My Ocracoke: Life Amidst 250 Years of Family History

(The following article is reprinted from the Outer Banks Magazine, Volume 4, 2016.)

Story by Philip Howard
Photographs by Daniel Pullen

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 dinner.

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 courtesy.

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 narrow channels.

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 inside.

“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.