the Federal forces had control of both.

The Union forces pillaged the island, taking livestock, produce and whatever they could from the islanders to stock the forts. Many islanders fled to the mainland, but others stayed behind. To keep the Federals off their backs, really just for ease of living rather than support of any cause, 111 islanders claimed loyalty to the Union. Because of their loyalty to Union, North Carolina cut off all supplies and trade between Hatteras Island. But the islanders’ weren’t starving. Many of them found jobs working for the Union soldiers.

The visiting soldiers marveled at the native Outer Bankers. “The islanders mingle little with the outside world. Apparently indifferent to this outside sphere, they constitute a world within themselves,” wrote one. Another wrote: “Most of them were born here, never saw any other locality and all are happy. There are women here who have never wore shoes. The people seldom see money, indeed they have no use for it.”

After the Civil War, Hatteras Village, because of its deep inlet, grew to be the second leading port in North Carolina, next to Wilmington. The inlet served the inland communities of New Bern, Washington, Edenton, Elizabeth City and Plymouth. It was a prosperous time that sparked the building of many of the historic homes in Hatteras Village. Residents of the other villages sailed to Hatteras Village for their supplies. In 1870, Dare County was formed and included Hatteras Island, which had previously been a part of Hyde County.

Despite the lighthouses to help keep ships on course, wrecks were still happening in alarming numbers off the Outer Banks. In 1874, the first seven Life-saving Stations were built along the N.C. coast, including one at Chicamacomico and one at Little Kinnakeet. That same year, a U.S. Weather Station was also established at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Later, new Life-saving Stations were establsihed at Oregon Inlet, Pea Island, New Inlet, Gull Shoal, Big Kinnakeet, Cape Hatteras, Creed’s Hill and Durants (Hatteras Village). The Life-saving Stations, in addition to lighthouses, weather stations and post offices, provided jobs with steady pay, and the islanders scrambled to get them. The Life-saving Stations got the island’s first telephones in 1885.

Commercial fishing was also becoming a profitable occupation as the locals began to figure out ways to export their catches off-island. People realized that fishing could be a source of income, not just a means of getting food on the table. Islanders fished for finfish, oysters, clams, scallops, turtles, seaweed, whales and porpoises. Porpoise fishing was quite lucrative for a number of years, and there was a porpoise factory in Hatteras Village from 1885 to 1891.

The locals also worked as market hunters, selling ducks and turtles on the market to New York City. When wealthy sportsmen discovered Hatteras Island’s incredible hunting potential (a good day’s kill was 40 to 50 ducks and geese), they built hunt clubs along the banks. One of the largest was the Gooseville Hunt Club on 1,500 acres near Hatteras Village, but there were others scattered around the island. The locals worked as caretakers at the clubs and took the people hunting for birds and sometimes wild boar. They carved decoys out of old Life-saving Station telephone poles and driftwood and made sink boxes, skiffs and push poles. The Migratory Bird Act of 1917 changed all that, however, outlawing market hunting and placing restrictions on the number of birds shot in one day.

Schools built in the villages helped increase literacy along the banks. Each village had its own schoolhouse attended by children of all ages. Schools, churches and the occasional general store were the centers of island social life. All of the island’s small schools consolidated in the 1950s in Buxton.

Cars came to the island around 1915, the same year the Life-saving Service became the Coast Guard. A doctor came to the island in 1923 to work at the Navy radio station and give medical assistance by radio to men at sea. This one doctor, Dr. Folb, also served the people in all six villages and the eight Coast Guard stations. The main cases he dealt with were tuberculosis, typhoid fever, typhus fever and diphtheria. Throughout the history of the island, there are legendary tales of several midwives who assisted in the births of all the local babies.

A native Hatteras Islander, Con Farrow, remembered the 1920s on the island in a 1976 interview. He said the islanders had no radio, no TV and little communication with outside world but they were happy. They lived in tune with the natural world: “You could listen to the ocean’s roar and tell pretty well what direction the wind would be the next day.” Everyone had a garden, hogs and knew how to fish. Animals roamed freely. Access to food, building materials and clothing was difficult. Medical care was nonexistent and education was hard. The islanders were self-sufficient. They all went to church and depended on each other’s support. There were no taverns and no need for police. No one had electricity. Hatteras Village got electricity in the mid-1930s, but the rest of island had to wait until the early 1950s.

