PO Box 248
July 27, 2007
The "Black Squall"
Last week the children at the Ocracoke Youth
Center were having "Circus Week." The director, Karen Lovejoy, asked me to stop
by one morning to make balloon animals for the children. I was happy to
oblige, but thought I needed some sort of an explanation or introduction.
And then it came to me -- first I would tell the children about the wreck of the
It was in April of 1861, just days before the
Civil War broke out, that the brig, Black Squall, wrecked on Ocracoke
beach after several stormy days. According to Ocracoke native, Walter
Howard (ca. 1897 - ca. 1967), the Black Squall was carrying a rather exotic cargo.....a
circus. The children were thrilled to hear me re-tell Walter's story of
giraffes, hippopotamuses, trained show horses, and hundreds of other wild
animals that washed ashore and proceeded to roam about their island home.
Visions of lions, tigers, monkeys, and who-knows-what-else danced in their heads
as I twisted the balloons into so many different animal shapes. Days later,
I understand, they were still telling the story of the Black Squall and its unusual
I must admit that I made an aside to the other
adults. "I don't know if Walter's story is true or not," I
"I've read accounts that say the Black
Squall was carrying sugar," I continued. "But some stories
say it was sugar and circus animals. I don't know what to believe.
Maybe Walter just made up the whole thing about the animals. He was a
master storyteller. And perhaps other people have just repeated his
Well, I've done more research. And I
believe I've learned the truth, or at least enough of the truth to vindicate
Walter Howard. I reproduce Walter's story below for you.
Walter probably had no more than a fifth grade education, but he had a marvelous
command of the English language (including an extensive vocabulary), as well as
familiarity with history and literature. In addition, as a young boy he listened to the
stories told by old Arcade (Kade) Williams (ca. 1842- ca. 1920) who frequently
visited his family.
At the end of the story I will share the
results of my research. In the meanwhile, enjoy the tale.
The Black Squall by Walter Howard, written ca. 1950:
Old Kade sat near the kerosene lamp at
the corner of the sitting room where she could see better for the task at hand,
which was carding wool for the spinning wheel. Being a
cripple, Kade couldn’t operate the wheel. That exacting
chore was left to my grandmother. Old Kade was very dexterous
and skillful in the art of carding. When she was feeling good
she would give the impression that she was beating cymbals or the tambourine.
On this particular night she had been
unusually quiet. We could always tell when she was worried.
Her lips, naturally thin, were always drawn in a straight line, giving
the appearance of a fine pencil mark.
It had been threatening for several days now,
and that same evening on her way to our house she had seen the doubleheaders
(storm clouds) making up in the Southeast.
At the Life Saving Station the glass
(barometer) was going down, indicating an impending storm. But
Kade didn’t need a barometer. Her rheumatism never failed
her, especially if the weather indicated rain.
“Well, that’s done!” remarked
my grandmother, pushing the spinning wheel into the corner of the room.
“My eyes are not as good as they used to be.” “
Nor mine” replied Kade. “ Besides, I
don’t like to sit near a window during thunder and lightning.”
Both now having tacitly nodded assent to this
remark, Kade broke the silence by saying (as she reached for
her snuff-box and toothbrush) : “I swear to God above, I do believe I’ve
left them durn winders up and forgot to shut ‘em. If I
have, cats will get them fish and the rain will ruin everything I’ve got to my
name. I’m gittin’ so here lately that I can’t remember
a thing. . . . .Younguns, I never seed sich weather as this. Something’s
goin’ to happen. You jest mark my words. It’s cuttin’
up jest like it did the night the old Pioneer run ashore. That was in
1889 I think. Or it mout have been 1890. I
disremember which now.” Outside the rain was beating against the
windows. The wind was coming in flaws (the danger signal
along the coast). Every flaw (gust) would get a little
Having now finished her snuff dipping, she
raised the hem of her spotless gingham apron and deposited the
snuff box in a pocket made expressly for that purpose.
Old Kade liked to rock. So
she ambled over to her favorite chair, which was a low seated rocking chair,
with short rockers, high back, minus arms.
She comfortably seated herself, tucked her
dress around her feet, and with a graceful flourish that would arouse the
jealousy of a Russian ballet dancer, gave her apron a flip and watched it slowly
settle around her as the air made its tardy exit from underneath this most
precious piece-de-resistance of her scant wardrobe.
After the apron had obeyed the law of
gravitation, it hid everything except her head and the protruding tips of the
two rockers behind the chair. Even her hands were hidden from
view, having been placed underneath the aforementioned garment prior to the
execution of the flip.
