The following article is from The Deming Headlight (Deming, New Mexico) ·  Fri, Oct 5, 1923.  No author is cited. Although there are a few fanciful comments (e.g. how Ocracoke got its name), the article generally provides an accurate view of island life 100 years ago. Enjoy!

 

Ocracoke, N.C. – Ocracoke, a throwback to the days of the English explorers and a queer mixture of the romance of the South Seas, the religion of the Puritans and the civilization of the nineteenth century, is the quaintest little town in America.

The eight hundred inhabitants, who have spent their lives here, following in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers, live from the fish in the sea at their doors and the figs as fine as Smyrna’s which grow wild in the sand mountains in their back yards.

The main street of Ocracoke is a creek. The town has no streets or roads, only footpaths running down to the beach, or connecting the rear door of one dweller with that of another. There is not an officer of the law in town and although some of the doors have locks, relics of bygone days, the keys long have been lost and forgotten.

The town is on an island by the same name, fifteen miles in length, barely a mile wide and five hours journey by boat from the mainland. The island of Ocracoke is within sight of the graveyard of the Atlantic, Hatteras’ wretched shoals, and occasionally at dawn the natives have arisen to find an ocean steamer stranded almost in their yards.

Horses run wild outside this little town, just as do the mustangs in isolated sections of western plains. Cattle, as wild as on the pampas of Argentina, rove the ocean beach to the northward. There are no dogs on the island, but cats have multiplied until there are hundreds. Having rid the village of mice and rats, the felines have almost eradicated the many snakes which once thrived in Ocracoke.

There are thousands of chickens about the place, but they are community property and no fences to restrict them are in evidence anywhere. Tame geese, brants and duck also are numerous. They are used to decoy the millions of Labrador wild fowls which swarm in the marshes of Ocracoke and Currituck to feed.

The people are just as unusual as the town itself. They dance almost nightly, but their dances are the ones introduced by their grandfathers and the shimmy, tango and fox trot are as strange here as crime. A favorite melody of the island orchestra is “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Lamp light is the only illumination after dark.

The great lighthouse of the village sheds its beam over Ocracoke as it flashes far out to sea to warn away navigators. Meals in the town cost eighty cents and lodging can be procured for ten cents. Hosts usually are angry if their guest does not eat heartily of the supper, which ordinarily consists of fresh fried fish, fried chicken, fried ham, stewed oysters, clam chowder, baked potatoes, rice, hot cakes, coffee and fig preserves.

The race line is rigidly drawn in Ocracoke, but there is one negro permitted to reside here, and he is regarded as indispensible. He is the island sexton.

The natives tell a simple story of the division in the church. The original church was the Southern Methodist. An elder wanted an organ and another said the idea was preposterous, insisting musical instruments had no place in houses of worship. When the progressives rolled the organ into the building he secured a missionary and established the Northern church. The congregations now are about equally divided and equally strange is the fact that although in the heart of the “Democratic south,” most of the men of the Northern church are Democrats and those of the Southern branch are Republicans.

Ocracoke is without a peace officer, as there is no crime. A magistrate gave up his commission last year without trying a case. Tragedy has stalked thru the little community, but that was when seafaring residents battled with the elements and lost. The islanders are as expert boatsmen as the Kanakas of the Pacific and they ride outriggers to ballast their tiny fishing crafts.

While most of the men have journeyed from home, visiting port towns, few of the women have been farther away than the little settlement on the mainland, where the Ocarcokers go on occasions to attend the theatre or visit a doctor. The villagers are a big sun-tanned lot, running to blue eyes and freckles.

The town is one of the historic spots of the Southland. The first English speaking colonists to arrive in the western world landed first at Ocracoke. They were the lost colonists of Virginia Dare, who went to Roanoke Island and vanished.

Edward Teach, the pirate “blackbeard,” caroused here, gave the place its name and met his death, according to legend. He was killed when a British naval expedition attacked his two ships. Teach, confident of victory, longed for daybreak, the villagers say, and cried, “O, crow cock,” and from that phrase with alterations came the name Ocracoke.

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In 46 BC, Julius Caesar decreed that the Roman world should adopt his new calendar. Based on the solar year, rather than lunar cycles, it was superior to previous calendars. Unfortunately, the new calendar which defined a year as 365 ¼ days, was approximately 11 minutes longer than the solar year. By the 16th century, a discrepancy of ten days between the calendar and the solar cycle meant that church festivals were falling farther and farther from their appropriate seasons.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Catholic nations must adopt a new calendar of 365 days with a provision for leap years, the one in wide use today. It mandated deleting 10 days between October 4 and 15 in order to realign the calendar with the solar cycle.  England, wary of anything papist, refused to change until 1772 when England and her colonies finally switched to the Gregorian calendar. By then the Julian calendar was eleven days out of sync with the seasons.

