Several years ago, on a busy summer day, a customer stepped up to the counter at Village Craftsmen with an unusual question. “Can you tell me the significance of the coins on the tombstones across the lane?” the customer asked.
As most of our readers are aware, Village Craftsmen is located on historic Howard Street, a one-lane, unpaved road on Ocracoke Island. A number of family cemeteries lie beside the lane, and some of the graves date to the early 1800s. Visitors to the island often walk through the cemeteries to read the epitaphs in order to glean a bit of island history.
I had no idea what he was referring to. “What coins?” I said.
The customer proceeded to explain that some of the tombstones had pennies, nickels, dimes and/or quarters placed on them. I walked across Howard Street to investigate. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents, as well as other more distant relatives, are buried there, but it had been several weeks since I had visited the cemeteries. Sure enough, several markers had a few coins resting on them. I told the customer that I didn’t know the answer to his question, but I assured him that placing coins on tombstones was not a traditional local custom.
Over the next several years I noticed more and more coins laid on local tombstones and monuments. One visit to the British Cemetery revealed many dollars-worth of coins (and even a few one- and five-dollar bills) placed on the markers. A neighbor and I gathered the money in a basket (it totaled more than $200) and passed it on to a representative of the annual British Cemetery Memorial committee.
For millennia, humans have decorated graves with flowers, shells, stones, feathers, candles, and other items. In some cultures, coins, bowls of food, bottles of alcohol, cigarettes and other gifts are placed on graves, or even inside caskets as ways to honor the dead, to bring good luck to the deceased, or to ease the departed into the afterlife.
The modern practice of leaving coins on tombstones apparently has its origin with the military. According to posts shared on social media, different coins convey different messages.
Penny – A penny left at a gravesite means you visited there. It is simply a way to honor a departed service member.
Nickel – A nickel indicates you trained with the deceased.
Dime – A dime left on a tombstone means you served with the deceased person in his or her unit, company, ship, etc.
Quarter – A quarter indicates you were with the deceased when he or she died.
There is speculation that the ritual of placing coins on gravestones dates back to Benjamin Franklin (d. 1790) who famously said, “a penny saved, is a penny earned.” According to the Christ Church Preservation Trust in Philadelphia, tens of thousands of coins are thrown onto Benjamin Franklin’s marker each year. The practice has been blamed for causing a significant crack on his marble ledger tablet.
Of course, there is no official protocol for leaving coins on tombstones, and the practice has clearly extended beyond honoring just military members. In recent years family members in some locations have begun honoring their loved ones by placing coins on graves. For many years Ocracoke islanders have decorated graves with flowers and shells, but, as mentioned, placing coins on tombstones is not a time-honored Ocracoke Island tradition. As this custom grows, surely different people will have different understandings of the symbolism.
Most of the people buried on Howard Street did not serve in the military. Even those who did (including members of the US Life Saving Service and US Coast Guard) may not have military markers. And most, if not all, of the coins seem to have been left by island visitors, not by local family members. Perhaps visitors to Ocracoke simply wish to honor the many generations of sturdy islanders who have lived on this beautiful barrier island and endured storms, hurricanes, shipwrecks, and isolation from the mainland.
As mentioned, the coins left at the British Cemetery are periodically collected and used to fund the annual memorial ceremony. Coins on Howard Street family cemeteries are used to help clean and maintain the graves.
The following account describing life on Ocracoke in 1929 was written by Hyman Leroy Harris (1897-1995) in 1975. In the introduction, Mr. Harris expressed his “personal desire to chronicle some of the experiences and events that have meaning for me.”
Through some medium I discovered that Ocracoke School wanted a principal. … At [a] meeting [with the county superintendent in Washington, NC.] I was told about the school and the situation in general. I was offered the position which I accepted….