Kade didn’t rock like most of the Islanders
(who rock as though they were on a carousel) but she just seemed to nudge.
Sometimes the nudging would become almost imperceptible. A
sort of slow-motion camera study.
Turning to me, she said : “Walter, why
don’t you get that book and read some more for me?”
From Out of the Sea
My great-grandmother found two books washed up
in the beach. One of them was Bunyan’s Pilgrims
Progress, the other The Wonderful Story.
The latter book was the Old Testament in story
form. The author had omitted all Biblical language and
had told in plain everyday English the stories contained in
the Bible. It was a most fascinating and interesting book , and I attribute what
little I know about the Bible to that magnificent book. The
illustrations were by the converted Jew, Dore, an artist of great skill and
Old Kade loved that book and I , being the
only one in the family who could read (excepting my father, who was at sea), was
the one she often had read the stories for her.
I went upstairs, got the book, dusted it off
and turned to the markers where I had finished my last reading.
We were now about to begin the chapter
relating to the “Great Flood.”
“Kade!” said I. “I
will make a bargain with you. I will read you a story every
night if you will tell me one about a shipwreck.” “Well,”
she replied, “if I can think of any I’ll certainly tell you about
‘em. But it seems to me that you can read better stories than I can tell.
Yet I will live up to my bargain.” She added,
“And when you have finished the whole book I am going to tell you about
the mystery and wreck of the old Flying Kite, and I am the only living
soul around these parts that knows anything about that one.”
“Flying Kite,” thought I.
I had never heard her mention that name before, and I must confess that
my curiosity was aroused as never before.
The wind had increased to almost storm
velocity as I began to read the following narrative: “And
the Lord saw that the people would not change their ways of sin, that they were
going from bad to worse. So He decided to send a flood and
drown them all. There was one good old servant of the Lord
named Noah and the Lord revealed to him what He intended to do, and He commanded
Noah to build an ark three hundred cubits in length.
“What’s a cubit?” asked
Kade. “A cubit,” said I, “is
an ancient Jewish measurement from the elbow to the finger tips. Approximately
“Then He told Noah to gather two of all the
living creatures of the earth, male and female, and put them in the ark.”
I showed the picture on the preceding page to Kade. There
was the ark resting on the mountain top. Noah (surrounded by
his family) was standing at the foot of the gangplank watching the animals as
they marched aboard.
The next picture by the great artist showed a
tigress sitting on top of a mountain peak holding her young in her mouth while
the people were struggling in the water with outstretched arms trying to grasp
this last remaining small rock before total submersion. The
title of this picture was ”The Great Deluge."
The Rainbow’s Promise
Being half scared to death over the storm
raging outside, Old Kade was fertile ground for the artist’s imagination.
Turning to me, the poor old soul said, “Do you think that the Lord will
ever drown us all again?” “No, Kade,” said I.
“He has promised not to drown us any more. He has
said to us, “When you see the rainbow, that is My promise never to drown My
This enlightening information had little
effect, for at that instant we received the discomforting news from a neighbor
that the tide was ‘coming up’ (rising).
I had now finished the chapter and put the
book on the table. “Kade,” said I,
“can you think of a story to tell me tonight?” “Yes,”
said she, “providing this storm don’t git any worse. That story you
just read to me reminds me of the old Black Squall.” “Black
Squall!” said I , “what a
foreboding name.” “Do you remember the Black Squall?”
directing her remark to my grandmother. “I’ll never
forgit it, if I live to be a thousand years old,” said she,
“I was 17 years old - it was in 1861, the year the war broke out.”
“The Black Squall,” continued
Kade, “was moving a circus from Havana, Cuba, to New York
and she struck the beach on jest sich a night as this, and as far as I can
remember, all hands were drowned.“
“Two hosses swum ashore. They
were the purtiest creeturs I ever seed. They said that they
were Arab hosses (Arabian). Somebody had even plaited their
tails and tied big, beautiful bows of silk ribbon on ‘em. Their
names were Nero and Zero. They roamed about the island here
for years. The mare, Zero, was very timid and shy.
But that all-fired Nero, the sassy devil, he would walk right into the
house, go up to the fireplace and stick his nose in the cook pot.”
Kade threw her head back and gave a big laugh at this last remark.
“Many’s the time I’ve run him out of the
house with my cane. But the imp would stand out in the yard,
cut up his capers and do his circus tricks while the mare looked on.”
