It was December of 1899.  The U.S. Life Saving Station at Cedar Hammock, just a mile or so from Hatteras Inlet, on the north end of Ocracoke Island, had been in operation for sixteen years.  The station had been built to provide rescue services for mariners involved in shipping disasters along the coast.  For three hundred years numerous shipwrecks had occurred around Cape Hatteras, and over that time many a sailor died because those on shore had no equipment or training to attempt a rescue.

In 1883 a dramatic change was made on Ocracoke.  James Howard was appointed the first keeper (or captain) of the new Cedar Hammock station.  Six surfmen, all natives of the island, were hired, and training began.  Over the next sixteen years a number of schooners and other sailing vessels wrecked on Ocracoke’s beach in stormy weather and high seas.  But most of the skippers and crew of those ships were delivered from watery graves because of the bravery and courage of the well-trained life savers.

The Cedar Hammock LSS (Keeper Howard on right; family members on left), late 1800s:
Cedar Hammock LSS

Not far from their fully equipped station, Keeper Howard and some of his crew had built modest homes.  Forsaking the comforts, conveniences, and community of Ocracoke village, the keeper and his surfmen brought wives, children, and other family members to their remote end of the island during their months of service (typically September to March, the period of severest weather). Keeper Howard and his wife, Zilphia, even had their grandchildren with them after their daughter, Lorena, died unexpectedly in her mid-30s.  Their father, Rev. L.O. Wyche, was a traveling Methodist preacher and was unable to take his children with him on his circuit.

As Christmas approached in 1899, the small isolated community at Cedar Hammock, including more than a dozen children, looked forward to the holiday season. Native cedars and yaupons were cut and used to decorate windows and doors.  Red bows were tied on wreaths and trees.  Christmas songs were played on the Howards’ parlor organ.  Stockings were hung by the fireplace in great anticipation of the coming holiday.  The surfmen and their families chose to pool their resources for a community-wide Christmas day celebration.  They would all gather in the station at mid-day on December 25 to share a festive dinner of roast goose, potatoes, collards, and pumpkin pie.   Each family would provide a portion of the meal.  James Hatton Wahab’s wife, Martha Ann Howard Wahab, accepted the responsibility of baking the pies.

On December 23, late in the afternoon, Hatton walked into the kitchen and discovered every level surface covered with pumpkin pies.  Martha Ann had baked, not just three or four pies for the two dozen or so people at Cedar Hammock.  She had baked enough pies for more than twice that many people.  “Whatever are you doing?” Hatton asked her.  “We can’t possibly eat all those pies, Martha Ann!”

“Well, Hatton,” she replied, “you know I always like to be prepared.  I want to be sure to have enough pies in case any folks from over seas come to join us for Christmas dinner.”

Hatton just shrugged his shoulders and walked back outside.  He had been scanning the skies.  Dark, ominous storm clouds had been rolling in over the sound, and the wind was picking up.  He had come home to check on his family.  After his five children were safe inside he would help at the station.  The other families had the same concerns.

Before long the children were all accounted for.  Some had been in the sound in their sail skiffs.  Two had ridden their ponies down the beach.  Others were in the yard, or in the house, playing games or singing along with the organ.  But now they were all safe inside.

The wind was stronger now.  The surfmen struggled to haul boats out of the water, put their horses in the stable, tie down equipment, and close the shutters.  The surf was rough and the tide was already beginning to rise.

Inside, the children were fed their dinners and put to bed around eight o’clock.  The adults huddled around their fireplaces, trying to stay warm, and worrying about what the storm might bring.  Cold wind was whistling through cracks in the walls, around rattling windows, and under the doors.  They might lose some shingles from the roof, or maybe a banging shutter would blow off.  But they were most concerned about the rising tide.  If it came too high they would be forced to open the doors (and maybe even the windows) to let the cold Atlantic water inside before it could lift their houses off of their foundations and float them away.

As the night wore on and midnight approached the worried families at Cedar Hammock were unaware of the drama playing out a few miles south in the Atlantic Ocean.

