October 25, 2009
A LETTER CONCERNING A VISIT TO OCRACOKE
By C.A. Weslager*
[From the NC Historical Review, July 1958:
The letter below was written following a trip to Ocracoke Island in
1949. When it was submitted for publication the author suggested that
his observations made at the time of his visit might be of interest to
researchers as the island would perhaps become less isolated as time
passed. In the years since the letter was written Mr. Weslager's
predictions have been realized to some extent. The letter as orignally
written was a personal communication between friends and was not
intended for publication. It is printed below without revision or
July 31, 1949
601 S. Maryland Ave.
Ocracoke Island, N.C.
Dear Willie :
Dr. Millard Squires and I have just returned from a
week on Ocracoke Island, N.C., and I hasten to give you a brief
account of our visit. First, let me thank you for the second set
of reference material which arrived before we left Wilmington. This
background material was extremely helpful, and I will explore the
actual sources as the need requires.
We drove on a Saturday from Wilmington [Delaware] to Atlantic,
N.C. via the Delmarva Peninsula and the Cape Charles Ferry.
The ferry was very crowded and we sweltered in the heat of more
degrees waiting for the second boat, becuase the first one could not
take all of the vehicles in line. I understand that delays of 3 and 4
hours are not unusual on Saturdays and Sundays. The ferries now run all
night -- each one transports approximately 60 cars. The trip to Little
Creek on the Norfolk side required 90 minutes. From Norfolk we drove to
Washington, N.C., where we put up for the night in the Louise Hotel. We
left early the next morning, arriving at Atlantic, N.C., at about noon
in time for the mail boat to Ocracoke, which leaves at 1:15. En
route we each purchased a fifth of bourbon so we would be prepared for
snake bites (!) and near Atlantic (despite it being Sunday) purchased a
case of cans of ale, which we tied up in brown paper. The doctor told
the ferry captain that we were taking cans of milk to undernourished
Ocracoke babies, although this was said with a wink. No intoxicants are
sold on Ocracoke.
The mail boat is a small gasoline craft that makes
the trip up and through the Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke in a few minutes
less than 4 hours. There were several other congenial passengers. One
sits atop the boat on facing benches under a sun canopy. I shouldn't
want to take it on a stormy day, although we were told: "This boat will
go when you don't want to."
At Portsmouth we were met by a skiff pulling
alongside to get the bag of mail for that island, now reduced to 15
people. Similarly, at Cedar Island a small boat, poled by a native,
pulled alongside us to get his bag of mail. I understand there was one
envelope in the locked leather bag. This is the only contact these
two islands have with the mainland, except by radio. All the way, we
saw fish leaping from the waters, and enjoyed the freshness of salt
water in our nostrils and the jewels glittering on the waves left in
our wake. The sun shone brightly. I was afraid of getting seasick and
the doctor had threatened to take shots of me on his movie camera if I
did. Just what this threat did to my viscera I do not know, but at
least I didn't get sick. Thus, we landed at Ocracoke in good
During the last war, the Coast Guard erected a
large depot on Ocracoke, brought jeeps to an island which had never
seen an auto, and installed electricity where lamp-light had been the
only illumination. There were several hundred sailors and their
families stationed there, and this contact greatly modified the culture
of the people. Many daughters married sailors who took them to the
mainland after the war -- children of these marraiges now come to the
island to vacation with their grandparents. The Navy filled in a gut
here, built a narrow cement road to reach an ammunition dump, erected a
radar station, constructed new Coast Guard quarters, and otherwise
"renovated" the place.
One building, apparently built for officers and
their wives, although I am not sure of this, is now used as a hotel. It
is not in the town proper (which consists of about 500 people all
concentrated on the south point of the island) but lies halfway between
the sound and the ocean. We lodged and had our meals here at a very
nominal price. This hotel is operated by a one-armed South Carolinian
from the mainland named Boyette, although it is owned by Stanley Wahab,
the island's financier. The latter is said to be descended from an Arab
sailor who allegedly was washed up on the beach a century ago and
married into the Howard family.