Forerunner of Beach
“That was the start of our hosses here on
the island. But their offspring don’t look anything like
their parents did. Poor devils, they had to dig for a living
here and eat this old salt water grass until they finally swiveled up to the
knots you see around here now.
“The beach was littered with hundreds of
animals from Ocoke, (old pronunciation for Ocracoke),pint o’ beach, chock to
“Noah couldn’t have had many more than
that aboard his ark. There was camels who someone said could
go for seven days without water.
“Well, they got enough of it that night to
last ‘em for life. That was one time they got their thirst
“Then thar was one they called the
I reached for the book, and turned to the
picture of the ark and pointed out that awe-inspiring amphibious short legged
mammal, and pronounced it for her, “Hippopotamus.”
“Well!,” said she, “that hippo-what-you-yist-said
(pointing a skeptical finger at me) swum ashore alive and headed straight for
”My God younguns, if I’d met that hippo-whatcha-may-call-it
coming up the road I’d a been running just as long as I could find ground to
step on.” A smile crept upon her face at the discovery of this new found
“Any ways, he swum ashore and headed, as I
said before, straight for our house. But when he reached midway of the beach, he
died. Some said it was salt water that killed him. Others said he was wore out.
But whatever it was, if it was lumbago, I am glad of it.”
I started to laugh, as did everyone else, when
a hard gust of wind hit the house, followed by a harder clap of thunder that
seemed to split the heavens wide open. The kerosene lamp when out, adding to the
confusion. After my grandmother had lit the lamp we discovered to our horror
that the water had started to seep through the cracks in the floor. Someone
advanced the opinion that we would have to scuttle the floor.
(Scuttling the floor was accomplished by
cutting holes in several places with an axe, allowing the water to come into the
house, thereby relieving the pressure which otherwise might cause the house to
be floated from its foundation and washed away.)
Preparing for the Storm
Now we realized that the storm was upon us and
so we all started to do the necessary things that have to be done in an
emergency like that. We locked and bolted the doors, put the nails over the
windows, rushed to the bedrooms and grabbed the quilts, blankets, pillows, etc.
and made for the stairway.
When I passed the sitting room door with a
feather bed on my back I saw old Kade silhouetted through the window in water
knee deep, wading down the lane, waving her cane and shouting, “God help the
sailors on a night like this.”
We made improvised beds upstairs on the floor.
But we couldn’t sleep as the wind was roaring like thunder outside. My
friends, it was blowing, and right here let me stress emphasis on the word
“Blowing.” It would have taken three men to have held a sheepskin over a
In a crisis like that, there are many things
to think about. There is your boat, nets, horses, cattle, chickens, garden, and
the possibility of the very roof being blown from over your head, or even the
house being blown out to sea.
The hands on the clock seem to stick right in
one place just for devilment.
You hear faint voices. It’s someone going up
the road in a boat to rescue a family whose house stands in a low spot.
You wonder if they will stop by for you.
The night drags on and the storm seems to
increase in fury out of pure imagination.
If daylight would only come. “O, Lord, give
us light,” seems to be everyone’s cry.
After what has seemed to be an eternity, a
faint blue haze of dawn approaches, thereby relieving the strain and tension of
the long weary night.
Late that evening I looked up the road and saw
old Kade toddling towards our house.
She ‘hove to’ at the door and tracked up
to the steps as was her usual custom. She had scarcely entered when we gathered
around and begged her to finish the story of the Black Squall which had
been so abruptly terminated by the storm on the preceding night.
“Git out o’ here,” she said. “Lemme
put this set-fired oar (cane) away and hang this bonnet up.
“I never seed the likes of you younguns
since God ever made me. Always under somebody’s feet.
“Younguns, my house is ruined. Everything
I’ve got to me name is jest as wet as if somebody had dipped ‘em overboard.
My pillar cases and sheets will be all mildewed.
“I’ve often said, ‘What in the name of
God did anybody ever want to settle down on this blasted Island for?’ There
ain’t nothing here for anybody unless they’ve got webbed feet.
“If I weren’t so durn old I’d move over
to Hyde County, Sockum (Wysocking) or some place. I could at least
keep dry and wouldn’t be threatened with being washed to the Outer Diamond
Shoal three or four times a year.
“The Injuns wouldn’t stay here. They had
better sense. At least they had more than I got.
“The men folks down at the Life Saving
Station said it blowed some yistiddy.
“That thing thar at Cape Hatteras that they
tell how hard it’s blowing by broke right half in two when it got up to a
hundred miles an hour. And they said it was anybody’s guess after that jest
how hard it did blow.