The steel hulled, schooner-rigged, British steamship, Ariosto, with a crew of thirty, loaded with wheat, cotton, lumber, and cottonseed meal, was making its way north, intending to refuel in Norfolk before departing for Hamburg, Germany.  Peering through the mist, rain, and clouds, on a pitching and rolling vessel, the Ariosto’s navigator spied a lighthouse.  At midnight he reported to his captain, R.R. Baines from Antwerp, that they were abreast of the Cape Hatteras light.  Captain Baines gave orders: “Steam straight ahead.”  And then he retired to his cabin.  It was a fatal mistake.

The ship was not well out to sea, east of the dreaded shoals of Cape Hatteras, as the officers believed.  The navigator had actually seen the Ocracoke light, and the Ariosto was headed straight for the north end of Ocracoke.

About two in the morning of December 24, 1899 Captain Baines was rudely awakened by a sudden thud, a fearful shuddering of his entire vessel,  a precipitous list to starboard, and the ringing of the ship’s bell.   Rushing to the deck, he leaned over the rails and saw nothing but wild, churning white water.   Thick, heavy weather enveloped the Ariosto, preventing visibility for more than a dozen yards.  He was convinced that they had run hard aground on the outer Diamond Shoals. Captain Baines ordered distress flares to be launched, but he had no hope that life savers from Hatteras could reach them in a storm such as this.

Fearing that his boat would break apart (already the starboard life boats had been carried away), Captain Baines ordered all men in the remaining life boats.  The first boat touched the roiling waves and was immediately capsized.  All eleven men were thrown into the frigid December waters.  Fifteen sailors climbed into the second boat when a wave struck it and it broke apart. All fell into the Atlantic.  The captain and three others who had remained on the vessel were now stranded.  Two sailors from the overturned life boat managed to grab hold of some tackle thrown over the side of the boat, and were pulled back onto the deck.

Painting of the Wreck of the Ariosto by Charlie Ahmen:
The Wreck of the Ariosto
It was then that the crew from the Cedar Hammock station arrived on the scene.  Immediately keeper Howard raised the international signal, MK, “Remain on Your Ship!”  The Ariosto was several hundred yards off shore, only about two miles south of the station.  By now the ship was visible from shore, and the life savers were busy unloading their beach cart.  While designated surfmen set the crotch and buried the sand anchor others got the Lyle gun ready and released the line from the faking box.  As soon as possible Keeper Howard fired the first shot line to the stricken vessel.  It missed, but miraculously fell across a struggling sailor.  He wrapped the line around his arm before loosing consciousness.  The unconscious sailor was hauled up on the beach and given artificial respiration.  He revived.

Against all odds an exhausted sailor, seaman Elsing, managed to swim to shore.   Another struggling sailor was pulled out of the surf when the life savers made a human chain by clasping hands and wading into the numbingly cold, turbulent breakers.

Eventually a shot line reached the Ariosto and the hawser was attached to a mast.  The traveling block and breeches buoy were sent to the vessel.  By late in the afternoon the five sailors and the captain (carrying his pet dog “Belgium”) were brought safely ashore.   As Keeper Howard noted in his report, if all had remained on board all would have been saved.  As it was, twenty-one main drowned that Christmas Eve, 1899.

The survivors were carried back to the station, given dry clothes, warmed by the fire, and provided with food and hot coffee. The work of the life savers was not over, however.  Their equipment had to be gathered up and repacked in the beach cart, then taken back to the station where the ponies were cared for.

After that the drowned were carried from the incoming tide and buried in unmarked graves in the dunes near where they had washed up on the beach.  Rev. Wyche, who was spending the holidays with his children, was called on to provide Christian burials for the hapless sailors.

That night eight sailors from the Ariosto were berthed in the station.  Captain Baines spent the night with Keeper and Mrs. Howard.

Zilphia & James W. Howard:
James & Zilphia Howard

The next day, of course, was Christmas.  The nine survivors from the wreck of the Ariosto were included in the Cedar Hammock Christmas dinner celebration.