I soon made an exploratory trip to Ocracoke where I met with the local committee. The quaintness of this historic place along the outer banks tied in with some of the earliest history of North Carolina…. Ocracoke in 1929 cannot be…compared with Ocracoke of today . Here, like almost everywhere else, modernity has broken through the isolation barrier. The airplane and the modern ferry service maintain dependable transportation to and from the outside world.
This route at the time was not as popular with passengers as the daily mail boat out of Atlantic. Because of my convenience to the port at Washington, however, I chose this route. We left Washington about 8 o’clock in the evening and arrived in Ocracoke just as the sun was coming up. Approaching Ocracoke from the west on the Sound, the first visible sign of land is the lighthouse which in the darkness seems to rise out of the water like a huge star. Passengers aboard the freighter availed themselves of the sight that sailors love to see whether approaching from the Sound side or the Atlantic side. The lighthouse is a landmark on the island as well as on the outer banks.
I was awakened in a short while doubtless by some mischievous boy singing something to the tune of the “Old Rugged Cross.” The words as 1 caught them seemed slightly changed: “On a hill far away / Stood and Old Chevrolet.” Since there weren’t but one or two Chevrolets and its kind on the island, it must have been for the most part something the young man dreamed about.
After a somewhat belated breakfast served in a typical Ocracoke atmosphere, I set out to do some exploring. The uniqueness of Ocracoke Island at the time of which I write, could best be known by one who was destined to spend nine months in residence. There was no electricity, no hard surface roads. In fact no roads at all, just paths running off in various directions through the deep sands. There was not a Chevrolet to be seen.
The ecology problem that was gathering momentum [in 1975] in other places was an unknown quantity in these parts. Drinking water, we might say the total usable water supply, was caught from the roofs of the houses and stored in cisterns, during periods of prolonged droughts, neighbor would share with neighbor as his supply allowed. The long-established policy on Ocracoke whether it was water or something else was sharing and “make do.” (see https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/ocracoke-cisterns/ for more information about Ocracoke cisterns. [See https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/ocracoke-cisterns/ for more information about Ocracoke cisterns.]
There were two or three grocery stores with a limited supply of grocery and general merchandise.
Coal, the most used commodity for fuel, was bought in on freight boat out of Washington. This boat that might well be called the life-line, made two round trips a week.
I made contact with Gary Bragg, chairman of the local school board, got a good look at the four-room, dilapidated school building, found a vacant, four-room house that seemed to offer reasonable satisfactory loving quarters and otherwise got myself in readiness for the return trip to Washington on Monday…. There were lots of better places than Ocracoke, but nevertheless it was a place and I was, according to the contract, to receive $l40 per month. [See https://villagecraftsmen.blogspot.com/2017/12/ocracoke-schools.html for more information about Ocracoke schools, although the 1971 schoolhouse was destroyed from flooding during Hurricane Dorian in 2019.]
Lerlene and I were married in the Christian Church in Wendell, a church I had served as pastor a few years previously, on the morning of September 2, 1929. The officiating minister, John Waters, in making his return trip to his home in Wilson, provided us transportation to that point on our way to Ocracoke. We took the A. C. L. train for New Bern where we spent the night in the old Gaston Hotel. The next day we continued our journey to Beaufort and then to Atlantic by bus from which point we took the boat for Ocracoke, arriving there about five o’clock in the afternoon of September 3, 1929. [Because of misdirected luggage, Lerlene] had nothing to wear except that lovely, brown velvet outfit she wore at the wedding. It was appropriate enough for the wedding but when we landed in Ocracoke, still wearing that lovely outfit and stepped into that deep sand, she seemed most inappropriately dressed.
The conventional attire of Ocracoke was a little different from this. At the pier Bill Gaskill stepped forward and greeted Lerlene in a most cordial fashion. He inquired if she were from New York, he evidently thought her dress indicated as much. He was expecting an important guest from that point and surely she looked the part. Mr. and Mrs. Gary Bragg invited us to their home and provided us over-night entertainment.