“Honeys, I know one thing. It done some
whistling. We shouldn’t have any more wind for the next hundred years.”
Having now finished this enlightening
monologue, she shuffled over to the rocker, pulled the cuspidor up a little
closer and reached for the ever-present snuff box.
Her snuff dipping soon over, she began by
saying, “Where was I last night when that hard flaw of wind and clap of
thunder hit the house?”
“Oh! I know,” said she. “I was going to
tell you about that hippoelephants. No, he died, didn’t he? Well the beach was
strowed with animals from Lord knows where. Tigers, lions, bears, and there was
one there whose neck was longer than his body.”
I reached for the book again and pointed to
“That’s the all-fired helgomizer,”
nodding her head in approval. But his neck ain’t half as long as some of
‘em’s tongues around here.
“That was all kinds of things that washed up
on the beach. Even to bales of hay and fodder. They had that
for the animals, I guess.
“Silks and satins, and costumes by the
hundreds. The purtiest you ever seed.
“Tents, I’ll bet there was a thousand of
‘em. The men folks made sails for their boats out of them and one big tent I
remember they put that up out on the beach hills and held a camp meeting in it.
“A preacher come here from somewhere and
preached a sermon. Took the Black Squall for his text. I remember it just
as good as if it were yistiddy. He started from Genesis on ebb tide and went to
Revelations, then he turned around on flood tide and preached back to Genesis
“Said the Lord had done it as a warning to
let his things alone. That they had no business of aggravating and tormenting
the animals by trying to learn ‘em to do tricks, and carrying them all over
God’s creation for the amusement of a passel of fools and idiots to gape
“I agree with him, Kade,” said I. “I
don’t believe in taking the dumb beasts out of their natural habitat.”
“But I’m ahead of my story,” said Kade.
“Thar among all that wreck and wild animals
we, my brother, sister, and I, found a drowned couple locked in each other’s
“He was a handsome boy with brown curly
hair, and she was jest beautiful as she could be with long golden blonde hair
that hung down to here (measuring with her hands).
“They looked just like they were asleep.
“They sewed both of them up in a piece of
canvas and buried them on Blackbeard’s Hill, and that hill is known to this
day as ‘Lover’s Hill.’
“This bracelet,” she said, glancing down
at her wrist, “there is some writing on the inside of it but I don’t know
what it is. It has never been off my arm since that day we found ‘em. My
brother took it from her arm and put it on mine.”
“Kade,” said I, “according to legend,
there was once a beautiful girl. Her name was Theodosia Burr. She was on a
voyage to see her father and was lost at sea without a trace. It may have a
parallel in this young couple you found. Maybe her name is inside the
With this startling piece of information in
her possession she reluctantly placed her thumb and forefinger around the wrist
above the bracelet and began the slow process of slipping it over her hand.. “Thar!”
said she, passing it to me, “and don’t you drap it.”
I took it over to the lamp and there, engraved
on the inside in beautiful old English, were these five words: “Until death do
After I made the balloon animals for the island children I came home and
pondered Walter's story some more. I decided to go to "Mr. Google."
My first important hit was on http://www.circushistory.org/Olympians/OlympiansN.htm.
This is not an Ocracoke or Outer Banks web site, or even a web site about
shipwrecks. As its name suggests, it is a site devoted to the history of
the circus. It is unlikely that the information posted there owes anything
to Walter Howard's story. Below is what I read:
"NIXON, WILLIAM ..... Protégé
of James M. Nixon. Rider, …... Died on returning from Havana with
Nixon’s circus when the Black Squall foundered after a stormy 16 days
near Cape Hatteras, April 19, 1861."
It seemed like Walter was right after
all. Searching other web sites I discovered that Nixon's Circus was much
about trained horses. Then I thought that perhaps the part
about Nero & Zero was accurate, but that Walter had made up the part about
the other animals. After all, I wondered, when have I ever heard of
hippopotamuses being in a circus?
Then I learned that Nixon’s Circus was
sometimes called Nixon’s Royal Circus and Menagerie of Living Animals.
Further research validated my suspicion, namely that circuses in the
mid-1800s often included an assortment of wild and exotic animals, basically private
traveling zoos that accompanied a genuine circus. These were the
precursors to the publicly funded zoos that we know today.
believe that Walter’s story is basically accurate. Nixon's Circus,
complete with tents, performers, trained horses, and wild animals wrecked here
in April of 1861.
sight that must have been!