Many people on the Outer Banks, either because the message was slow to reach them, or because they refused to conform, continued to celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar, which was January 5 on the Gregorian calendar. The village of Rodanthe on Hatteras Island has kept the tradition of Old Christmas even into the 21st century. Today, Old Christmas in Rodanthe, a time of festivities and merriment, is generally celebrated on the first Saturday after Epiphany (or on Epiphany, which in 2018 falls on Saturday, January 6).

The following article by Virginia Midgett, reprinted from the Fall, 1979 journal, Sea Chest, a project of the students of Cape Hatteras School, is an interview with John and Pat Herbert of Rodanthe in which they tell how Old buck became an Outer Banks legend. More information about Old Christmas in Rodanthe is available here: http://www.outerbanksblue.com/blog/rodanthe-old-christmas-older-rodanthe/.

Old Buck in Rodanthe at Old Christmas   Photo: Outer Banks History Center

 

The Story of Old Christmas

by Virginia Midgett

For many years on January 5, Old Christmas has been celebrated at the community building in Rodanthe. People in the three villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo get together in the earlier part of the day and shoot for bushels of oysters. Later on the partying begins and everyone then goes to the community building, which used to be the old schoolhouse, to listen and dance to the band and eat oysters. The oyster roast takes place outside of the building.

One event that everyone really looks forward to seeing at Old Christmas is ‘Old Buck,’ a bull that comes trampling through the building. Actually ‘Old Buck’ is not real – there are two men who walk underneath him. “John Herbert, an eighty-one year old native of Rodanthe, has been the keeper and leader of ‘Old Buck’ since he was appointed an honorary member of Old Christmas by the grandfather of his wife, the late Nora Midgett Herbert, forty-five years ago,” said Pat Herbert.  John Herbert says about the only difference in Old Christmas today and what it used to be when he was a boy was that people used to go around from house to house disguised. “People would come from Waves and Salvo up here to Rodanthe then we’d all go from here to there disguised with old stockings and clothes. The women would dress up as men and the men as women. Ben Payne, Mrs. Pat Herbert’s grandfather, would beat the drum and John Thomas would play the fife.

“Old Buck belonged to Nora’s (John Herbert’s first wife’s) grandfather, Ben Payne, who got him from his grandfather seventy-five to eighty years ago. Ben Payne had a boy named Bradford Payne who took it over after him. There were two or three houses up here in Rodanthe that had porches on ‘em. Uncle John Allen and Uncle Ben Pugh, the boys and girls, would go to these houses and do what they called just playing around but it was square dancing. Boy, did they dance! We had all kinds of plays back then, but the main event on Old Christmas would take place at 2 o’clock of a day. The crowd would all gather up to the lifeboat station to watch John Thomas Payne, who was a member of the old lifesaving station, and Captain Ben Midgett, the officer in charge at the time. Thomas Payne would take six apples and put one at a time on his head and Captain Ben Midgett would shoot it off his heat with a .22 rifle. After this event, Ben Payne would take an old pole and put a cow’s head on it and everyone would go through the villages. That’s been eighty years ago or over, so when he died, Bradford Payne, Ben Payne’s son, took it up.

“When Bradford Payne got older and didn’t want to go around with it, he wanted John Herbert to take it and keep it in the family. That’s been fifty years ago. So he took it and after that he and Fred O’Neal kept Old Christmas going with ‘Old Buck’ for a long time until Fred gave it up. But John Herbert kept it up and still does. Now the main event in Old Christmas is the oyster roast and square dancing.”

Pat Herbert added that Old Christmas is not celebrated as a religious occasion. “It is a time for the people to get together and make merriment.” When she was a little girl, her father, Urias Williams, who was a member of the lifesaving station, told her that on January 5, Old Christmas day, after everyone marched in disguise through the villages “they’d then gather on the beach to watch the weird action of the cattle as they would fall on their knees at midnight and make low murmuring noises as if they were praying. The people believed this was the proper time to celebrate because the animals played an important part in the nativity. After the cattle dispersed and returned to the grassland, the folk would begin their journey home stopping at several different houses for hot coffee and cold sweet tater pie. Also to dance to the tune of ‘Shu-La-Lu, my darling’ and many old songs played on an old phonograph.

“’Old Buck’ became renowned many years later. There was a severe storm off Cape Hatteras for several days and it’s believed that a ship loaded with cattle sank, and a black and white bull, the only survivor, swam ashore to the beach in Rodanthe. A man from Chicamacomico Life Saving Station was on watch duty in the tower when he saw the beautiful animal standing on the bank. Excitedly he ran to the station to tell the other men. After closely observing the animal, each man went home and turned their cows out of pasture. The strange animal soon became acquainted with the cows and had a field day, siring many calves. Thereafter he became domesticated and was loved and respected by the natives. Each year on Jan. 5 he was led through the villages. Sometimes children would ride on his back. That’s when he became known as ‘Old Buck’ and became part of the Old Christmas celebration.