When it came time for dessert, all were impressed that there was plenty of pie for everyone, for Martha Ann was prepared, and had anticipated having “folks from overseas” join them for Christmas dinner.

The Ariosto never broke apart.  Several days later, after the storm subsided, the captain and crew asked the surfmen to row them out to their ship in order to retrieve a few personal belongings.  Captain Baines insisted on bringing his caned platform rocking chair with him.  Once on shore he presented it to Keeper Howard as a token of gratitude for saving his life.

Captain Baine’s chair has been passed down in the family, and sits today in my living room, a silent reminder of the disaster of Christmas Eve, 1899.  And of the courage, bravery, and skill of the men of the U.S. Life Saving Service.

Captain Baines’ Platform Rocker:
Capt. Baines' Rocker

As Christmas approaches each year I decorate my home with a native cedar tree adorned with mini-lights.  I cut yaupon branches, thick with red berries, and decorate my table.  I put candles in the windows, and hang a cedar wreath (with bright red bow) on my front door.

In the evenings I like to sit in my recliner, next to a dancing fire in my cast iron stove, and read.  Not infrequently I’ll nod off for ten or fifteen minutes.  I sometimes wake with a start, still somewhat drowsy, and glance towards Captain Baine’s chair. That’s when I’m sure I see the chair gently rocking back and forth.  I force myself awake, and when I look carefully the chair is still.   Nevertheless, I wonder, could it be that Captain Baines returns every year at Christmas?  Maybe he stops to visit my great-grandfather this time of year.  If so, I wonder what they chat about?

Perhaps he returns to reminisce about the wreck of his ship, and his rescue….and to wish us all a very Happy Christmas!


Recently a former resident of Ocracoke asked me if I would write a newsletter about the old Howard cemetery on British Cemetery Road.  I immediately realized that there is much there to write about.  I hope this overview will provide our readers with a broader appreciation of the cemetery and some of our island history.

The Old Howard Cemetery:

(Click on picture to see larger image.)

William Howard, Sr. became the island’s last colonial owner when he purchased Ocracoke Island in 1759.  He was the first owner to make Ocracoke his home. No one knows where he came from or who his parents were, although he was born ca. 1700. Some think he hailed from the mainland of eastern North Carolina.  Other family stories suggest that he may have been in St. Mary’s county, Maryland between 1740 and 1759.  Perhaps that was his home, if not his birthplace.

Other information indicates that Ocracoke’s William Howard may have been the same William Howard who served as quartermaster to Blackbeard the pirate in 1718.  The quartermaster was captured in Virginia in the Spring of 1718, convicted, and sentenced to hang.  Fortunately for him the king’s “Act of Grace” arrived in Williamsburg the day before his execution, and he was released.  He disappeared and never rejoined his pirate captain.  Thus he was spared the gallows….or death in the bloody battle at Ocracoke Inlet in November of 1718.

Perhaps Quartermaster Howard migrated to Maryland after his release in Virginia, and eventually, four decades later, made his way back to Ocracoke where Blackbeard and his crew had frequently anchored.  Or maybe it was his son or grandson who settled on Ocracoke.  We may never know William Howard’s true background and history. However we do know that he died sometime after 1794.  Jonathan Price, in his 1795 map and article, “A Description of Occacock Inlet,” writes that about thirty families were living on the island, and that one of the “original proprietors” had reached his “ninetieth year” and did not “appear to feel any of the infirmities of age.”  This was undoubtedly William Howard, Sr.

We also know that William Howard fathered three children by his first wife, Elizabeth (George, William, Jr., and Susannah). He fathered three more children by his second wife, Susanna (Abigail, Wallace, and Simon).

Susannah Howard married Francis Jackson and they began a long line of Jacksons on Ocracoke.  Abigail married a Williams, another traditional island name. Wallace and Simon never married or had children.

All of the Howards of Ocracoke Island thus trace their ancestry to either William Jr. or George.

