In the 1970s Ronnie Midgett and his wife Diane moved to Ocracoke. Ronnie had been called as pastor of the Assembly of God church. Although Ronnie was from coastal North Carolina, neither he nor Diane had spent much time on Ocracoke Island. They had a lot to learn — people, customs, traditions, distinctive vocabulary, and island place names. All of this could be confusing to any newcomer.

Names of places and areas on Ocracoke continue to befuddle visitors and new residents.

In the village there are two major areas, Around Creek (on the north side of Cockle Creek [since about 1940 frequently referred to as Silver Lake Harbor], including where the Community Store, Howard Street, and the school are located), and Down Point (on the south side of Cockle Creek, including Albert Styron’s Store, the Assembly of God church, and the lighthouse). There is also Up Trent (a vaguely defined area beyond the end of British Cemetery Road, toward the Oyster Creek development, and north of the Community Cemetery).

Within these sections of the village lie Nubbin’s Ridge, Cat Ridge, Paddy’s Holler, Springer’s Point, Windmill Point, Gun Barrel Point, Base Docks, and other areas.

Springer’s Point, (Down Point):

The Community Store ca. 1944, (Around Creek):

Beyond the village are creeks, hills, knolls, and woods each with its own distinctive name. They include Loop Shack Hill, Scrag Cedars, The Plains, Outer Green Island, The Wells, Quawk’s Point, Cedar Hammock, Old Hammock, and Billy Goat Hill, to name but a few.

Oak at Old Hammock:

Nearby, in Pamlico Sound, you can visit Hog Shoal and Howard’s Reef, as well as Stone Rock, Legged Lump, Wallace’s Channel, and closer by, the Ditch.

Ocracokers refer to the entire area of the island north of the village with one general term, “Down Below.” If you are traveling to the lifeguard beach, the NPS campground, the Pony Pen, or nearly anywhere else in the park you are going down below. But curiously, if you are traveling beyond Hatteras Inlet you are going “up the beach” (but definitly not “up beach” [a particulary egegious error] as any native islander will quickly point out to new residents!).

After moving to the island, Ronnie and Diane Midgett immediately immersed themselves in the community. Before two weeks had passed Ronnie could often be seen about the village, visiting parishoners, chatting with folks at the Community Store, and frequenting the fish house. One day around noon Diane was expecting Ronnie home for lunch. When he didn’t appear she called Tradewinds Tackle Shop, where Ronnie often stopped to talk with Wayne Teeter. Louise O’Neal answered the phone. When Diane asked if she’d seen Ronnie Louise said Wayne had mentioned that Ronnie could probably be found down below. Not understanding the local reference Diane immediately worried that the islanders had already, at least figuratively, assigned Ronnie to perdition!

If you are interested in learning more about Ocracoke Island place names be sure to get Len Skinner & Debbie Well’s “Complete, Illustrated Map of Ocracoke Island.” They have researched the geography of the island thoroughly and have included many of the traditional place names, as well as contemporary landmarks, roads, and buildings. Click on the photo below for more information.

Ocracoke Map:
The Complete Illustrated Map of Ocracoke Island
I recently discovered two articles written by C. A. Weslager who visited Ocracoke in 1949 (see our October, 2009 Newsletter for his observations about that visit). He was also fascinated with the many place names he encountered. You can read his article, with lists of many of the names by clicking on the link below.

(Click here to open the PDF file, “Place Names on Ocracoke Island,” 1949, by C. A. Weslager.)

Weslager completes his survey of Ocracoke Island place names by commenting that “It would be highly interesting to compile a list of the Ocracoke place names twenty to fifty years hence for comparison with those of today.”  In fact, most of the names Weslager cites are still in use today. However, some of the features have eroded or completely disappeared due to wind and tide. For example, some creeks have simply dried up. Other features have changed dramatically because of human activity.

Today many residents identify places “down below” by referencing recent, man made features; for example, Lifeguard Beach, the Campground, Pony Pen, etc., as well as NPS ramps and mile markers. Nevertheless, local names for many geographical areas persist, especially among native born O’cockers.


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 refinement.]

July 31, 1949

601 S. Maryland Ave.
Wilmington, Del.

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 than 100 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 fettle.

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 in this.

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 waters.

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 fishing spots.

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,

Faithfully yours,
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.


by Philip Howard

(This was originally published in The Washington Post, Thursday, April 29, 1976)


The old fisherman drew alongside in his crabopt-laden skiff. “Where are you from?” he shouted over the whine of his engine.

“Ocracoke!” we yelled.

Ain’t never seen a rig like that before,” he marveled. The “rig” was the Mary E., last of the Maine clipper schooners.

