Recently a former resident of Ocracoke asked me if I would write a newsletter about the old Howard cemetery on British Cemetery Road.  I immediately realized that there is much there to write about.  I hope this overview will provide our readers with a broader appreciation of the cemetery and some of our island history.

The Old Howard Cemetery:

(Click on picture to see larger image.)

William Howard, Sr. became the island’s last colonial owner when he purchased Ocracoke Island in 1759.  He was the first owner to make Ocracoke his home. No one knows where he came from or who his parents were, although he was born ca. 1700. Some think he hailed from the mainland of eastern North Carolina.  Other family stories suggest that he may have been in St. Mary’s county, Maryland between 1740 and 1759.  Perhaps that was his home, if not his birthplace.

Other information indicates that Ocracoke’s William Howard may have been the same William Howard who served as quartermaster to Blackbeard the pirate in 1718.  The quartermaster was captured in Virginia in the Spring of 1718, convicted, and sentenced to hang.  Fortunately for him the king’s “Act of Grace” arrived in Williamsburg the day before his execution, and he was released.  He disappeared and never rejoined his pirate captain.  Thus he was spared the gallows….or death in the bloody battle at Ocracoke Inlet in November of 1718.

Perhaps Quartermaster Howard migrated to Maryland after his release in Virginia, and eventually, four decades later, made his way back to Ocracoke where Blackbeard and his crew had frequently anchored.  Or maybe it was his son or grandson who settled on Ocracoke.  We may never know William Howard’s true background and history. However we do know that he died sometime after 1794.  Jonathan Price, in his 1795 map and article, “A Description of Occacock Inlet,” writes that about thirty families were living on the island, and that one of the “original proprietors” had reached his “ninetieth year” and did not “appear to feel any of the infirmities of age.”  This was undoubtedly William Howard, Sr.

We also know that William Howard fathered three children by his first wife, Elizabeth (George, William, Jr., and Susannah). He fathered three more children by his second wife, Susanna (Abigail, Wallace, and Simon).

Susannah Howard married Francis Jackson and they began a long line of Jacksons on Ocracoke.  Abigail married a Williams, another traditional island name. Wallace and Simon never married or had children.

All of the Howards of Ocracoke Island thus trace their ancestry to either William Jr. or George.

William Jr.’s descendants settled along Howard Street and many are buried there beside the sandy lane, in several family graveyards surrounded by picket fences.  A number of William Jr.’s descendants still live along Howard Street, or nearby.

George Howard and his family are buried in the Howard cemetery on British Cemetery Road.  George may have been the first son of William Howard, Sr.  Born in 1749, he lived the majority of his life on Ocracoke Island, and died there in 1806.  His grave is the oldest in the cemetery.  To my knowledge it is the oldest marked grave on the island.  Older graves, including his parent’s, were almost certainly designated with wooden markers which have rotted away and/or been carried away by storm tides over the years.

George Howard was married to Ann (last name unknown).  She is buried beside her husband near the front, left side of the cemetery. According to her tombstone, she was born in 1724, and died in 1841.  Her family, not wanting anyone to think the stonecutter had made a mistake, added these words to her stone: “Aged 117 years.”  Her epitaph continues, ” Lo! the prisoner is released, Lightened of her fleshly load, Where the weary are at rest.  She is gathered unto God.”

Whether or not Ann Howard was actually born in 1724 and lived to be 117 years old we will never know.  But clearly her family believed her to be that old.

Ann Howard’s Tombstone:

Ann Howard

(Click on picture to see larger image.)

Besides George and Ann, nine other Howards are buried within the weathered picket fence (those in boldface below are children of George and Ann; those in red are their grandchildren):  William (1776 – 1851, son of George & Ann), Agnes (1780 – 1857, William’s wife), George Washington (1814 – 1844, son of William & Agnes), Sarah (1810 – 1828, daughter of William & Agnes), John (1778 – 1832, son of George & Ann), Anne (1777 – 1876, John’s wife), Richard (1810 – 1857, son of John & Anne), Eliza (1812 – 1846, Richard’s wife), and George (1802 – 1831, son of John & Anne).

