Life amidst 250 years of family history
August 21, 2016
(The following article is reprinted from the Outer Banks Magazine, Volume
Story by Philip Howard
Photographs by Daniel
At one time nearly every house on Ocracoke had a porch, or as islanders
call it, a pizer (from the Italian piazza), where family and neighbors
gathered in the evening to visit and share stories.
My grandparents’ 1865 “story and a jump” cottage with
a pizer sits along a narrow, sandy lane in Ocracoke village. The modest
front porch complements the house’s white clapboard siding and
crimson trim. A traditional wooden porch swing hangs from the rafters.
Hand-hewn “knees” salvaged from a wrecked sailing vessel
hold the floor joists in place.
A distinctive feature of an island story and a jump house is the
addition of small upstairs windows that open under the roof of the
pizer. Many a summer evening, as a youngster, I would lie on the
bedroom floor with my ear to those windows, listening as Grandmama
Aliph hummed a tune while peeling shrimp, or eavesdropping on uncles
and aunts as they related exciting stories about shipwrecks and
hurricanes or laughed about making meal wine. If I was lucky I would
hear a ghost story, maybe the one about Old Diver who haunts the George
Howard cemetery, or the one about Mad Mag and the cat she cooked for
Today I am fortunate to live in this historic home, and it is a rare
evening from spring through fall that I do not relax on the pizer,
often with family and friends. Not far away are dozens of my
family’s cemeteries, houses that belonged to a host of relatives,
and the Methodist Church my grandfather helped build. Directly across
the lane is where my Uncle Marvin and Aunt Leevella lived. Marvin
Howard, who was born in my house in 1897, was the second child of Homer
and Aliph O’Neal Howard. Like so many island men before him, he
followed the sea for his living.
For generations, the sea was an important element in the lives of
island natives. William Howard, the progenitor of our Ocracoke family,
was born in coastal North Carolina in 1686. He went to sea as a young
man, and by early 1717 he was associating with Benjamin Hornigold, an
odious Bahamian pirate captain. Just a few months later Howard was
sailing with Edward Teach, soon to go down in history as the notorious
Blackbeard. After obtaining command of the Queen Anne’s Revenge
and making it his flagship, Blackbeard assigned William Howard as his
quartermaster, the senior officer and chief representative for the
pirate captain and crew. Together they attacked many a ship and
plundered cargoes of untold value.
In the summer of 1718, several months after receiving a royal pardon
for acts of piracy, William Howard traveled to southeastern Virginia,
where Gov. Alexander Spotswood had him jailed for violating his pardon
by continuing “to Perpetrate his wicked and Pyratical designs at
sundry times and places…with…Edwd Tach and other [of]
their Confederates and associates.”
In October William Howard was sentenced to be hanged. But by an amazing
stroke of luck, the king’s latest “Act of Grace” was
delivered to HMS Pearl, the ship upon which William Howard was
confined, just hours before his scheduled execution. He was released.
Little is known about William Howard’s life or whereabouts for
the next few decades. However, in 1759 a William Howard purchased
“Ye Island of Ocreecock,” containing 2,110 acres, for
£105. He became the first Colonial owner of Ocracoke to make his
home on the island and likely had already been serving as a
ship’s pilot for a number of years. Most researchers believe that
he and William Howard the pirate were one and the same person.
Despite this apparent piratical heritage, most of the Howards of
Ocracoke Island have led exemplary lives and have been involved in the
civic life of the community for more than 250 years. Many distinguished
themselves as early inlet pilots, life-savers, ship captains, sailors
and national military leaders. Others were merchants, carpenters, even
professional musicians. Surprisingly, only a few were fishermen. The
women tended to their children and managed large households.
As a young man, my Uncle Marvin Howard worked up north with the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers, eventually earning his captain’s
license. In 1943, having been promoted to lieutenant colonel, he became
the first Army officer designated commodore of a fleet of armed
merchant vessels sent to Europe. An internal 1948 document described
him as “the best dredge operator in America.” At
retirement, Uncle Marvin returned to his beloved island home and
organized Ocracoke Troop 290, the only mounted Boy Scout troop in the
nation. The boys often stopped by his house just to spend time with
their scoutmaster. He showed them how to tie square knots, sheet bends
and bowlines. He showed them how to groom their ponies, and how to keep
bridles and reins supple. He taught them fairness, honesty and
And he told stories of far-away places, of war, of storms at sea, of
people he’d met, of lessons he’d learned. Marvin
Howard’s impact on the lives of his Scouts was summed up by
former scout Wayne Teeter: “I learned more in Scouts than I ever
did in school.”
At times when I sit on my pizer and gaze down the sandy lane, I imagine
I can see Uncle Marvin gallop by on his spirited Banker pony, Lady, and
Grandpapa Homer, one of the island’s most accomplished horsemen,
who they say could catch a wild pony with his bare hands.
Another Ocracoke Island native and equestrian was Cousin Ira Thomas
Wyche. The son of Lorena Howard and the Rev. L.O. Wyche, Cousin Ira
followed a military career and distinguished himself during World War
II as commander of the 79th Division when he landed his troops on Utah
Beach in Normandy. Gen. Wyche and his division, often in fierce combat,
advanced across Europe, contributing to the defeat of Germany. During
this time Gen. Wyche worked closely with Prime Minister Winston
Churchill and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. He was fond of riding his
thoroughbred horse in training areas while observing troops. At his
retirement, in 1948, Ira Wyche held the rank of Major General.
My house is just a short distance from Howard Street, the lane where my
father, Uncle Marvin, Cousin Ira and many others played as children.
