Although Ocracoke did not play a major role in the first attempts by the English to colonize America, Ocracoke is part of the story from the first voyage led by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe in 1584 until John White returns to search for his “lost” colony in 1590.

The English made five voyages of discovery and colonization from 1584 to 1590. Without going into great detail (many books have already been written about this period of American history), I will present highlights of the voyages with snippets of information regarding Ocracoke Island, mostly taken from accounts recorded by Richard Hakluyt, an Elizabethan historian, as transcribed by Andrew Thomas Powell.*

On April 27, 1584 two “barkes well favoured with men and victuals left England for the New World. Commissioned by Sir Walter Raleigh pursuant to a grant from Queen Elizabeth I, and under the command of Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, this first expedition explored that portion of “Virginia” (originally the entire east coast of North America) that we know today as the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Sir Walter Raleigh:

On July 4 Amadas and Barlowe arrived “upon the coast” (the precise location is difficult to determine from Hakluyt’s account), then sailed north some distance and explored an island (perhaps the “isle of Wokokon,” [Ocracoke] or more likely a part of the northern Outer Banks). Hakluyt describes the island as containing “many goodly woods, and full of deer, conies [rabbits], hares, and fowl…in incredible abundance.”

After several days the English encountered various natives with whom they traded and visited, both aboard their ships, and in native villages on the mainland and on Roanoke Island.  Hakluyt goes on to describe many customs and manners of the native people.

While exploring this area the English learned of “a ship cast away” “five and twenty years past.” These white castaways, almost certainly Spaniards, remained several weeks, according to the natives, on “an out island unhabited, called Wococan.” With help from the residents from Sequotan, a village on the mainland, they departed in a makeshift vessel of two boats fastened together, and “were cast away, for the boats were found upon the coast, cast aland in another island adjoining [very likely Portsmouth Island].”

Sequotan (Secotan), a Drawing by John White, 1585:

Hakluyt describes Ocracoke as “unhabited,” but two early maps, White-DeBry from 1590 and Mercator-Hondius from 1606, clearly show one settlement on the island. Although no archaeological evidence of a permanent village on Ocracoke has yet been discovered, a number of Native American arrowheads and pipe bowls have been found on the island.

About the middle of September [1584] Amadas and Barlowe’s ships returned to England.

In the spring of 1585 Sir Richard Grenville, commanding seven ships and several hundred men, set sail from Plymouth, England on the second of Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions. The goal was to establish a military colony on Roanoke Island under the leadership of Ralph Lane. In June they anchored at the Spanish port of Isabella, on the north side of Hispaniola (the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

There, according to Hakluyt, they traded for many “commodities of the Island” including horses. Andrew Powell, in his book, Grenville & the Lost Colony of Roanoke, observes that “this is clear evidence that Grenville’s vessel did have Spanish horses on board when it arrived at the Outer Banks.” He goes on to speculate, “Might the progeny of these bartered-for horses of Hispaniola be the Ocracoke Banker horses of today?”

Hakluyt says that on “the 26th [of June] we came to anchor at Wocokon. The 29th we weighed anchor to bring the Tyger [the Grenville fleet’s flagship] into the harbour [the calmer waters of Pamlico Sound…not Silver Lake Harbor], where through the unskillfulness of the Master whose name was Fernando, the Admiral [the flagship Tyger] stroke on ground, and sunk.” The wreck of the Tyger at Ocracoke Inlet in 1585 is the first recorded shipwreck along the Outer Banks.

John White’s Map of “Virginia,” 1585:

In a letter dated Aug. 12, 1585 from Roanoke Island, Ralph Lane writes to Sec. Walsingham in England: “There are only three entries and ports; these they have named, Trinity, Scarborough, and Ococan, where their fleet struck aground, and Tyger was nearly lost.”  Ocracoke (Ococan) Inlet is the only inlet that has remained open continuously since 1585. We cannot be certain where the other two inlets were located.