Ocracoke is today  a resort for the people and a paradise for sportsmen. This little speck of land and its people seem always to be threatened by the monstrous Atlantic on one side and the Pamlico Sound on the other. Its inhabitants numbering little more than one hundred at the time of our residence [actual population in 1929 was about 550), are, for the most part, descendants from ancestors who landed here not necessarily by choice but by chance from wrecks off the coast of the island. Many here have never been off the island.
When we were there the population was all white with exception of one negro family. Integration at this time was not being attempted and the children of this family, because they were colored, did not attend school anywhere.. They were a highly respected family and except for the fact that tradition dictated otherwise [In 1875 a state constitutional amendment established separate schools for black and white children, but there was no school for black children on Ocracoke], I do not believe there would have been any objection to them sharing in the local school facilities. The school provided for the children through the 8th Grade.[See https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/celebrating-life-ocracokes-oldest-resident-muzel-bryant/ for information about Muzel Bryant, the last member of Ocracoke’s historic black family.]
The United States Government maintained a Coast Guard and Lighthouse stations on the island. The lighthouse, built in 1797 [actually, 1823], is one of the oldest lighthouses in America still in active service. Previous to 1930, it was lighted each evening by the keeper who ascended the long flight of steps, using kerosene as fuel. In that year it was converted to electricity. We lived while on the island in a house near the base and enjoyed the rare privilege of having our bedroom lighted each night by the mellow rays from that ancient tower. [See https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/ocracoke-lighthouse/ for more information about the Ocracoke lighthouse]
… One tradition has it that a certain house in the village known as the “Old Pirate House” was the home of Blackbeard, the pirate, and was used as the hiding place for his plunder. This same source has it that at a point in the inlet near the village, locally known as “Teach’s Hole” the buccaneer tarred and caulked his ships….This is also the well authenticated site where Blackbeard met Lieutenant Robert Maynard of the British navy in the fall of 1718 and came to his tragic end.
We have been told on authority of an old document now in the Chowan County courthouse in Edenton, that Ocracoke Island bore the name by which it is now known as far back as 1716, two years before the notorious pirate met his Waterloo. In a rare old volume known as “The History and Lives of All the Most Notorious Pirates and Their Crews” published in London in 1735, Ocracoke Inlet is spelled “Okere-Cock Inlet”.
Among the many legends and traditions that live on this island is one concerning the beautiful daughter of Aaron Burr, Theodosia Burr Alston. It is well known that she lost her life aboard a ship somewhere along the eastern coast. The legend persists locally though not strongly supported by evidence, that she was rescued from a wrecked ship near Ocracoke and lived on the island until her death.
Ocracoke was settled [by Europeans] in the 17th century [more likely, the early 18th century]. In those years before the War between the States, Ocracoke became an important port of entry. Large storage warehouses were maintained here during the 1700s. Perhaps the most famous was on Shell Castle, a small island, of shell rock in the inlet, owned in that earlier day by John Gray Blount, landowner and merchant prince. A pitcher in the Blount Collection in the Hall of History in Raleigh, bears a sketch of Shell Castle.
At Shell Island ships were loaded with cargoes of tar, pitch and turpentine and returned with staple products and manufactured articles. After the royal Governor, Josiah Martin, had been forced out of the colony, he wrote the following to his home government from New York: “The contemptible port of Ocracoke … has become a great channel of supply to the rebels while the more considerable ports of the Continent have been watched by the King’s ships.” He then added: “Commodore Hotham the Naval Commander…will no doubt take all proper measures for shutting up the avenue of succor to the rebels.”