Howard Street is Ocracoke’s most historic unpaved road.
Centuries-old cottages, ancient live oaks and five generations of
Howard family cemeteries, most enclosed by moss-covered picket fences,
line the street. My parents and grandparents are buried there, as are
other ancestors, including my great-grandparents, James and Zilphia
Howard, and eight of their children who died in infancy.
During the Colonial period, and into the mid-19th century, when as many
as 1,400 ships passed through Ocracoke Inlet annually, most island men
earned their living as pilots, sailors who knew the local waters and
were enlisted to guide sailing vessels across the bar and through the
In 1846 a hurricane opened the more navigable Hatteras Inlet, and
shipping soon moved there. A number of Ocracoke pilots followed, but
many descendants of William Howard remained on Ocracoke. With dwindling
opportunities for piloting, young islanders, including my
great-grandfather, James Howard, shipped out on sailing vessels.
In 1883 the United States Life-Saving Service established a station at
Hatteras Inlet on the north end of Ocracoke Island. James Howard was
appointed keeper. Until he retired 20 years later, Capt. Jim and his
six surfmen patrolled the beach, always ready to aid stranded sailors.
One of my most treasured possessions is a bound volume of Capt.
Jim’s original shipwreck reports, submitted between 1883 and
1894. His handwritten accounts employ unconventional spelling but are
elegantly penned, easy to read and lovely to look at.
My grandfather, Homer Howard, followed in his father’s steps,
first serving as a sailor on coastal schooners, later as a life-saver
and finally as a U.S. Coast Guardsman.
When I walk through our family cemeteries I often stop by my
ancestors’ markers to remember how they risked their lives in
storms and hurricanes to rescue hundreds of sailors, most of whom
hailed from distant cities or even other countries. Many were of
different races and spoke foreign languages. My great-grandfather Capt.
Jim and his crew went to their aid without hesitation. Capt. Jim was
well regarded by his superiors, his neighbors and his family. On his
tombstone are these words: “Tis hard to break the tender cord
when love has bound the heart. Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words,
‘We must forever part.’”
Nearby is Edgar Howard’s grave. His tombstone is emblazoned with
a banjo and the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,”
a reference to the days he played the vaudeville circuit with Gene
Autry, Milton Berle and Al Jolson. In retirement, Edgar delighted in
performing at island functions, singing cowboy songs and local ditties,
strumming his banjo and regaling his audience with stories.
Edgar’s life reminds me that the Howards of Ocracoke are
multi-talented and also have a great sense of humor. Uncle Marvin,
especially, loved to have fun and is remembered for many of his antics.
My father, Lawton Howard, was known on the island for his impish humor,
good nature and twinkle in his eye. In the 1960s he worked for the N.C.
ferry division at Hatteras Inlet. One summer afternoon a young couple
pulled into line moments after the ferry had departed. The man asked
Lawton if there was anywhere he could get a glass of water for his
wife, who was pregnant. Lawton invited the couple to follow him into
the port captain's office. He opened the refrigerator door. Two water
jugs, one empty and the other full, rested on a shelf. Lawton took out
the full jug. He left the door ajar, and the husband peered
"Why do you keep an empty jug in your refrigerator?" he asked.
"That's for them that don't want no water," was my father’s reply.
My father’s younger brother, Uncle Homer, was born in 1917. Named
not for his father but for Homer Rodeheaver, popular song leader for
the energetic and influential evangelist Billy Sunday, Uncle Homer is
remembered by all who knew him as an eccentric representative of the 10
generations of Howards who have called Ocracoke home.
After an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1948, Uncle Homer fell on
hard times, often staying with relatives. He worked many unusual jobs
on the mainland, at one time beating the drum for the dancing camel in
a mid-20th-century circus act.
Among my most vivid early memories is the time Uncle Homer came to stay
with us when my father was working on dredges and tugboats in
Philadelphia. I was 10 years old and fascinated with Uncle
Homer’s tattoos of ships, anchors and other nautical themes. With
a conspiratorial smile, Uncle Homer once sat down on the sofa, rolled
up his pants legs and showed me the naked ladies tattooed on his
calves. I was delighted when he flexed his muscles and made the ladies
dance for me.
My house sits on Lawton Lane, a narrow road named for my father. When I
was a child the old kitchen still stood, along with the old water
cistern, connected to the rear of the house by a wooden boardwalk. On
Howard Street, several houses still have their cisterns and detached
summer kitchens. Walking down the street brings back memories of fresh
flounder frying on Grandmama’s wood stove, or visiting Uncle
Stanley and dipping drinking water from his cistern with a whelk shell.
Everywhere on Ocracoke are reminders of my Howard family. On the beach
at the north end are several pilings, all that remains of the 19th
century life-saving station where my great-grandfather and his crew
launched their surf boat. Elsewhere on the beach, wind and waves
periodically uncover timbers from 19th century schooners, silent
witness to tragedy at sea and daring rescues.
My children and grandchildren — the tenth generation of Ocracoke
Howards — love to hear stories about their ancestors. They are
proud to be part of a family that served their country honorably,
braved storms to save the lives of numerous sailors, and helped make
their island community a better place to live. They have also inherited
the Howard sense of humor. They sometimes place an empty water pitcher
on the dining room table and tell guests, “That’s for them
that don’t want no water.” And when the weather is mild the
younger ones often lie on my upstairs bedroom floor, by the low
windows, and listen to the grown-ups on the pizer. They love to hear
the stories, especially the story of Uncle Homer and his dancing ladies.