George and Ann had four other children, Cornelius and George, Jr.,both of whom moved to the mainland, Eliza, who married John Dixon of Portsmouth Island, and Mary Elizabeth.

Eliza Bradley Howard (1808 – 1870), daughter of William and Agnes Howard, married Job Wahab (1802 – 1860).

Eliza Bradley Howard:

Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab

Eliza and Job had fifteen children. Today twenty of the graves in the Howard cemetery bear the Wahab name.  They are, of course, all descendants of George Howard, but the cemetery is now sometimes referred to as the Howard-Wahab cemetery.

Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab’s Tombstone:

Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab

Job Wahab’s Tombstone:

Job Wahab, Sr.

In the right front row of the cemetery, next to Eliza and Job’s graves, lie several of their children.  Some in particular are of special interest.  In his 1956 book, Ocracoke, Carl Goerch includes a chapter entitled “Died Before He Was Born.”  He refers to the gravestone of Warren Wahab, son of Eliza and Job Wahab.  According to Goerch the inscription states that Warren was born in 1855 and died in 1842.

Sure enough, if you walk up to the fence and peer into the cemetery, you will see Warren’s marker, seemingly stating that he died thirteen years before he was born.  This is how Goerch surmises what happened:

“Relatives of Warren Wahab placed an order for the tombstone and had it made in Washington, New Bern or some other town along the coast.  The man who cut the stone either was careless with his figures or else they hadn’t been written very distinctly.  When the stone arrived at Ocracoke, the probabilities are that the error was discovered immediately.  But it would have taken such a long time to get another stone that the family decided to put up this one and have it altered at a later and more convenient date……Weeks passed into months, months passed into years and eventually—-well what’s the use of bothering about it at this late date?”

If you look along the front row you will notice that Warren was one of three of Eliza and Job’s children who all died within seven days in September of 1842. Job died on September 4.  He was seven years old, having been born in 1835.  Jonathan and Warren died on September 11.  A glance at the tombstones will show that both Job and Warren appear to have been born in 1855.  Careful inspection reveals, however, that Job was actually born in 1835, and Warren was born in 1833.

Over time the 3s have weathered to look like 5s.  The difference is most noticeable on Job’s marker.  No stonecutter made any mistake.  Several years ago I had the opportunity to peruse the Wahab family Bible.  Sure enough Warren’s birth date was listed as 1833, and Job’s was 1835.  But Goerch’s story is still bandied about by folks even today.  I suppose it does make an entertaining story.

Job Wahab’s Tombstone (1835 – 1842):

Job Wahab, Jr.

Several other family names are in evidence in the Howard cemetery.  Captain and Mrs. James Best (she is also the daughter of William and Agnes Howard), Susan Farrow (daughter of Richard Howard), Louisa Heggart (daughter of John Howard), as well as a Dailey, a few Gaskins, some Williamses, and a Willis (all kin to the Howards and/or the Wahabs) are laid to rest there.

In addition, baby Eliza Ann Chase, just over one year old, is buried in the Howard cemetery.  She is the daughter of Thyrza Howard (sister of Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab) and Elisha Chase.  Elisha Chase was a sea captain from New England.  He apparently descended from a long line of prominent New Englanders.  Sometime after the death of their daughter in 1824 Elisha decided to give up life at sea, and moved his family to Missouri on a wagon train.  Along the way Elisha and Thyrza fell ill with fevers, and Thyrza died.  She was buried along the trail.  When Elisha recovered he said he had medicines that he believed would have cured them both, but no one else knew about them.  Descendants of Elisha Chase and Thyrza Howard Chase still live in the mid-west today.

The most recent grave is that of Myra Wahab who died in 2003.  She is interred beside her husband, Robert Stanley Wahab, who died in 1967.  Stanley, born in 1888, was the son of James Hatton Wahab and Martha Ann Howard Wahab.  Hatton was a surfman in the Cedar Hammock (Hatteras Inlet) Life Saving Station, and Stanley attended school there as a youngster. Stanley went to sea as a young man, then enrolled in Goldey Commercial College.  He returned to Ocracoke and spent much of his energy promoting the island as a tourist destination.  Among other things, in 1936 he built the Wahab Village Hotel (now Blackbeard’s Lodge, today owned and operated by a descendant).