For nearly a month Grenville’s fleet remained at Ocracoke while various members of the party explored native villages on the mainland. In the process they burned a village and destroyed crops in retaliation for a silver cup they believed stolen by the “savages.”  By the 27th of June the Englishmen had anchored at Hatoraske.

On August 17, 1585 Ralph Lane and a band of 107 men arrived at Roanoke Island where they established their military colony. The fleet with the remaining sailors, under command of Grenville, returned to England where they made port by mid October.

On Roanoke Island a number of unfortunate conflicts with the natives ensued. Relations deteriorated rapidly after the English attacked a village and killed their chief, Wingina.

Ralph Lane, in his account of the military colony’s occupation, mentions that the natives “live upon shellfish…going to Ottorasko [Hatteras], Crotoan [an island that is now the northern part of Ocracoke and the southern part of Hatteras], and other places [presumably Wococon] fishing and hunting, while their grounds be in sowing, and their corn growing….”

As it happened, Sir Francis Drake arrived at Roanoke in June, 1586. A severe storm convinced Lane to accept Drake’s offer of passage to England, and he departed with the military men on June 18, 1856. As promised, Raleigh had sent two expeditions under the command of Grenville to re-supply the colony, but they arrived a few days after Drake left with the colonists. After searching Roanoke and surrounding areas without finding any of the colonists Grenville left fifteen men on the island with “all manner of provision for two years” and returned to England.

The second English colony, intended as a permanent settlement, and consisting of 117 English men, women and children, and two “savages” who were returning home, departed Portsmouth, England April 26, 1587 in three ships bound for Virginia. They disembarked on Hatteras Island, and traveled to Roanoke in small boats.

Arriving at Roanoke in July they found none of the fifteen men who had been left there the previous year. However they did find the skeleton of one of the men who had been killed by the natives. The English immediately set about repairing the existing houses and establishing their colony.

In spite of a series of mishaps, including skirmishes with the natives and violent storms, the colony showed signs of stability when Manteo, one of the natives who had accompanied Grenville to England and back, helped foster friendly relations between his people on Croatoan and the English. On August 13 Manteo was baptized.

On August 18 Virginia Dare, granddaughter of John White, governor of the colony, was born. She was the first English child born in the New World.

The Baptism of Virginia Dare:


Nine days later John White departed for England, intending to return the next year. On November 5 he landed at Martesew near Cornwall.

White’s efforts to return to Virginia in 1588 were thwarted when his ships were pressed into service by the crown because of war with Spain.

It was not until March 20, 1590 that three ships, the Hopewell, the John Evangelist and the Little John left Plymouth, England with two small shallops (small open boats propelled by oars and sails). By August they stopped at the “Low sandy Islands West of Wokokon” (Portsmouth Island and Core Banks) to collect fresh water and catch a “great store of fish in the shallow water.”

On the 17th of August White’s party approached Roanoke. While trying to navigate a treacherous inlet one small boat capsized, drowning seven sailors.  When White and his company finally made their way to the settlement they discovered no colonists. However the word CROATOAN was carved into a tree. This was the agreed upon “secret token” explaining where the colonists could be found if they needed to remove themselves from Roanoke. It was not accompanied by a cross, the agreed upon sign of distress.

John White Discovers CROATOAN carved into a Tree:

The expedition attempted to reach Croatoan, but were forced away by foul weather. At one time the wind “blew so forcibly, that we were able to bear no sail…wherewith we ran upon the wind perforce, the due course for England.” They arrived at Plymouth, England October 24.

No further attempts were made to contact the colony of 1587.

There is ample reason to believe that the English colonists were integrated with the friendly Croatan Indians on the island of Croatoan, and that their descendants inhabit Hatteras Island, and perhaps Ocracoke Island, to this day. There is also reason to think that a portion of the “lost” colony may have intermarried with mainland North Carolina Indians.

 

* Grenville & The Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Andrew Thomas Powell, 2011
Other books of interest regarding the early English voyages of exploration and colonization include The Outer Banks of North Carolina, 1584-1958, by David Stick, 1958, and Croatoan: Birthplace of America, by Scott Dawson, 2009.