Actually the boat captain, and crew were from New York. On their way from Key West to Boston they had ventured into Ocracoke Island’s Silver Lake Harbor on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

As part of the Bicentennial Sail jointly sponsored by the National Park Service and “Sea Ventures,” a New Jersey-based educational organization, the Mary E. was being used as learning motivation for students in schools near various East Coast Parks. Bound for Manteo, farther north, the schooner made a stop at Ocracoke and was detained by bad weather for several days.

Schooner Mary E:

(Click to go to the Mary E’s official web site)

While on Ocracoke Meryl Silverstein, the onboard educator, first mate, cook and deckhand made arrangements for our students to inspect the ship. But instead of giving us the usual 20-minute program, Capt. Teddy Charles invited us to sail to Manteo, 70 miles north. Within two hours, 13 Ocracoke high school students, three adult supervisors, Silverstein and the skipper were sailing out of the harbor with excited and anxious mothers, friends and teachers waving.

The Mary E. is the only historically authentic vessel regularly sailing in New York waters. She was built of oak in Bath, Maine, in 1906. Her two big masts are pine. Originally she was a fishing vessel, carrying four or five dories; her hold, redesigned as a passenger cabin, once stored up to five tons of mackeral. In 1968 she was rebuilt stem to stern by W.T. Donnel. Capt. Charles bought her in 1974 as a passenger windjammer.

From the beginning our trip was a learning experience, one both students and adults were willing to accept with excitement.

“Stand by to raise the foresail!” came the order. “Untie the halyards! Ready on the throat? Ready on the peak?” In no time the foresail was harnessing the legendary winds of Cape Hatteras.

“Trim the sails! Secure the halyards! Secure the sheets!” With all sails raised and a good wind, the Mary E. could cruise at six to eight knots.

Our captain knew his profession. Patiently he and Meryl taught their novice crew the rudiments of sailing by insisting that we do what they could easily have done more quickly and efficiently. For our part we learned well. “David, take the helm. Steady on 045.” Each turn experienced the feel of the wheel. “Don’t oversteer,” he cautioned. “One or two spokes is plenty.” We sailed up Pamlico Sound.

Fifty-three feet long on deck, 72 feet overall, the Mary E. had looked small from the dock, but actually proved quite large. The 18 of us were divided among three watches: on-deck, below, and off.

Keeping on course by compass and “lines of position” from lighthouses and other landmarks, we sailed until 1830. Off Chicamacomico Channel  we dropped anchor just before dark. It wasn’t ideal. “Too open; no protection,” the captain said. “But it’s all we’ve got.”

We kept our eye on the anchor till dawn, making sure we were not drifting; rising winds could suddenly force us aground on one of the treacherous shoals so abundant in the area.

In the serene starlight we sat on deck with nothing to disturb the silence save the gentle splashing of waves against the hull and the rhythmic creaking of the rigging. While being rocked to sleep in our berths we lay rethinking the history, just as we had relived it earlier in the day.

The legendary iron fist with which many a captain ruled his ship may seem severe to 20th century city-dwellers. Undoubtedly it was often tyrannical, but the necessity for discipline aboard a sailing vessel was obvious to us after only a few minutes at sea.

Our safety and our lives depended on the skill and authority of our captain. His word was the law. Had we stopped to question, we might easily have been hit by a swinging boom or even entangled in the halyard. We learned the value of proper coiling of ropes, instant reaction to orders, and dependable recognition of water conditions.

We also discovered that mutiny is a very real possibility even today. That night in the focsle Capt. Charles told us of a near-mutiny aboard another of his vessels in the Caribbean several years ago. Out of sight of land the auxiliary engine died in a calm sea. Within a few days the drinking water ran low and the crew panicked. The captain averted mutiny only by the aid of the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 24 hours we learned that life at sea was far from easy. The Mary E. was built as a work boat and our quarters below deck were cramped with life jackets, bunks, stowage, ladders, a small head and the galley. A remarkable cast iron wood stove designed for wooden sailing vessels was used to cook all meals. Washing up and changing clothes was so inconvenient we slept in them, saturated though they were with salt spray and woodsmoke.

As sleep silenced our exhausted crew, I lay thinking of the long months at sea the early sailors endured and the kinds of men such a life must have produced. It was easy to understand their desperate pleasure-seeking in port.

At 0500 the first watch started breakfast; we were under sail in half an hour. A moderate  southwest breeze pushed us at nearly four knots towards Shallowbag Bay, abreast of Manteo on Roanoke Island.

As the Mary E. glided into the channel I manned the helm while others were aloft repairing shrouds. I imagined myself to be Sir Walter Raleigh in 1584, leading the ships that brought into these same waters the first white settlers of North America, the famous “Lost Colony.”

By noon we had docked and bid farewell to Capt. Charles and Silverstein and to the tantalizing segment of history they had shown us.

A seafarer lives in the heart of us all.