PO Box 248
April 15, 2006
Ocracoke Island is a magical place with a host of interesting
characters. It has always been so.
John Williams, III was born on Ocracoke in 1804. He was the grandson of
the island's first John Williams (ca. 1727 - 1787) who purchased one half of
Ocracoke Island from William Howard, Sr. in September of 1759. John
Williams Jr. (ca. 1750 - 1837) was a patriot who served as commissary (deputy)
to James Anderson, captain of the "Ocracoke Company" during the War
Between 1829 and 1848 John Williams III and his wife, Euphemia, had nine
children. Not a single descendant lives on Ocracoke Island today. In
fact, John & Euphemia may not have any descendents. Five of their
children either died before maturity or left the island, not to be heard from
again. Three of their children never married.
Only one child, William, married and remained on Ocracoke. He, in turn,
fathered only one son, Samuel Keech Williams. Sam Keech, as he was called,
William (known to all as Wid) became a local legend for his musical
abilities. Although he died over 100 years ago he is still remembered on
the island for the outstanding fiddle playing he contributed to the Saturday
Wid's sister, Arcadia, was just as memorable as her brother, but for
different reasons. Walter Howard, self-educated native islander and local
polymath, remembers her in his account of the 1837 wreck of the steamboat
"Home." You can read the entire story here,
but for our present purposes his vivid description of Arcadia and life on
Ocracoke in the mid-nineteenth century is worth repeating.
Walter begins his tale thus:
"When I was a small boy, I used to sit at night and listen to the older
people tell of the shipwrecks along the coast of North Carolina, especially
around Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Island were I was born. 'God help the sailors
on a night like this!' was, and is to this day, a household saying in our
section of the country.
"Old Arcadia Williams, who has been dead these many years [Walter wrote
his story in 1952], is responsible for the tale I'm about to tell. We will call
her 'Kade' as that was her nickname. Kade 'slept out.' What I mean by that
is she didn't sleep at home by herself, but always slept at some neighbor's
house. Kade's people had been dead for years and she was all alone and afraid to
sleep at home for fear, as she said, of being 'taken with the miseries' and
dying without anyone knowing about it.
"Kade lived in an old house framed entirely from the beams of old
shipwrecks. The rafters and sills still contained the bopper bolts and wooden
pegs used in the original construction of some unfortunate derelict of the seas.
The stairs were fashioned from a companionway which had been salvaged from a
square rigger. The clock over the fireplace had been designed for some 'Queen of
the Seas.' There were wooden windows (as little glass was used in those days)
and a wooden chimney which was always a source of wonder to me. I could never
understand why it never caught on fire with so many sparks flying up its sooty
exit, but it never did. Kade still did her cooking in the fireplace. The boys
wanted to take up a collection to buy her a stove but she would have none of it.
Her excuse was that old Ben Franklin was an infidel and that she would have none
of his doings or inventions in her house, that the fireplace had been good
enough for her folks and it would have to be good enough for her.
"Kade could 'cuss like a sailor' and woe be unto anyone who 'ruffled'
her feathers the wrong way, or should by any chance, be the recipient of her
caustic, venomous tongue lashing. She is still remembered today for her biting
wit and vitriolic sarcasm. Aside from those human weaknesses she was a good soul
and didn't have an enemy in the world. As a story teller her equal has never
been found, by this writer at least.
"It was my good fortune that Kade stayed at our house for five
consecutive years. Although she could not read or tell the time by the clock,
her arrival and departure didn't vary thirty seconds. She also had the
misfortune of being a cripple. She was a short, squat woman with a friendly,
round face which boasted of countless fine wrinkles. She parted her hair in the
center and drew it into a tight knot terminating in the nape of her neck where
she fastened it with two wire nails whose protruding heads gave the appearance
that a carpenter had been trying to nail her head fast to her body without any
"She wore a suit of red flannel underwear, seven or eight underskirts
and leg-of-mutton shirt waist buttoned down the front, a slat bonnet of a dark
grayish material and a black dress whose hem always touched the ground. A cane
made from a broom handle served the same purpose as a centerboard and at the
same time accelerated locomotion.
"A deep pocket was made on the inside of the outer dress for a snuff box
which was a half-pound size baking powder can. Last but not least she wore a
small checked apron with an additional pocket for her toothbrush. Not the kind
of brush we use for scrubbing our teeth, as that art of hygiene and personal
cleanliness was wholly unknown to her as it was to the rest of the Islanders.
Kade's toothbrush was a small branch or twig from the black gum tree about ten
or twelve inches long (varying, of course, in length at the user's discretion)
of which the larger end was chewed for an indefinite period of time until a mop
had been formed in the shape of a whisk broom. This was then opened in the
manner of a shaving brush and dipped into the snuff box until the proper amount
of snuff had accumulated with the aid of saliva. Then the so-called toothbrush
would be inserted into the mouth, and 'seated' in the jaw forming a lump about
the size of a goose egg, and giving the alarming appearance to the casual
observer that she had concealed an inflated balloon in her cheek, or was
suffering from a large wen which had formed spontaneously on that side of her
face. That filthy snuff dipping habit is still practiced today in this section
of the island, although only by a few of the older people.
A Blackgum Toothbrush:
(Click on photo for larger image)
"We were not allowed to speak during the time that this snuff dipping
marathon was in progress, for fear we might upset the equilibrium of this
pastime. Sometimes my grandmother would begin her dipping just about the time
Kade had finished hers, thereby prolonging the suspense out of pure cussedness.
Finally the snuff dipping came to an end and Kade settled back in her chair and
commenced [her] narrative."
As mentioned above, you can read Walter's entire story here.
However, Kade was a colorful character and the subject of other tales. The
following story came down to me through Walter's brother, Edgar Howard, himself
a talented raconteur and banjo player (his tombstone on Howard Street features a
banjo and the epitaph "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet!").
It seems that Arcade and her neighbor, Caswell Williams, had
a row and were squabbling over a boundary line. Eventually
the issue escalated and it came before the "court." Perry
Coleman Howard was the island magistrate and the proceedings were held in his
Magistrate P. C. Howard:
(Click on photo to view larger image.)
Arcade called a neighbor, Mary O'Neal Williams,
as witness for her defense. At the time of the hearing, Mary Williams
failed to show up. Coleman waited more than half and hour. Finally
loosing patience, he sent a messenger to Mary's home to fetch her.
When the runner returned to the court he declared that "Miss Med," as
she was called, told him that she would be there as soon as her collards were
Coleman had had enough.
Without waiting for Miss Med he determined that he had actually heard sufficient
evidence and ruled in favor of Caswell. He fined Arcade
Kade was not pleased.
Without a word she turned her back to the
magistrate and hobbled away. When she reached the door she
leaned on her cane, turned her head back to the court, and announced "If
you want that five dollars, Coleman, you'll have to get it out of this."
And with that she slapped her rear end and marched outside.