Jacob Gaskill was two years old in 1787 when his father, Benjamine, died. He was sixteen when his mother, Jane Williams Gaskill, died. At age 22 (in 1807) he married Ann Scarborough. Together they had ten children. In 1827 Jacob was also appointed guardian of his wife’s three nephews who were left orphans at the deaths of Ann’s brother, George, and his wife Polly O’Neal. Five years later, in 1832, Ann died, leaving Jacob with thirteen children to care for.
Jacob Gaskill, by all accounts, was an upstanding citizen at this time. He was Ocracoke’s Justice of the Peace, and seems to have been fairly well off. His large, two-story home, lathed in plaster, faced Pamlico Sound and sat on a sizable tract of land “down point.” In 1822 he sold, for $50.00, a three acre parcel of this land “for the purpose of enabling [the United States and their agent, Joshua Taylor] to construct and keep up a light house thereon.”
Fifteen years later, five years after his wife died, and two days before his fifty-second birthday, on March 1, 1837, Jacob Gaskill was involved in an argument with his neighbor and first cousin, Willis Williams. (Jacob’s father had married Jane Williams, sister to Willis’ father, Benjamin.)
It is said that Jacob went to talk with Willis on that fateful day, presumably in an official capacity, as Justice of the Peace. In an unrelated legal petition drafted two years earlier it is noted that whereas homes and businesses had, until then, been concentrated on the southern side of Cockle Creek, the “population of Ocracoke have greatly increased.”
The petition points out that “where formerly [on the north side of Cockle Creek] there was no store, there is now three.” These were T.S. Blackwell’s store, John Pike’s store, and Willis Williams” store and tavern (located near where the present-day Coast Guard station stands). The petition of 1835 indicates that there was some strife in the village and even mentions “evil disposed persons who are always ready to meddle with every persons business but there own.”
Although neither Willis Williams nor Jacob Gaskill was involved with the 1835 petition, it may be fair to assume that there were other rivalries in the village. In this case they may have been between the folks who lived on the northern side of the “pond” (called “creekers” and including Willis Williams), and those who lived on the southern side (called “pointers” and including Jacob Gaskill).
So it seems that Willis and Jacob came to harsh words, possibly about property lines, rights of way, or some other land dispute….or some other issue. It is said that in the course of the argument Willis called Jacob a “god-damned son of a bitch.”
Jacob turned away and started towards his home, “Don’t be standing there when I come back,” he is reported to have told his cousin. Jacob retrieved his musket, and returned to find Willis exactly where they had been arguing. Willis was standing in the path, blocking passage. According to oral history, Willis Williams was holding his arms up in the air (perhaps as an act of defiance). That’s when Jacob shot his cousin in the left side of his neck. Willis Williams died instantly.
Ellen Marie Fulcher Cloud has researched this tragedy extensively. According to her, older members of the community had heard that Jacob and Willis were “fighting over a ditch which separated their property.” But Ellen Marie could find no record of the two men ever having adjoining property.
Eventually Ellen Marie discovered an old map of Ocracoke which was part of the John Herritage Bryan collection. Mr. Bryan was a lawyer from New Bern, NC. The undated map, not drawn to scale, nevertheless gives clues to the murder of Willis Williams. Apparently entered as evidence in the trial of Jacob Gaskill, the map shows the home of J. Gaskill. In addition to the three stores mentioned above, and homes (along with distances), the mapmaker drew the footpath which ran from Jacob Gaskill’s house to a footbridge across the “canal” joining the “Pond” (later known as “Cockle Creek” or “Silver Lake.”) to Pamlico Sound, and thence past Willis Williams’ store and tavern to John Pike’s store.
A figure is shown on the bridge, apparently facing south, in the direction of Jacob Gaskill’s home. As Ellen Marie points out, the canal over which this bridge passes is the same narrow passageway used today by the state-run ferries and all other boats for access to Silver Lake. Today, as for generations of Ocracokers, it is known simply as “the ditch.” The bridge has been long gone.
It seems that the dispute took place on the bridge “over the ditch” on the way between Jacob Gaskill’s home and Willis Williams’ businesses. In addition to a land or property dispute we may be justified in wondering if alcoholic beverages may have played a role as well.
Understandably, there seem to have been strong emotions surrounding the arrest and trial of Jacob Gaskill. Jacob, who pleaded “not guilty,” believed that he could not obtain a fair trial in Cartaret County (in 1837 Ocracoke Island was in Cartaret County). In fact the sheriff testified that the county jail was “insufficient for the safe keeping of the prisoner unless he be personally confined in irons” with a “suitable guard.” This was done, and Jacob Gaskill was moved to the custody of the sheriff of Hyde County.
Interestingly, there is some speculation that Willis Williams, who had lived for a time on the mainland (in Hyde County; and whose wife, Dorcas Credle, was from there), may have been involved in several disputes there. He also fathered at least one illegitimate child which may have contributed to further ill feelings. Jacob Gaskill probably knew that he stood a better chance of a lenient sentence in a jurisdiction that was known to look somewhat unfavorably on his victim.
In the spring of 1837, in Hyde County, Jacob Gaskill was tried and convicted of “felonious slaying.” He was not found guilty of murder. Nevertheless, as punishment he was branded on the palm of his hand with the letter “M”. He was never sent to prison. In 1840 he is listed in the Ocracoke census, along with his children.
As an interesting side note, six months after the trial the steamboat HOME wrecked on Ocracoke beach. At that time John Pike was Justice of the Peace and Wreck Master. In a dispute with William Howard (grandson of William Howard who purchased the island in 1759) over their respective actions during rescue and salvage operations, William Howard accused John Pike, “through his influence and money” of rescuing “a murderer from the gallows merely for the sake of gain.” Presumably this refers to John Pike’s involvement in the murder trial of Jacob Gaskill.
In 1845 Jacob married again, this time to Chloe Daniels of Wanchese, NC, and they had one daughter, Mary Frances, born in 1846.
Jacob Gaskill is said to have kept his branded hand virtually hidden for the rest of his life. He refused to shake hands. He also constantly “gnawed” at the “M” to erase the constant reminder of a deed he most likely rued until the day he died.
Willis Williams’ grave was washed out by a hurricane many years ago. His son, Nathaniel Chase Williams, Sr. had this inscription put on his father’s grave marker:
O reader stay and cast an eye
Upon this grave wherein I lie
For cruell death has chalenged me
A short time will call on thee.
I was in perfect health one day
No doubt you will read with Sorrow
And I was killed before the night
Prepare yourselves to follow.