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By Capt. Marvin W. Howard, Ocracoke, N.C., originally published in the Coastland Times, November 12, 1954, re-published with minor editing (click on the links at the end of the article to view images of the original article).

November is here, come again to visit us with cold, blue, raw days, where, if one is not careful, one may catch cold from extra efforts because it’s cool, yet not realizing it is still warm enough to perspire freely and thus we catch a cold. These cold, blue, raw and cloudy days bring falling of the leaves from all the trees along the Banks except the evergreens. As one follows the shadows along the winding trails or along the sandy roads so familiar to the Banks, one sees bushels of acorns lying on the ground. The many golden-yellow, serrated seeds of the sea-oat likewise lie in the lee of the sand hills, and the purple flower of the wild-pea has almost vanished, while the pods are bursting, letting their seeds fall for the use of wildlife. As one feels the bite of the blustery, windy day, particularly if a hunter, the urge to take gun in hand, call Rover or Brando or Nipper, and go a-hunting, is strong. It would not suffice alone to hunt birds, but rather to take in the wonders of autumn’s beauty among the woodlands, the salt grasses and the sand hills. All of this, if properly viewed, presents a beauty unexcelled anywhere.

Our freedom to hunt, to play, to be able to enjoy these wonders are ours only because of our Democratic Government or Republic, whether you judge it by the pony you ride, the old jeep you go fishing in, the speed boat you own, the limousine in the garage, the freedom to worship at the church of your choice, the school you attend, the food on your table or the freedom to speak in public without fear. You are fortunate by the fact that you are living under a system of government based on the dignity and freedom of the individual, that derives its powers from the bottom up rather than the top down.  The four freedoms* were brought to the public by the late Franklin D. Roosevelt. These freedoms we enjoy in the U.S.A., and especially along the Outer Banks, where thus far the land has never been posted to any great extent. The hunter can stroll with his dog “heeling” or watching the “retrieve” as the hunter kills a dove or other wildlife in season.

Beauty is Everywhere

The beauty rare can be seen along the hills, through the lonesome woods, and in the wide open marshes where the green salt grasses are interspersed with another salt grass or wood, blood-colored. A marsh hen or rail cackles and jumps, flies away, apparently laughing at the lover of nature, too far away for the kill. So, too, the slow moving heron or bittern hides, camouflaged by reeds or cattails.

That wonderful classic, In Praise of Blue Grass**, can well describe the flat openings at the head of creeks where cattle feed, and horses wild accompany them. Along these openings, or flat prairie lands, nesting between the woods and hills, a creek wanders through the marshes to the sound. The salt sage is turning purple and shows brilliantly in northern winds. The grass is still green in the pocosins and adds to nature’s beauty, and so I’ll add to this writing words from In Praise of Blue Grass:

“Grass is the forgiveness of Nature — her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass grown, like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality and emerges upon the first solicitation of spring.

“Sown by the winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. It bears no blazonry of bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, yet, and should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.”

Keep ours a Land of Freedom 

Perhaps this is what will happen or be the result if another war comes and the atomic and hydrogen bombs are released on the world. Not only the people but nature’s wonders of beautiful woodland, sages, marshes, meadows, fields of grain and the grasses will be ultimately destroyed. We must be serious about these thoughts for we could easily lose it all. However we also must be able to get along, and forget long enough to enjoy November’s beauty  and to remember what the years, the months the weeks and days hold for us, for summer is past, therefore soon we’ll be to the Christmas songs and will bundle up considerable when out of doors we go.

We would do well if we could keep this good land, America, a land of riches, opportunity and freedom.

The first part of the good land – the good America – was over 200 years ago to be used as a site to establish a new colony. It is still practically without change because the people here or living here were more or less like the Hispano-Californians. They have been reluctant to change. Lots of people do not want change, for it is so primitive that it is a real pleasure for those that realize what freedom really is, yet perhaps selfish in a sort of way, not realizing the non-productive end.