This hotel is now frequented by fishermen from southern
cities, and a few couples who are seeking rest. Some of the guests,
with whom we became friendly, will interest you. There was Lester
Johnston and his wife -- he operates a retail grocery store in Bel
Haven, N.C. [sic]. They came to rest. Olsen is an engineer with Western
Electric at Winston-Salem. He and his wife came to fish. There was a
handsome pediatrician from New York city, Dr. Clement Cobb, bronzed
from a two week exposure to the sun. (He walked nude on the beach
whenever he got the chance, to get the full benefit of the sun,
collecting shells and making bird studies. He is a very capable
ornithologist.) Cobb came to rest preparatory to an operation. There
were two spinster sisters who own a photographic business in
Smithfield, N.C., a middle-aged librarian from Washington, D.C., who
came alone, bringing bottled cocktails in her bag, and two partners who
run a Buick agency in Raleigh. Finally, a dentist form Charleston, W.
Va., his wife, their flapperish daughter (a blonde) and her red-haired
boyfriend. The youger couple were gone off every day alone. I almost
forgot an aged banker, who seemed near the condition known to the
physician as "in extremis," and his wife who catered to his every want
as one would care for a small baby.
There is no doctor on the island - only a midwife.
Our two physycians (who were trying to relax) were besieged by natives
who wanted advice on various ailments. Incidentally, I was much
impressed by the wonderful teeth these people have, although they have
no regular dental attention. Perhaps their seafood diet plays some part
The guests themselves provided enough material for
a novel, and our two bottles of bourbon and case of ale enabled us to
break down any social barriers that might have otherwise existed. The
island is dry -- so the possessor of spirits is indeed a man to have as
a friend. We swam daily in the ocean, despite the stories told us of
the sailor during the war who had his posterior chewed off by a shark
and bled to death before they got him to the station. The undertow is
bad, and on one occassion I was glad that Dr. Cobb (he is 6 feet 6) was
near me to give me a helping hand. I was caught in what the natives
call a "sea pussy" which continued to take me out to sea. I should have
allowed it to take me, and then when it had spent itself to swim back,
but I was tired and was afraid I would have been unable to swim back. I
felt I was in real danger -- and I was glad Dr. Cobb was able to walk
to me (it was over my head, but not his) and let me lean on him to
catch my breath. This experience made all of us wary of the treacherous
waters which the natives refuse to enter.
The beach here, incidentally, is the largest I have
ever seen -- full two miles wide, but in case of storm must be quickly
deserted, because the waves rise and inundate it. Sometimes if you are
at the water's edge a storm can come up so suddenly that you are
drenched before finding shelter.
The island is covered with heavy sand and only
jeeps can navigate. Several of the natives have them and provide taxi
services to visitors. We hired one driver to take us to Hatteras
Inlet at the north point of the island. We went when the tide was right
so that we could sweep up the beach as each wave washed in and out. The
idea is to get the jeep wheels on the sand that the water has just
laved -- otherwise one either sinks, or slides, and the minute that
happens a wave rolls over you and the jeep is carried away. It was a
thrilling and dangerous ride. One must also travel fast in order to
keep from sinking in the sand. There were four of us and the driver,
and he was the only one who didn't seem frightened.
Between Ocracoke village and Hatteras, the terrain
is bleak -- the sea on one side, the sound on the other, less than a
mile separating them. All along the beach are remnants of wrecks -- one
called the "ghost ship" is still partially intact. Offshore, one
sees the masts of wreckage extending above the water level at low tide.
The heat was terrific -- no trees -- just wild grass here and there.
There was a flock of wild horses grazing on a patch of grass at the end
of the island. We were told that they dig in the sand with their
forepaws to expose surface water. The hotel had a large rain-water
reservoir on the roof to supply drinking and sanitary facilities.