William Jr.’s descendants settled along Howard Street and many are buried there beside the sandy lane, in several family graveyards surrounded by picket fences.  A number of William Jr.’s descendants still live along Howard Street, or nearby.

George Howard and his family are buried in the Howard cemetery on British Cemetery Road.  George may have been the first son of William Howard, Sr.  Born in 1749, he lived the majority of his life on Ocracoke Island, and died there in 1806.  His grave is the oldest in the cemetery.  To my knowledge it is the oldest marked grave on the island.  Older graves, including his parent’s, were almost certainly designated with wooden markers which have rotted away and/or been carried away by storm tides over the years.

George Howard was married to Ann (last name unknown).  She is buried beside her husband near the front, left side of the cemetery. According to her tombstone, she was born in 1724, and died in 1841.  Her family, not wanting anyone to think the stonecutter had made a mistake, added these words to her stone: “Aged 117 years.”  Her epitaph continues, ” Lo! the prisoner is released, Lightened of her fleshly load, Where the weary are at rest.  She is gathered unto God.”

Whether or not Ann Howard was actually born in 1724 and lived to be 117 years old we will never know.  But clearly her family believed her to be that old.

Ann Howard’s Tombstone:

Ann Howard

(Click on picture to see larger image.)

Besides George and Ann, nine other Howards are buried within the weathered picket fence (those in boldface below are children of George and Ann; those in red are their grandchildren):  William (1776 – 1851, son of George & Ann), Agnes (1780 – 1857, William’s wife), George Washington (1814 – 1844, son of William & Agnes), Sarah (1810 – 1828, daughter of William & Agnes), John (1778 – 1832, son of George & Ann), Anne (1777 – 1876, John’s wife), Richard (1810 – 1857, son of John & Anne), Eliza (1812 – 1846, Richard’s wife), and George (1802 – 1831, son of John & Anne).

George and Ann had four other children, Cornelius and George, Jr.,both of whom moved to the mainland, Eliza, who married John Dixon of Portsmouth Island, and Mary Elizabeth.

Eliza Bradley Howard (1808 – 1870), daughter of William and Agnes Howard, married Job Wahab (1802 – 1860).

Eliza Bradley Howard:

Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab

Eliza and Job had fifteen children. Today twenty of the graves in the Howard cemetery bear the Wahab name.  They are, of course, all descendants of George Howard, but the cemetery is now sometimes referred to as the Howard-Wahab cemetery.

Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab’s Tombstone:

Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab

Job Wahab’s Tombstone:

Job Wahab, Sr.

In the right front row of the cemetery, next to Eliza and Job’s graves, lie several of their children.  Some in particular are of special interest.  In his 1956 book, Ocracoke, Carl Goerch includes a chapter entitled “Died Before He Was Born.”  He refers to the gravestone of Warren Wahab, son of Eliza and Job Wahab.  According to Goerch the inscription states that Warren was born in 1855 and died in 1842.

Sure enough, if you walk up to the fence and peer into the cemetery, you will see Warren’s marker, seemingly stating that he died thirteen years before he was born.  This is how Goerch surmises what happened:

“Relatives of Warren Wahab placed an order for the tombstone and had it made in Washington, New Bern or some other town along the coast.  The man who cut the stone either was careless with his figures or else they hadn’t been written very distinctly.  When the stone arrived at Ocracoke, the probabilities are that the error was discovered immediately.  But it would have taken such a long time to get another stone that the family decided to put up this one and have it altered at a later and more convenient date……Weeks passed into months, months passed into years and eventually—-well what’s the use of bothering about it at this late date?”

If you look along the front row you will notice that Warren was one of three of Eliza and Job’s children who all died within seven days in September of 1842. Job died on September 4.  He was seven years old, having been born in 1835.  Jonathan and Warren died on September 11.  A glance at the tombstones will show that both Job and Warren appear to have been born in 1855.  Careful inspection reveals, however, that Job was actually born in 1835, and Warren was born in 1833.