We know and feel assured that “nothing can stop the gentle hand of progress” but since this part of America is to become part of the National Park Service, it will still remain in its infant form (except for people) as it was several hundred years ago. Therefore if the laws which are a part of progress, and result from increasing population and the variety of minds in our human element, do not become too stringent, then, and then only, can we ever hope to retain any part of that rich heritage with which we are so bountifully supplied, that is nature without change, freedom and a chance to stroll along the hunting paths to enjoy the crisp November days, free. A chance to meditate, on the other hand to reap the harvest of better things and better economical living, with the coming or advent of perhaps several small businesses and the ingress and egress of numerous people which will expand over the years. We would perhaps wish for the National Park Service.

Enter the Wildfowl

November brings along the wild honkers, the black ducks, teal and a few other species such as the American widgeon or bald-pate, the bufflehead, brant and others that add spice to our days afield.  Along the surf can be seen people casting for the red drum, and as we watch the excitement a young lady in fishing togs reels in a 30 or 40 pound drum.  The sand whipped up by the north winds, like snow, sails along across the beach, over the high water mark and is deposited in the rolling sea.

As one rides along the beaches, birds like the willet, godwit, yellow-leg and other varieties feed as the sea rolls down. Along the openings or draws, on the sand rills or browsing on briar or bamboo, one can see cattle, which have been a part of this free country for years. In the woods and high marshes now the wild horse is also browsing on the briar leaves and other flora.

A cottontail scampers across the open space and enters our vision. Wild domestic cats, hunting birds or field mice, are occasionally seen creeping slowly along, fat, shiny and sleek in there winter coats.

A few sheep, the only remnants of a large flock, full of dirty wool, having not been sheared in ages, scamper in excitement across the foot hills as the hunter rounds a hill and jump shoots a dove.  The dog gets the dove, delivers it to hand. The hunter pauses and wonders what the changes of the next few years will really bring. Along the reefs in the sound, visible to the hunter on the hill, is a haul seiner, or perhaps in the sea a shrimper or flounder fisherman dragging, or a menhaden porgy boat bailing menhaden from the seine.  Again in the sound a box blind is discernable, set out, ready for the goose hunter. Across the hills are the serrated golden brown fronds of the sea oats, leaning over with the winds like sheaves of wheat. The close of the day brings a chill, the waters roughen, gulls fly toward their roosts. The shrimpers and the porgy boats and the seiners are sailing homeward with their catches. The hunter who has been blessed with the privilege of viewing all these wonders of the Outer Banks trudges homeward with perhaps a rabbit hanging on his strap, or his pocket bulging with birds in their season. Lights begin to flicker, the wind lulls, bringing a host of changes to make November more enchanting.  November beauty along the Carolina Outer Banks is the fruit of all the things we see and picture above.

The Park Service may preserve this free way of life (insofar as the law will permit) and provide the general public, as well as the local residents, an opportunity to view and share a place that was first but yet last.

The sandy and boot-worn paths on the Banks villages will vouch for the Norwegian legend, “On the roads between the homes of friends, no grass grows.”

*  The “Four Freedoms” were goals articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941 in his State of the Union address (also know as his “Four Freedoms Speech”). The four freedoms he sought for “everywhere in the world” were Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. As I write, four framed posters depicting these freedoms hang in the hallway of the Sunday School rooms of the Ocracoke Methodist Church.

 

** ”In Praise of Blue Grass,” an 1870s speech to the Kansas Senate by Senator John James Ingalls (1833-1900).

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“Papa was always proud that none of his forebears owned slaves,” cousin Blanche Howard told me. “Only after he died did we discover that Daniel Tolson had 22 slaves!”

Daniel Tolson (1816-1879), Blanche’s great-great-uncle, purchased Howard’s Point (originally called Williams’ Point and today known as Springer’s Point) in 1855, and lived there with his family and his contingent of slaves.

Daniel Tolson’s Gravemarker at Springer’s Point:

Daniel Tolson, of course, was not the only Ocracoker to own slaves, nor the only ancestor of the Howards to own slaves. Although there are some difficulties in determining accurate numbers, the Federal Censuses for Ocracoke (from 1790 until 1860) show that the island’s slave population hovered between 16 and 156 individuals.