Portsmouth Island, across the inlet one mile south of Ocracoke was in that earlier period also a much-used port. Boats from many countries loaded and unloaded cargo here and, before the Civil war, became a resort for rich planters from the mainland. Fort Granville, built here by the Confederates in 17!3 and burned by them after the fall of Ocracoke, marked the beginning of the decline of Portsmouth Island, The hospital and prison, maintained here by the Federals until after the War, were also destroyed without leaving a trace. [You can read about the hospital here: https://www.villagecraftsmen.com/north-carolinas-first-hospital/.] In 1938, the Coast Guard Station, built in early 1890s, had its garrison removed. Today  Portsmouth is hardly more than a barren stretch of sand. Two families of the old-timers are left and these stubbornly refuse to leave their native hearth but obviously their days are numbered.
The sea through the years has taken its toll of life and many are the families on Ocracoke left without a husband, father or brother as a result of tragic misfortunes of the sea. Here boys grow up hardly knowing anything else but marine life; they enlist in the navy, merchant marine or engage in the business of fishing, the means of a livelihood they know best. The sad fate of Jim Baugham Gaskill, the youngest son of Bill and Annie Gaskill, owners and operators of the Pamlico Inn, is one of the latest names to be added to the long list. When we were at Ocracoke Jim Baugham was about 13 years of age. He was a kind of helper around the Inn. He had an attractive personality and was a favorite of everyone on the island. After we moved away we lost contact with the island and its people. After a few years we began to hear about the sad fate that overtook this young man. Jim Baugham inherited the true spirit of the hearty seafarer, that of courage and daring. ….
In December, 1941, when the Japanese made their treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, Jim Baugham was 25 years of age and had already earned his master’s license and was a qualified and experienced ship captain. Jim offered his service to the Merchant Marine and was accepted. He was assigned to the vessel, the Caribsea. It was on this vessel that Captain Jim Gaskill sailed southwardly in early March. Passing a few miles east of Ocracoke, he must have had thoughts of home and loved ones. A storm of violent proportions swept the coast on March 11, wreaking havoc and doing damage to an extent that will never be known. One thing is known: Captain Jim Gaskill lost his life aboard the ship, Caribsea either as a result of the storm or of an attack by an enemy submarine.
It was while the father was checking the damage done to his pier and the boats alongside, that he spied a piece of timber some eight or ten feet in length and possibly two feet wide. It possibly attracted his interest more because it jutted against one of the boats than because of its size. In his effort to propel it away from the wharf in the hope that the tides would take it out to sea, the offending board flipped and Bill Gaskill found himself looking at the bold letters that had until now been hid from his view, “Caribsea.” It was the name plate from the ship on which his son Jim Baugham Gaskill had sailed. Later official information confirmed the fact that Jim had lost his life when the Carib Sea was torpedoed and sunk. Further evidence of the tragedy was made known that very afternoon when Jim Baugham’ s older brother while walking along the ocean’s shore came across the door from the pilothouse of Caribsea. Attached to the door were the licenses of several of the officers of the Caribsea and among them the license of Captain James Gaskill. The tragedy of the Caribsea is matched by the strangeness of the turbulent sea bringing these two tokens over the many miles, past other inlets and ports and depositing them at the very point where members of the brave young captain’s family would find them. Later word from the War Department confirmed the sad intelligence that the ocean had already made known. Today there rests upon the altar of the United Methodist Church in the village of Ocracoke, a beautiful gold-colored cross. At the base of the cross one reads the following inscription: “IN MEMORY OF CAPT. JAMES B. GASKILL. JULY 2, 1916. MARCH 11, 1942. THIS CROSS CONSTRUCTED FROM SALVAGE OF THE SHIP UPON WHICH CAPTAIN GASKILL LOST HIS LIFE.” Here on Sunday the congregation offers its worship to a good God even as they sing the words of the glorious old hymn:
“For all the danger on the stormy deep,
For all who ‘neath their billows sleep,
Great God of wave and wind and sky
Thy boundless mercy now we seek.”