Over time the 3s have weathered to look like 5s.  The difference is most noticeable on Job’s marker.  No stonecutter made any mistake.  Several years ago I had the opportunity to peruse the Wahab family Bible.  Sure enough Warren’s birth date was listed as 1833, and Job’s was 1835.  But Goerch’s story is still bandied about by folks even today.  I suppose it does make an entertaining story.

Job Wahab’s Tombstone (1835 – 1842):

Job Wahab, Jr.

Several other family names are in evidence in the Howard cemetery.  Captain and Mrs. James Best (she is also the daughter of William and Agnes Howard), Susan Farrow (daughter of Richard Howard), Louisa Heggart (daughter of John Howard), as well as a Dailey, a few Gaskins, some Williamses, and a Willis (all kin to the Howards and/or the Wahabs) are laid to rest there.

In addition, baby Eliza Ann Chase, just over one year old, is buried in the Howard cemetery.  She is the daughter of Thyrza Howard (sister of Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab) and Elisha Chase.  Elisha Chase was a sea captain from New England.  He apparently descended from a long line of prominent New Englanders.  Sometime after the death of their daughter in 1824 Elisha decided to give up life at sea, and moved his family to Missouri on a wagon train.  Along the way Elisha and Thyrza fell ill with fevers, and Thyrza died.  She was buried along the trail.  When Elisha recovered he said he had medicines that he believed would have cured them both, but no one else knew about them.  Descendants of Elisha Chase and Thyrza Howard Chase still live in the mid-west today.

The most recent grave is that of Myra Wahab who died in 2003.  She is interred beside her husband, Robert Stanley Wahab, who died in 1967.  Stanley, born in 1888, was the son of James Hatton Wahab and Martha Ann Howard Wahab.  Hatton was a surfman in the Cedar Hammock (Hatteras Inlet) Life Saving Station, and Stanley attended school there as a youngster. Stanley went to sea as a young man, then enrolled in Goldey Commercial College.  He returned to Ocracoke and spent much of his energy promoting the island as a tourist destination.  Among other things, in 1936 he built the Wahab Village Hotel (now Blackbeard’s Lodge, today owned and operated by a descendant).

Stanley was fond of explaining that the Ocracoke Wahabs (Wahab rhymes with “Day Crab”) were all descended from a shipwrecked Arab sailor.  That may be, but it is more likely that the Wahabs are part of the Scottish Wahab (Wauchope, Wauchop, or Waughop) family.  Of course, the story of the Arab sailor is much more colorful!

Tombstones in the Howard Cemetery:

(Need Photo)

The next time you are riding your bike by the old Howard cemetery, stop for a few minutes and look over the fence.  Notice the tombstones for Ann and George Howard; Eliza Bradley and Job Wahab; Jonathan, Warren, & Job Wahab; Eliza Ann Chase, and others.

Island graveyards contain quite a bit of history, especially if you know what to look for.


Hardly anyone who has visited Ocracoke hasn’t heard about Blackbeard, the fiercest seafarer ever to fly the black flag of piracy.  The basic story is fairly well known:

  • Although virtually everyone knew the pirate as Blackbeard, he often went by the name Edward Teach, Tatch, or Theach….or even Edward Drummond.  There is little doubt that all of these monikers were aliases.  His real name may be permanently lost to history, but see below for some fascinating new research.
  • Historians suggest that he was of English descent, born perhaps in Bristol.  Some think he was from Jamaica, or even Philadelphia.  Again, no one actually knows.
  • During his brief career as a pirate (about 18 months in 1717 & 1718) Blackbeard terrorized shipping from the West Indies to New England.
  • Captain Teach appears to have been a close personal friend of North Carolina Governor Charles Eden and his secretary, Tobias Knight.
  • In November of 1718 Virginia’s governor, Alexander Spotswood, sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the British Royal Navy in pursuit of Blackbeard because Governor Eden was doing little or nothing to halt piracy along the Virginia – North Carolina coast.
  • Maynard caught up with Blackbeard as he lay anchored in Pamlico Sound, near Ocracoke Island.
  • During the battle (on November 22, 1718) Captain Teach took five pistol wounds and twenty cutlass & dagger wounds before he succumbed and had his head chopped off.  His crew immediately surrendered.  This effectively ended the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the colonies.