In 1790, the first year of the Federal Census, 31 slaves were living on Ocracoke. This amounted to almost 20% of the total population of 157 people. Ten years later slaves declined to 11 % of the population (16 of 137 people). Thereafter the number of slaves increased steadily until shortly before the Civil War when approximately 30% of the population (156 blacks) were in bondage to their white masters.

Ocracoke residents had a conflicted relationship with slavery. As on other islands of the Outer Banks and in coastal areas of the mainland, the institution of slavery on Ocracoke Island was somewhat different from slavery on large southern plantations.

Ocracoke’s colonial and antebellum economy revolved around shipping and commerce, not farming. Until 1846, when both Hatteras and Oregon Inlets opened during a major hurricane, Ocracoke Inlet was the primary gateway for commercial vessels heading to mainland North Carolina ports, bringing goods from other colonies and from across the Atlantic.

The inlet was treacherous. Sailing vessels crossing the bar were in danger of foundering on the shoals and being beaten to pieces by the unforgiving breakers.  As early as 1715 the North Carolina General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the settlement of pilots on Ocracoke Island. Residents with local knowledge of the changing channels were necessary to help guide ships safely through the inlet, and across Pamlico Sound.

Ship captains would tack back and forth just outside the inlet, waiting for a pilot boat to appear. Many vessels, drawing too much water for safe passage, needed to be‘lightered” (much or all of the cargo would be transferred to lighter vessels) before crossing the bar. Once inside the protection of the islands the cargo would sometimes be loaded back onto the ship. Frequently, however, lightering boats would carry the cargo across the sound to Bath, New Bern, Washington, and other ports.

Most of Ocracoke’s first European settlers were pilots. From the earliest days free men of color and slaves also worked as pilots, lighterers, and stevedores.

In 1783 John Blount and his brothers founded a trading and shipping company in the port town of Washington, North Carolina, just across Pamlico Sound from Ocracoke. Eventually, the Blounts’ commercial enterprises (grist mills, lumber mills, cotton and tobacco plantations, a tannery, real estate speculation, and much more) extended from Boston to Tennessee, and from Alabama to the West Indies. Slaves provided much of their labor. John Blount owned 74 slaves; his brothers, more than one hundred.

John Blount (1752-1833)

Shipping to and from Washington passed through Ocracoke Inlet. By 1789, John Blount, along with his new partner, John Wallace, saw the need for a commercial enterprise near Ocracoke Inlet to provide pilots and lighterers for incoming and outgoing vessels. The villages of Ocracoke and Portsmouth were too far from the main shipping channels, so Blount chose a twenty-five acre island of oyster shells near deep water channels which he stabilized, enlarged, and named Shell Castle.

Shell Castle grew steadily. At one point more than forty people lived there. Blount and Wallace established wharves and warehouses, a ship’s chandlery, and a tavern, as well as several dwellings for the owners, servants, and slaves. Mullet and porpoise fisheries were initiated, as well as occasional ship building, salvage operations, and storage services.

By 1798 Shell Castle even boasted Ocracoke Inlet’s first lighthouse, a 65 foot pyramid shaped wooden structure covered with cedar shakes. Agreements negotiated between the federal government and Blount and Wallace stipulated that no other piloting, lightering, storage, or other commercial enterprises could be carried out at the lighthouse.

Pitcher with Depiction of Shell Castle Island:

The smaller number of Ocracoke slaves in the early decades of the nineteenth century undoubtedly reflects the growing importance of Shell Castle. By 1800 Wallace had fifteen slaves living there. In 1810 19 whites and 22 slaves called Shell Castle home. In addition to serving as pilots and lighterers, the Shell Castle slaves worked as clerks, stevedores, laborers, sailors, fishermen, and domestics. Shell Castle was an interracial community.