Stanley was fond of explaining that the Ocracoke Wahabs (Wahab rhymes with “Day Crab”) were all descended from a shipwrecked Arab sailor.  That may be, but it is more likely that the Wahabs are part of the Scottish Wahab (Wauchope, Wauchop, or Waughop) family.  Of course, the story of the Arab sailor is much more colorful!

Tombstones in the Howard Cemetery:

(Need Photo)

The next time you are riding your bike by the old Howard cemetery, stop for a few minutes and look over the fence.  Notice the tombstones for Ann and George Howard; Eliza Bradley and Job Wahab; Jonathan, Warren, & Job Wahab; Eliza Ann Chase, and others.

Island graveyards contain quite a bit of history, especially if you know what to look for.


September Greetings from Ocracoke Island!

We recently received the following email from one of our island visitors, Patrick Crockett:

“I thought you folks might be interested in these two weather photos from the end of June — I think they were taken on the afternoon of the 26th, 27th or 28th. First, a rainbow; then about 30 minutes later, a waterspout (looked to be on the ocean side of the island, but it moved across to the sound).”

Rainbow at Oyster Creek


Waterspout over Ocracoke

Many thanks to Patrick for sharing his photos with us.  Ocracoke Island and her people have always had a close connection with the weather.  Sometimes the weather is severe, but so far the island has fared rather well, even during the late summer, early fall hurricane season.  We hope this year remains storm free, as it has the last two years.

This month I share with you an Ocracoke story that captured the attention of island children of a generation or two ago.  I hope you enjoy it.

Old Diver
© Philip Howard, 2002

Before the middle of the twentieth century the road that passed by the old Howard and Williams graveyards on Ocracoke Island was an unpaved sand lane.  Trees and thick underbrush surrounded the graves and even in daylight the area seemed mysterious and fearsome. At night it was ominously dark and foreboding.  Moonlight shining on the ancient, moss-covered live oaks would cast eerie shadows across the stone markers.

During World War II a British vessel, the H.M.S. Bedfordshire, was torpedoed off shore.  No one survived, but the bodies of four of the British seamen washed ashore on Ocracoke’s beach.  The story of their burial next to the Williams graveyard is well known on the island.  To this day an annual ceremony, attended by British and American dignitaries, honors the ultimate sacrifice made by these men and others like them during the war years.

Another grave also lies nearby.  This small unmarked plot contains the remains of an Irish sailor, Augustus Abner McGuire.  But this man lost his life, not because of war, but because of an accident at sea.

The date was September 23, 1913.  McGuire was a diver aboard a Norwegian ship which sprang a leak while passing off shore of Ocracoke Island. The captain sent McGuire down to inspect the damage.  He descended a second time, intending to repair the puncture.  It soon became apparent to his support crew on deck that something had gone dreadfully wrong. Some suspect that the boy in charge of the pump and air hose walked away, leaving McGuire without oxygen.  Others think McGuire had a heart attack.  At any rate when he was pulled to the surface they found him unresponsive. The captain and crew did all they could for McGuire, but to no avail.

Instead of conducting a burial at sea, Captain Weatherspoon decided to contact David Williams who was in charge of the Ocracoke Lifesaving Station.  Keeper Williams secured land for a single gravesite just outside his own family graveyard.

Augustus McGuire’s Unmarked Gravesite:
Old Diver Grave

The Methodist preacher was informed and he arranged for a simple but dignified funeral for Augustus McGuire.  A choir was hastily called together and the captain and crew were joined by sympathetic islanders who gathered on that September afternoon to pay their last respects to a man they never knew.

A cedar post was placed at the head of the grave and McGuire’s diving boots at the foot, among yaupon and myrtle bushes.  They remained there for years, in silent testimony to another life lost at sea.  Eventually the post deteriorated, and the boots were removed.

With time some of the details of Augustus McGuire’s fate faded from memory, but his story was reinvented.  “Old Diver,” as he came to be called, became a symbol of mystery and suspense, especially for the island children.  Older boys would often hide behind the Howard family tombstones and wait for unsuspecting younger children to venture by.  The ghost of Old Diver, imagined still attired in his cumbersome suit and brass and glass helmet, was invoked to send the youngsters scampering away in fear.