Our venture in housekeeping on Ocracoke had novelty all its own. Getting your water for household use out of a cistern and during droughts, trying to make it last until the next rainstorm, is something everyone on the island is accustomed to. The two local stores carried a fairly good line of staple groceries but other than this everything else had to be brought in by special order with the captain of the freight boat, this included fresh meat except of course what could be secured out of the water. Vegetables could be grown very well in local gardens. Every lump of coal, and this was at the time the only fuel used for heating the houses, had to come in via freight boat on special order. Strange as it may seem, nobody on the island out of any neighborly or commercial concern against the day of need, chose to lay in a supply to be retailed out to the residents. All coal had to be sacked and handled much as one would handle a sack of sugar. Several days were required to complete the operation.
The nine months we spent on Ocracoke Island were filled with unforgettable experiences: the kindness of the neighbors in supplying us with sea food from their abundant supply; the storm that swept across the island leaving it flooded with water, even necessitating me taking off my shoes and wading in bare feet to reach home; the mistaken report of Henry Betts [the youngest of Rev. W. A. Betts’s children] one day that the school house was on fire, exciting much false alarm. Perhaps the one figure we remember above the others is “Aunt Mame Harris.” She lived alone in her quaint little cottage a short distance from ours. Perceiving that we were unacquainted with Ocracoke ways, she somewhat informally adopted us. Her giant fig trees, loaded with fruit, were skillfully converted into the most excellent, preserves under the guidance of “Aunt Mame.” [Mary Ann (Mame) Gaskins Harris was born in 1876, never attended school, operated a boarding house, was widowed, and had no children.]
We missed her frequent visits that became less frequent when she went with Bill Gaskill at the Pamlico Inn. Here her culinary skill added something distinctive to the famous meals served in the dining room of the well-known Inn.
Perhaps the only time Lerlene’s parents were over-night guests in our home was while we were at Ocracoke. Never having visited the outer banks, and, of course being somewhat curious to know more about our living situation on the Island, they with their younger daughter, Clyde B. Cline, accepted our invitation to visit us during the Thanksgiving vacation. At this time the tobacco crop had been harvested and sold and it was the best possible time to get away from the chores of caring for the farm animals for a short period. November, their favorite month, usually brought excellent weather. Everything having been looked after and the preparations all made, the party of three left Wendell in the Browns new Buick, early on Wednesday morning, Thanksgiving Eve, 1929. They arrived in Atlantic where the parked the car and caught the mail boat for Ocracoke. The day of their arrival was one of those perfect fall days. We met them at the pier and escorted them on foot through the deep sand to our cottage. Sleeping accommodations being somewhat limited in our cottage, Lerlene and I accepted the kind invitation of Aunt Mame and found lodging at her house while our guests took over our cottage.
The radio, just coming into popular use, gave us no information about the hurricane approaching from the northeast. No detailed weather reports were given out at that time by the weather bureau. Thanksgiving dawned bright and clear. Since our honored guests had little love for fishing, the one sport in which Ocracoke excelled, we resorted to the only type of entertainment that was left: walking excursions over the island.
Sometimes walking through deep sand was not an exciting pastime, but we heard no complaint. In the afternoon the overcast blotted out the sun and soon dark and threatening clouds began to appear. But change in the weather and often without warning, is the accustomed and expected thing on Ocracoke. The natives keeping a close watch on the barometer as they are wont to do, noticed an unusual drop along with the temperature. The increasing velocity of the wind and the torrents of rain left no doubt but that we were in for a storm. Naturally enough the Browns as well as the rest of us were thinking about that trip back to Wendell and all of the water that lay in between.
Because of the weather we were not even sure that the mail boat would make the trip and it does take bad weather to make the old mariners on the island to change their schedule. We learned, however, that unless conditions got worse, the mail boat would make its usual trip. Our guests seemed to share the indomitable spirit of the natives. They would not listen to any suggestion that the return trip be delayed. The home and the animals back home were left for only a short time. It was urgent that they get back on schedule if at all possible. When the boat pulled up to the pier that early morning hour, it was still dark. While the wind had somewhat subsided, it was still a threatening and dangerous situation. With some difficulty our three departing guests were able, with the help that was given, to get aboard the boat. Almost without any formal good-by they were off in the darkness and the raging waters of the Pamlico Sound. We were left with only a hope and a prayer.