It is clear that piloting and lightering of seagoing vessels through Ocracoke Inlet depended on the slave populations of Ocracoke, Portsmouth, and Shell Castle. But several features of maritime slavery stand out as distinct from plantation slavery.  Slaves on the Outer Banks, especially pilots and lighterers, were often in contact with sailors, both black and white, from northern cities. Life at sea routinely blurred racial boundaries, which led to looser relations between slaves and masters on the sandy banks. And maritime slaves (pilots, fishermen, oystermen, and sailors) were frequently allowed a degree of freedom and independence unheard of on plantations. Close supervision was often impossible, allowing slaves to labor unwatched for many days, or even weeks. Some slaves on Shell Castle traveled as far as Cape Lookout, 60 miles distant, to fish for mullet and porpoise.

Still, the institution of slavery all too often led to particularly cruel and inhumane treatment of blacks on Ocracoke and elsewhere on the Outer Banks. Severe and harsh punishments for minor infractions were sometimes imposed by owners, and tales have been passed down of children taken from their mothers’ arms and sold to buyers on the mainland. One heartbreaking story is told of Phyllis, a domestic slave who walked the shoreline for days crying and wailing after her child was removed and sold to work on a plantation.

Ironically, the relaxation of control and the development of a degree of egalitarianism, coupled with the basic injustice of slavery itself, sometimes led to threats of insurrection, rebellion, and anti-slavery activities. This was heightened by contacts with radical politics of the Caribbean via the West Indies trade.  As David Cecelski writes in The Waterman’s Song…Slavery and Freedon in Maritime North Carolina, “black maritime laborers…were among the most independent and worldly in the South.”

As illustration, in 1773 the white pilots at Ocracoke Inlet complained to the legislature that unlicensed slaves and free blacks were illegally piloting vessels from Ocracoke bar to mainland ports. The situation had not changed dramatically as late as 1835.

Interbreeding added to the confusion of race relations on the coast. Masters and crews of sailing vessels occasionally made alliances with black women in port, or on board their ships. Their mulatto offspring kept race relations on shore fluid and ambiguous.

In 1813 British troops invaded Portsmouth Island, terrorized its inhabitants, plundered homes and businesses, and blockaded the port. For a while seagoing trade at Ocracoke Inlet came to a standstill. In 1818 the lighthouse on Shell Castle Island was struck by lightning and burned down. Deepwater channels had already shifted. Most piloting and lightering operations moved to Portsmouth. When a powerful hurricane opened more navigable channels at Hatteras and Oregon Inlets in 1846 many Ocracoke pilots soon moved to Hatteras. By 1855 storms and tides had reduced Shell Castle to barely one half acre.

With the decline of piloting and lightering at Ocracoke Inlet in the mid-nineteenth century many Ocracoke men turned to seafaring careers, serving as owners, captains, and sailors aboard schooners that traveled between New England and the West Indies. Because of the coastal schooner trade, Ocracoke islanders developed strong ties to many northern cities, especially Philadelphia and New York. Commercial contacts in the North, as well as cultural and personal connections, led to new ways of thinking, and helped weaken the traditional boundaries between whites and blacks.

The federal government had also favored the Outer Banks with lighthouses, aids to navigation, and other services. The original Hatteras Light was built in 1803; Ocracoke Light in 1823. A customs house was built on Portsmouth in 1806. Post offices were established at Portsmouth and at Ocracoke in 1840, and the first designated hospital in North Carolina was built at Portsmouth between 1846 and 1847 pursuant to an 1842 Act of Congress. As a result, at the beginning of the Civil War, although as many as 100 slaves lived on Ocracoke, many residents harbored northern sympathies.

By the end of the war in 1865 all of Ocracoke’s former slaves had fled the island. Interestingly, two former slaves, Winnie Blount (“Aunt Winnie”) and her husband Harkus (Hercules) Blount, moved to Ocracoke from Bount’s Creek, NC with a Williams family in 1866/1867. Harkus was a boat builder and carpenter; Aunt Winnie (ca. 1825 – 1925), worked as a domestic. The Blounts were the only post-Civil War black family to call Ocracoke home for more than one hundred years.