The Great Depression was a very grim time on Hatteras Island. Livestock was dwindling, hunting laws were strict besides there being a shortage of waterfowl, shipwrecks were rare, boat building was nonexistent and maritime traffic was slow because of better ports at Wilmington and Morehead.

About the same time, a group of people introduced an idea to give new life to the Outer Banks. These people proposed establishing a national park, the first national seashore, on the Outer Banks, including Hatteras Island, to draw tourists to the area. At first everyone supported the idea, especially the poor residents of Hatteras Island.

To protect the area that would be the park, the powers that be brought in Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps to build a protective barrier of dunes along the oceanfront. In 1935, the N.C. General Assembly, in an effort to protect their newly formed dunes, outlawed free-roaming livestock, which was a blow to the residents’ way of life and made them suspicious of the new park. In June 1935, 999 acres, including Cape Point and the area around Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, were donated as the nucleus for the national seashore park. In 1937 the park was established and a committee began searching for more land donations. The next year, 1938, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge was established on the northern end of the island. But all plans for the park were put on hold with the advent of World War II.

In 1942 Germany sent its U-boat submarines to the poorly guarded Eastern Seaboard of the United States. During the first half of 1942, the German subs sank more than five dozen vessels in N.C. waters. Cape Hatteras earned the moniker “Torpedo Junction.” Burning ships, gunfire, oil-polluted waters, debris and dead bodies washing up onshore were common sights for the locals.

By the time the war was over, the idea for the national seashore was dead. Oil companies came to Hatteras Island and began buying up rights to drive test wells. The islanders’ hopes for the park switched to dreams of becoming rich off the oil prospects. However, the oil companies found nothing and moved on. But a North Carolina Representative reactivated the park project when an anonymous donor gave $618,000 for the cause. The park was finally established in 1953 and dedicated in 1958, preserving more than 60 percent of the island, though many locals felt they were forced to sell their land and not paid nearly enough.

The island’s paved highway, N.C. 12, was not completed until 1952. Until then, people drove down the beach or on sand trails on the “inside” of the island. The paved road changed the island, making it easier for its residents to travel between the villages and to the consolidated school in Buxton. It also made it easier for visitors to come in. After a brief ferry ride across Oregon Inlet, Hatteras Island was open to more than the most intrepid visitors for the first time.

When the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge was completed in 1963, Hatteras Island was changed forever. Vacationers have been streaming onto the island ever since. The first large-scale development, Hatteras Colony in Avon, was planned in 1962 by a Northern developer who heard that the bridge was coming and saw an opportunity. He bought 38 oceanfront lots at a price of $150,000. Forty years later, the island is experiencing its biggest real estate boom ever, making millionaires out of investors, most of them not local. Hatteras Island is no longer just a vacation paradise, it’s also a real estate investor’s dream.

The native islanders have mixed feelings about the easy accessibility of the island. On one hand, their isolation has been invaded. The older the resident, the more harsh the sting of change seems to be. On the other hand, bridges and roads provide opportunities the island has never before known. Young people no longer have to move away to make a living. Jobs are plentiful most of the year. Medical facilities and services are available that weren’t dreamed of in years past.

As you tour Hatteras Island try to appreciate all of its past. We’ll try to take you there by showing you where to look and providing the old photographs, facts and memories to make it seem real.

We couldn’t possibly fit all of the history of Hatteras Island in this site — and we haven’t tried to. Much of the material for the historic tour sites came from Hatteras Islanders who have spent a lifetime, or a significant portion of one, on the island. They shared their memories about the places you will see along the way. Other information came from the countless books that have been written about Hatteras Island. Local bookstores and gift shops and the Hatteras Village Library can steer you to books of local interest. Another way to learn more about the history of the island is to take the Hatteras Bus Tour with local resident Danny Couch. Couch is a sincere history fanatic and his tours will teach you much about the island.

Have fun, and thanks for answering the call of this island and getting to know it better.