“Several decades later ‘Old Buck’ became restless and trekked off in Trent woods looking for greener grass. There he was shot and killed by a hunter and became a legend. The natives of Rodanthe were saddened but not outdone. They made a replica of ‘Old Buck’ out of a steer’s head including horns and attached it to a wooden frame. A blanket was thrown over the frame to cover two men who provided legs and ambulation for the cavorting ‘Old Buck’ as he makes his appearance at the community building each year”

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In New Bern, North Carolina, in 1795, Francois-X Martin published an eight-page pamphlet by Jonathan Price titled A DESCRIPTION OF OCCACOCK INLET*.

Jonathan Price, a Quaker who had settled in North Carolina’s Pasquotank County soon after the American Revolution, had little formal education, but developed an interest in geography, surveying, navigation, and astronomy. He became a gifted cartographer, and in March, 1789, was named Pasquotank County surveyor. At that time Price envisioned creating a map of North Carolina based on actual surveys. He borrowed money from the state treasury for his project, and presumably generated additional income from the sale of the pamphlet, or portolano, mentioned above. (See https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/price-jonathan for more information about Jonathan Price.)

The third paragraph in Price’s pamphlet provides a concise description of Ocracoke…and a puzzle. He writes,”Occacock was heretofore, and still retains the name of, an island. It is now a peninsula; a heap of sand having gradually filled up the space which divided it from the bank. It continues to have its former appearance from the sea; the green trees, that cover it, strikingly distinguishing it from the sandy bank to which it has been joined. Its length is three miles, and its breadth two and one half. Small live oak and cedar grow abundantly over it, and it contains several swamps and rich marshes, which might be cultivated to great advantage; but its inhabitants, depending on another element for their support, suffer the earth to remain in its natural state. They are all pilots; and their number of head of families is about thirty.”

I wondered what Price meant when he wrote that Occacock (Ocracoke) was previously an island, but had recently become a peninsula attached to the sandy bank.

All but one of the Outer Banks’ inlets have changed over the last 425 years, some closing, others opening, generally during gales and hurricanes. The lone exception is Ocracoke Inlet which has been continuously open since Europeans began keeping records. Some readers of Price’s Description have concluded that Ocracoke Island, having once been a separate island, had now connected to Hatteras with the recent closing of an inlet. But that did not sound right to me. That explanation would make more sense if Price had written that Ocracoke had become an “extension” of Hatteras Island, not a “peninsula” attached to the banks.

Careful reading of Price’s Description yields more insight. He writes that Ocracoke is covered with swamps and rich marshes, and green trees which “strikingly [distinguish] it from the sandy bank.” This sounds like a description, not of the entire present-day Ocracoke Island, but just of the area of the island where the village is located. This must have been at one time an “inside island” much like Roanoke Island is today, separated from the “sandy banks” by a narrow channel of water.

Price provides further support for this view. He writes that Occacock is three miles long and two and one-half miles wide, and that live oaks and cedars grow “abundantly over it,” and about thirty families live there. This is very close to the size of Ocracoke village today, and in 1795 all of the inlet pilots and their families lived in this general area, as residents still do.

(Ocracoke, 1936, illustrating the contrast between the village and the sandy banks in the background. Photo from Open Parks Network.)

A field trip guide to the Outer Banks (The North Carolina Outer Banks Barrier Islands: A Field Trip Guide to the Geology, Geomorphology, and Processes [http://core.ecu.edu/geology/mallinsond/IGCP_NC_Field_Trip_Guide_rev1.pdf]) yields further insights.

The document contains this statement about complex barrier islands: “These occur when a simple barrier segment migrates into and welds onto an older barrier island segment that formed in response to a different set of conditions (e.g., western Ocracoke Island)….”

The paper goes on to say ” Ocracoke Village area is a complex barrier island, consisting of multiple sets of regressive beach ridges. No dates yet exist from this complex, but by comparison with other progradational components of the Outer Banks, we can speculate that this section began to form ca. 3000 yBP [year before the present], at the same time as the Kitty Hawk beach ridges … The remainder of the island is <1000 years old, having reformed following the Medieval Warm Period collapse.”

I conclude that Price is using “Ocracoke” to describe, not the entire island as we know it today, but only the area of the present-day village which is of a different geological formation, as the field guide points out. So “Ocracoke” (the village area) was “heretofore a [separate] island” which, as sea levels rose, became joined to the “sandy banks” as the banks migrated to the west when sand was swept over them during storms. The more stable inside islands do not migrate. The “sandy banks” bump up against them, and merge with them. In geologic time those more stable islands eventually become capes as the sandy banks “wrap around” them, and ultimately they become shoals projecting into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

*The full title of Price’s pamphlet is A DESCRIPTION OF OCCACOCK INLET; and of its COASTS, ISLANDS, SHOALS, and ANCHORAGES: With the COURSES and DISTANCES to and from the most Remarkable Places, And DIRECTIONS to sail over the BAR and thro’ the CHANNELS Adorned with a M A P, taken by actual survey.

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