The good captain, brave and courageous from many other similar experiences, took on that particular morning the indirect course which meant a deeper penetration of the Sound and thus further away from the rougher waters of the inlet. This route, he said offered greater safety.
When the Browns arrived home which they did with the help of the Lord and many in between, they found as they had feared, that the storm had not left the interior of the state without damage…. There were many reasons why the trip to Ocracoke was a memorable one.
The school on the island was part of the Hyde County administrative unit although neither I nor my teachers, because of the transportation problem, ever attended a meeting of the school personnel of the County. The County Superintendent made what he thought would be a short visit to our school during the year, but because of a storm the trip was prolonged over two or more days. In a sense the island was separate and apart from the rest of the county in both the school and law enforcing areas. There was no peace officer on the island; no cop or sheriff was available unless called and transported from the county seat, Swan Quarter. Surprisingly enough lawlessness was not a problem. Ocracoke in those days was sometimes referred to as a “Sportsman’s Paradise” which it might have been in spite of the unsportsmanlike sportsman. Blackbeard in his day found it a good hide-a-way spot. Perhaps no place along the outer banks offered more seclusion and freedom from molestation by the law than did Ocracoke. Many of the sportsmen when they came brought along their drink against the possibility that such was not available on the island and to make sure that their stay conformed to the sportsman’s ideal of a real vacation. This is not said with any disrespect to the natives but merely to point up the fact that a situation of this kind did exist. I saw and knew very little about what went on in the sportsmen’s circle. I discovered, however, when there was a program and a gathering of people at the school that, for the school-house area at least, the principal was expected to enforce the peace and maintain order.
We left Ocracoke after the close of school to move again in another circle, one that was still in the pinch of the depression. …
We left Ocracoke via the freight boat to Washington. The Browns met us at this point. They said this was as near as they wanted to go to Ocracoke. That visit they made at Thanksgiving was still vivid in their minds. We missed the life on the island that we had become accustomed to: the light house, the mail boat, the gulls, the neighbors that had been kind to us. We had learned to feel at home with the congregation at the Methodist church.
Escaping from the confines of Ocracoke Island was, I suppose, somewhat like escaping from prison. It was good to be back on the mainland where there was plenty of space.
Earlier this summer I had the good fortune of meeting Dave Crow and his family. Dave’s father, William A. Crow, served as the pastor of the Ocracoke Methodist Church from May, 1936 to November, 1938. Sixty years later Rev. Crow recounted his memories of living on the island as a young, unmarried minister. He tells about funeral practices:
To bury somebody on the island was a little different in a way. Some boat builders built a coffin, and the women lined it with cotton and silk, and that afternoon we had a funeral. The hole dug to bury the casket left the top of the casket just level with the ground. To go any deeper than that was to run into the water, and the water would just float that casket right back up to the level of the ground. So we just piled dirt up on it and made a mound.
Rev. Crow then goes on to relate the following story about the one time his mother came to visit:
Miss Bessie Howard (1892-1970) took my mother around over the island. One place she took my mother was to the cemetery, and described to her how when people died on the island, you had the funeral the same day, and you buried the casket just level with the ground. When mother came back after that visit, she started feeling bad, she just didn’t feel good. I think maybe her stomach hurt, her head hurt, she was dizzy, she had all sorts of symptoms. They got so bad I had to call my friend Murray Tolson to see if he would take us to Atlantic…Morehead City…somewhere. I think he took us to Morehead City.
But the interesting thing was that as soon as we got on the mainland at Morehead City, my mother said, “William, would you like to go to a movie?”
Well, evidently what had made my mother feel so bad was hearing that if you died you got buried the same day in a casket that was just level with the ground.
Anyway, Mother never did come back to see me after that.