The bird life between the town and Hatteras is
extremly interesting. Large black skimmers fly parallel to the shore,
skimming at the surf with their scooped beaks. We saw several flocks of
duck-like Hudsonian Curlew, and a number of species of terns, among
which was the Royal Tern, a beautiful bird with a brilliant orange-red
bill. There are, of course, sand pipers by the hundreds. We actually
drove through these flocks of birds they are so numerous on the beach.
The Ocracoke Coast Guard Station on the north end
of the island of the Hatteras Inlet is gradually being washed away by
the sea. The lighthouse tower is leaning badly and waves lap at its
base, whereas it was formerly 200 yards inland. The officer in charge
told us that they had experieinced a terrific twister the previous
night, and it took nine of them to hold the door of their quarters shut.
I explored this end for Indian remains (as I had done the southern end)
but found no traces of any kind. At this point, one has the feeling
that this handful of Coast Guardsmen are at the end of the earth -- our
last frontier, so to speak. Their contributuion to this island
community is very great, as it is to the ships that would otherwise be
driven into the treacherous shoals and reefs that surround Ocracoke.
These men can tell many stories of ships in distress in these hazardous
The south point of Ocracoke near Ocracoke Inlet is less
desert-like than the country between it and Hatteras Inlet, but there
are a number of sand dunes. There are also large clumps of red and
white myrtle and here and there a water oak. Fig trees are common, and
the fruit was still green; we are told that the figs ripen in August.
Yucca, with large white flowers, known to the natives as Spanish
bayonet is common, as are Eupon [sic] trees whose leaves are used to
brew a medicinal tea. The only other blossoms of wild flowers in bloom
were the Gailardia, known
locally as "Joe Bell" flowers, form an individual who first brought the
seeds to the island. There is also a little pink flower called "snake
flower" (if you step on it a snake will bite you) which we could not
identify. One of the visitors said she knew it as the "tidal pink."
There is only one colored family on Ocracoke, the
Bryants. Mrs. Bryant is aged 68, and she was born here, and so was her
mother, she told me. She gave birth to 13 children, all but one son
having left the island. Mr. Bryant is a grave digger among other
things. I am told that a corpse is not embalmed -- merely placed in a
coffin and buried. Because of the extreme heat, the body is interred
usually the day following the death.
When I showed her some tiny shell fish gathered at
the water's edge, Mrs. Bryant said I should carry them home in a
container of ocean water which "breathed." The "breathing," I surmised,
referred to the ebb and flow of the tide. I bought a necklace from her
made out of these shells. Mrs. Bryant's son Julius pointed out to me
the "pilinterry" bush, commonly called the "toothache tree." Its leaves
are chewed to relieve an aching tooth.
Unable to find and Indian remains, lore or
tradition, on Ocracoke, I began a place-name study, the results of
which I enclose for any comments you care to make. I was much interested
in the Elizabethan-like dialect of the barefooted natives, but did not
have sufficient time or equipment to try and get any recordings nor any
data on the genealogies of the island folk.
My doctor friend went fishing two or three times
with one of the native "captains" and his best morning's catch (rod and
reel) was 90 blue fish. Other guests at the hotel brought back
sheepshead, mullet, mackeral, drum, etc. Of course, the native
fishermen net these by the thousands, as they do shrimp. The "captains"
own and operate small motor boats and can take visitors to the best
On the return trip (also by the mail boat) we
purchased 80 pounds of shrimp at Atlantic from one of the shrimp boats,
iced it and brought it back in the car. We iced three times en
route, and it was in wonderful condition when we arived home. We have
it frozen now in a deep freeze and can eat it when we have the urge.
These shrimp are tasty, but much smaller than the Gulf species.
There is much more to tell you, but this letter is
getting longer than I intended, and the balance of the story must wait
until I see you.
With best regards,
C. A. Weslager
*Mr. C. A. Weslager was President of the Eastern States Archeologial
Federation and resided in Wilmington, Delaware. He was the author of
seven books and numerous historical papers and essays.