PO Box 248
June 04, 2003
History is Alive & Well in Ocracoke Cemeteries
Visitors to Ocracoke Island are often fascinated by the many
family graveyards scattered throughout the village. In fact, at least 82 small
cemeteries can be found on small tussocks, along winding footpaths, and in
numerous back yards. As many readers of these newsletters know, nearly a dozen
and a half family cemeteries line historic Howard Street. Many times the graves
reveal more than birth dates and death dates, however.
Combined with local history, legend, and folklore they can be
the beginnings of stories about sailing, shipwrecks, murders, military
excellence, family tragedy, even geology. I have told some of these stories in
past articles. Today I will share two more.
Directly across the lane from Village Craftsmen is the grave
of Elnora Ballance. Born April 14, 1882, Miss Elnora died July 11, 1969. Her
tomb (Ocracokers routinely use this term for a grave marker) is one that
visitors often remark about because of the beautiful sentiment in the epitaph.
"She was as good as goodness is. Her acts and all her
words were kind. And high above the memories I hold the beauty of her
Grave of Elnora Ballance:
Elnora was born Elnora O'Neal, and was a sister to my
great-aunt Tressie O'Neal Howard. Village Craftsmen is built where Aunt
Tressie's garden was located. Elnora was married to William Dexter Ballance.
William Dexter was the son of William Ballance, who in 1861 was involved in
retribution for one of Ocracoke's few murders.
In April of 1861 a sailor named Jim Devine found himself on
Ocracoke Island when the brig he was sailing on, the "Black Squall,"
wrecked on Ocracoke Beach. While he was stranded on the island Jim Devine got
into a squabble with a young man, Bob Salter, "over a girl named
Polly". Jim Devine pulled a gun on Salter and shot and killed him.
At the time, Ocracoke was without law enforcement. William
Ballance was among a group of men who retaliated by seizing Jim Devine and
"riding him on a rail." There is reason to suspect that they may also
have tarred and feathered him. The next morning Jim Devine hid behind the large
live oak tree on Howard Street that stands across from the present-day Irvin and
Elsie Garrish home. He shot at William Ballance as he walked into his yard, but
missed his target. Jim Devine ran away and hid as the island men formed a posse
and searched for him. Eventually they learned that he had escaped by boarding a
schooner that was anchored in Pamlico Sound. He was never apprehended.
The "Jim Devine" Tree on
Elnora lived in her family home, now torn down, just on the left as
you enter Howard Street from Highway 12. This house was also known as the Simon B.
Howard and Eliza Gaskill home. The Westervelt family lives in a newer house
situated there now.
Along with my Aunt Tressie and other island women Elnora
Ballance often constructed beautiful hand-made quilts.
Quilting squares in the traditional
Ocracoke "Cracker" Pattern:
Elnora was not known to be
very talkative, but she was a devoted mother and wife. She and William only had
one daughter, and one granddaughter. Her granddaughter, Patsy, lives off the
island. Islanders remember Elnora as a wonderful cook, and "a good
I suppose the epitaph says it all.
Not far from Elnora Ballance's grave site is the small family
plot of James (March 26, 1839 - September 09, 1904) and Zilphia (February
08, 1841 - June 01, 1919) Howard, my great grandparents.
Zilphia & James Howard:
Visitors often remark on the
four small tombstones there, and the tragedy of losing so many children. Actually, my
great grandparents had twelve children, eight of whom died between one month old
and just over six years old.
Graves of 8 of Zilphia & James
If you look carefully on your next visit to the island you will notice that each small marker
has inscriptions on both sides. Two smaller foot stones are situated between
the pairs of graves. It is difficult to imagine the sorrow and pain of losing so
many children to childhood diseases. The eight children all died in a
twenty year period between
1865 and 1885.
James and Zilphia's twelve children (those who lived to
adulthood are in bold font):
||03/26/1862 - 07/14/1868
||6 yrs, 3 1/2 mths
||01/25/1864 - 09/10/1865
||1 yr, 7 1/2 mths
||03/02/1866 - 03/14/1897
||06/21/1868 - 05/15/1947
||78 yrs, 10 1/2 mths
||07/21/1870 - 11/27/1951
||81 yrs, 4 mths
||10/30/1872 - 07/16/1875
||2 yrs, 8 1/2 mths
||12/04/1874 - 11/02/1940
||65 yrs, 1 month
||07/16/1876 - 08/16/1876
||08/13/1877 - 12/18/1878
||1 yr, 4 mths
||01/25/1879 - 12/22/1880
||1 yr, 11 mths
||01/18/1882 - 10/03/1882
||8 1/2 mths
||07/21/1883 - 12/25/1884
||1 yr, 5 mths
In 1861, when my great grandparents were in their early 20's, and as the
threat of invasion by Union troops seemed imminent, the pastor of the Ocracoke
Methodist Church, Rev. A.R. Raven, abandoned his island charge. The parish
was without clerical leadership for eight years. In 1869 Rev. George E.
Wyche was appointed to the Ocracoke church.
About fifteen years later the Rev. Lawrence O. Wyche, presumably Rev. George
Wyche's son, and a young man, was appointed to the Ocracoke Methodist
Church. He promptly fell in love with James and Zilphia's daughter, Lorena
Howard. They married and continued to live on the island.
On October 16, 1887 Lorena H. and Lawrence O. Wyche had a son, Ira Thomas
Wyche. Ira, who was born and raised on Ocracoke, graduated from the West
Point Military Academy in 1911. He went on to serve in France during World
War II, was eventually promoted to Major General, and held many important
leadership positions, including Inspector General of the U.S. Army under
President Harry S Truman.
Ira Wyche's distinguished military career often put him in contact with
leaders such as Field Marshall Montgomery, Winston Churchill, and Dwight D.
Ira Wyche with Dwight D. Eisenhower:
Ira Wyche's Ocracoke ancestors are buried along Howard Street, across from
the Village Craftsmen.
Graves of Zilphia Williams Howard, James W. Howard,
Rev. L.O. Wyche, and Lorena Howard Wyche:
Look for more tales and history in the months to come. Ocracoke
cemeteries can lead to so many interesting stories.
As I write Ocracoke is preparing for the annual OcraFolk festival of story
and song, June 7 & 8. We hope to see many of you on the island this
Until next time, all the best to you from your friends on Ocracoke Island!