Aunt Winnie:

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Aunt Winnie and Harkus had 12 children, but only two, Annie Laura and Elsie Jane (born 1880), survived to adulthood. Annie Laura married and moved to Belhaven, but Jane remained on Ocracoke and worked at the Doxsee Clam Factory at the mouth of Cockle Creek (Silver Lake). She married Leonard Bryant, another Blount’s Creek native who found work at Doxsee’s. Leonard later worked as a carpenter and barber, and sold vegetables he grew in his small garden.

Jane & Leonard Bryant:

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The Bryants raised 13 children on Ocracoke. Most of Leonard and Jane’s children moved off the island, but Julius, Mildred, Anna Laura, and Muzel moved back home for considerable periods of time. Julius was a local fisherman who worked alongside his neighbors most of his life, and was a regular at weekly poker games. Mildred and Muzel made their livings as domestics and caregivers for island children. Anna Laura moved back to the island in her later years.

Muzel was the last of her family to live on Ocracoke. She died on the island in 2008, just shy of her 104th birthday.

Muze at Her Birthday Party:

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Because North Carolina public schools were segregated in the first half of the twentieth century the Bryant children were forbidden by law to attend Ocracoke School during regular hours. However, dedicated teachers and older students made time after the end of the normal school day to teach the Bryants reading, writing, and other lessons.

As Walt Wolfram, Kirk Hazen, and Jennifer Tamburro write in Isolation within Isolation: A Solitary Century of African-American Vernacular English, “[b]oth Muzel Bryant and the Anglo-American island residents reported to us that everybody treated the Bryants ‘just like family.’ We believe this situation to be true to the extent that the Bryants knew their place in the family.”

In spite of Ocracokers’ attitudes, which were more tolerant than much of the South, race relations were still rather unenlightened when the Bryant children were growing up. Although Muzel occasionally attended the Methodist Church (her father was the sexton and a member in good standing), and went to the Saturday night dances (as a spectator, not a dancer), she played mostly with her brothers and sisters.

Wolfram, Hazen, and Tamburro point out that, although they “heard or read about no overt, racially motivated acts of aggression against the Bryants,….[o]ur information and observations lead us to conclude that Muzel Bryant has lived her life socially separated from other Ocracokers in a number of important ways, even though she interacted on a daily basis with islanders through her work and other selected social activities for over a half century.”

With the passing of time and the raising of consciences, attitudes about race began changing throughout the United States. Ocracoke was no exception. As the last half of her life progressed Muzel was increasingly recognized for her contributions to her island home and community.

Reticent and reserved, Muze nevertheless regularly entertained visitors at the home she shared with Kenny Ballance, one of the grown children she cared for years ago, and who now cared for her. When asked, she would tell stories of growing up on the island in the early 1900s. Muze also kept up with current events, and acted as Kenny’s social secretary. It was not unusual for friends, neighbors, and off-island acquaintances to stop by for a chat. North Carolina state senator, Marc Basnight, became a personal friend who visited periodically.

In 2004 several hundred Ocracokers turned out to celebrate Muzel’s 100th birthday. The party was held in the Ocracoke School, which, as a child, she was not allowed to attend. She was honored, not only for her longevity, but for her gracious hospitality, her kind and generous nature, and her friendly disposition.

After almost a century and a half, Muzel, granddaughter of slaves, simply by being herself, reminded us all of the great injustices her enslaved forebears endured. Her story challenges us to resist prejudice wherever and whenever we encounter it.

Blanche’s papa would be proud of the steps we’ve taken.

 

References:

Isolation Within Isolation: A Solitary Century of African-American Vernacular English, by Walt Wolfram, Kirk Hazen, and Jennifer Ruff Tamburro, Journal of Sociolinguistics, Volume 1, Number 1, February, 1997

The Waterman’s Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, by David S. Cecelski

The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina, by John S. Carbone

The Civil War on the Outer Banks, A History of the Late Rebellion Along the Coast of North Carolina from Carteret to Currituck, by Fred M. Mallison

Ocracokers, by Alton Balance

The Federal Census of Ocracoke Island, 1790-1910, by Ellen Fulcher Cloud

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