Black Beard:

There are, of course, many more stories about Blackbeard — how he got his start in piracy with Captain Hornigold in the West Indies, how he captured the French vessel, “Concorde,” and renamed her the “Queen Anne’s Revenge,” how he terrorized captains, crews, and passengers on numerous ships as he plundered their cargo, how he took fourteen wives, how he blockaded Charleston Harbor and demanded nothing more than medicines, how he scuttled the Queen Anne’s Revenge in Beaufort Inlet and marooned most of his crew, then fled to Ocracoke in the “Adventure,”….as well as many other stories.

Within the last several years I was alerted to a paper published in the North Carolina Genealogical Society’s Journal entitled “Legends of Black Beard and his Ties to Bath Town: A Study of Historical Events Using Genealogical Methodology.”¹   In it the authors argue that some evidence suggests that Blackbeard may have been native to eastern North Carolina.  It is a fascinating article, one worth more attention and research.  I will summarize the main points below.

Governor Charles Eden and his secretary, Tobias Knight, chief justice of the colony, both owned plantations on the west side of Bath Town Creek in Bath, the colonial capital of North Carolina.  Knight’s property lay at the mouth of the creek where it joined the Pamtico (Pamlico) River.  Just to the north was Governor Eden’s plantation. Next in line, across the narrow Whitby Creek, was the plantation of Captain James Beard. These plantations included 300 – 400 acres each.

An intriguing aspect of Governor Eden’s property is that a tunnel reputedly joined his cellar to the bank of the creek.  It was by means of this tunnel, many believe, that Blackbeard secretly carried a portion of his ill-gotten gains to the governor in exchange for protection from prosecution.

Black Beard’s Flag:

On September 5, 1717 King George signed his “Act of Grace,” an offer of amnesty designed to pardon any piratical acts committed after Queen Anne’s War.  The proclamation was signed on September 5, 1717 and extended for one year.

Blackbeard accepted the king’s “Act of Grace” in June of 1718.  Tellingly, Captain Teach chose to accept the pardon, not from Governor Woodes Rogers in the West Indies, as did most other buccaneers, but from Governor Charles Eden in Bath, NC.

Could it be, ask the authors of the genealogical journal, that the “inhabitants of Bath County did not see Black Beard as the rogue that history records”  because his home town was in Bath? This would explain why he decided to return to Bath to accept the king’s pardon there.  As the authors say, perhaps Black Beard “was just coming home.”

Intriguingly, Captain James Beard, Governor Eden’s neighbor on Bath Town Creek, had a son who was born about 1690.  This son, whose name has been lost to history, died between September 1718 and sometime in 1721, according to information gleaned from various deeds.  Could this son be the pirate who came to be known as Black Beard?

The Genealogical Society’s Journal article points out that Captain James Beard’s son may have chosen to identify himself by the appellation “Black” plus his own authentic surname.  As they say, “his own beard being black, he was able to play on this concept to good advantage, using it to terrorize his victims.”  They go on to ask, “Was irony involved in this man’s choice of an alias, just as there was irony in the selection of the name Queen Anne’s Revenge for Black Beard’s flagship?”  It seems entirely plausible to me.

Perhaps Captain Edward Teach, Black Beard the pirate, was actually a native of eastern North Carolina.  No doubt he knew these waters well.  Ocracoke was one of his favorite anchorages.  And his one-time quartermaster, William Howard, may have been the same individual who purchased Ocracoke Island four decades later, after Lieutenant Maynard put an end to piracy at what became known as Teach’s Hole.

This theory is at least worth further research.

Springer’s Point (Teach’s Hole channel is nearby):

¹ August, 2002 issue

All photos on this page courtesy of