Eventually a mantra was established.  As children approached McGuire’s grave they would chant, “Old Diver, Old Diver, what do you say?”  After a poignant pause, they would intone, in a deep, somber, and drawn-out voice “And…he…says……..’Nothing.’”

Older residents remember clearly, as children, running as fast as they could through the sandy lane to avoid the ghost of Old Diver.  Even today there are those who walk warily past this spot.

Today, the grave is unidentified.  No post or stone marks the spot.  One of the diving boots, however, is on display in the David Williams house, now the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum.

Old Diver’s Boot
Old Diver Boot

The road has been widened and paved.  In the age of tourism, automobiles and mercury vapor lights not everyone remembers the story of Augustus McGuire, and children sometimes ignore Old Diver as they pass by, even in the dark of night.  But those who risk a glance in the right direction, beyond the last row of graves in the old family cemeteries, and especially when the moon is full, often report seeing the glint of a reflection from the glass face plate on Old Diver’s helmet.

In 1994 Augustus McGuire’s granddaughter, Patricia McGuire Hospador, visited Ocracoke from her home in New Jersey.  Although she knew about her grandfather’s accident at sea, and that he was buried on the island, she knew little else. Until her visit, few on the island remembered Old Diver’s real name, or the story of his death.

Today, there is talk of placing a new marker at Augustus McGuire’s grave. It will be fitting tribute to Mrs. Hospador’s grandfather, and to a unique island legend.

Mrs. Hospador was kind enough to share a letter from W.P. Small, M.D., who was serving Ocracoke in 1913, and who sent a letter of condolence to McGuire’s widow.  A transcription follows:
Ocracoke, North Carolina
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 1913

Mrs. Augustus A. McGuire,

I was called yesterday to render aid if possible to your husband, but found upon examination that he had expired some time previously.  The ship upon which he was employed having received a puncture in her hull, the crew, in charge of Capt Weatherspoon, were endeavoring [to] repair the leak.

Mr. McGuire went down in a diving suit, made an examination, remaining under water only a few moments.   He repaired to go down again—but Capt. Weatherspoon urged him not to as he seemed nervous and fatigued—but he persisted in his purpose to go down again.  Getting into the diving suit he descended.  At the end of about three minutes the men at the life line thought they received a signal to pull him up which they did promptly.  His arms were hanging by his side, denoting an unconscious or helpless condition.  The glass in the helmet was instantly broken to give him air.  The helmet and suit [were] removed but Mr. McGuire was dead—heart disease had caused his death.

The officers and crew of the ship did all in their power to revive him but in vain.  The diving apparatus was tested before being used—and found to be in perfect condition.

All this I learned on my arrival to the ship a short while after Mr. McGuire was brought up, from Capt. Weatherspoon, Mr. McCoy, the chief engineer, and others.

Great regret and sympathy were felt and shown by all on board.

No embalming could be obtained as it was Capt. Weatherspoon’s desire and intention to ship the body to his house, so the body was buried here, on this island.

Great respect and sympathy were shown by the people here.  The Methodist minister, Mr. Earnhart, conducted the funeral service, assisted by a volunteer choir of ladies and gentlemen.

The burial took place at the end of a beautiful day—the sun low in the West shed a soft light over the beautiful green foliage.  Nature seemed in accord with the sad but beautifully simple service.  As the last sod fell on the resting place of the deceased the choir sang “Blest Be the Tie that Binds Our Hearts in Christian Love.”

The body lies in a beautiful spot shaded by the evergreen foliage of the live oaks, a fit resting place for the best of us.

I have written this as a brother Mason knowing that our deceased brother was a member of that order in good standing.

Capt. Weatherspoon is ready to ship the body to his house, at a suitable time if you so desire.

And in closing let me assure you that everything that was possible for human beings to do was done in an intelligent and sympathetic manner, both to preserve his life and afterward to lay his body to rest.

Very respectfully yours,
W.P. Small, M.D.

P.S.  I enclose a sprig of evergreen which I took from the wreath of flowers placed upon [his] casket by sympathetic friends.


Until next time, all the best to you from,

Philip and the gang at Village Craftsmen