The first record of a church on Ocracoke Island is in 1828 when the Ocracoke-Portsmouth Circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church was established.  In October, 1769, Joseph Pillmore had been sent from England to parts of Virginia and North Carolina by John Wesley. As one of the first regular itinerant Methodist preachers to visit North America he established societies in Currituck, and either he or one of his followers seems to have preached as far south as Ocracoke.  At any rate, the Methodists had made inroads on the Outer Banks, and a combination school/church was soon erected on Ocracoke Island, across the street from the present Ocracoke School shop building/WOVV radio station. The Reverend J. Atkinson served as pastor.

Only 16 years later, in 1844, a schism in the national body, the Methodist Episcopal Church, erupted over the issue of slavery. At their General Conference, pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions clashed. Pro-slavery forces eventually drafted a Plan of Separation that left the church with two ecclesiastical structures, The Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The latter body met in Louisville, Kentucky in May 1845 to organize their new church. The first General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was held in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1846. The Ocracoke charge, like virtually all other southern Methodist congregations, then came under the care of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

From the beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, when Confederate forces opened fire on a Union garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, Ocracoke residents had conflicted loyalties. As a result of years of profitable schooner traffic along the Eastern seaboard, many Ocracoke natives had established economic and personal ties with residents in northern port cities. Nevertheless, the Outer Banks were in a strategic location and Confederate officers were intent on keeping inlets open to ensure uninterrupted lines of supply to their forces on the mainland. The village of Ocracoke, with its maritime culture, was not as dependent on slave labor as many southern plantations were. As a result, several men from Ocracoke served in the Union army even though most supported and fought for the Confederacy. However, like most Outer Bankers, Ocracoke natives seemed to be more independent than partisan.

On May 20, 1861 North Carolina seceded from the Union. On the same day, volunteers from the mainland began construction of an earthen fort on nearby Beacon Island. In late August of 1861, Union bombardments of Confederate forts Hatteras and Clark along the Outer Banks resulted in Federal control of the area. On September 16, 1861, a Federal detachment vandalized and burned Fort Ocracoke, which had never been fully supplied and which had been abandoned by the few remaining Confederate forces that had not been moved to Fort Hatteras.

Although Ocracoke village (which had neither entrenchments nor guns) was not the target of Federal bombardment, the war caused so much uncertainty that the Reverend R.A. Raven also chose to abandon his Ocracoke charge just a few months after his arrival. This left the island without a pastor for nearly a decade. Since Mr. Raven absconded with a young lady from the Portsmouth church, whom he later married, we may justly wonder if the advancing Federal troops were just an excuse for the young cleric.

Eight years later, in 1869, four years after Lee’s Surrender at Appomattox, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South resumed its care of the Ocracoke charge when it sent the Reverend George E. Wyche to Ocracoke Island. Very likely the congregation had continued to meet under the guidance of lay leaders, although it was said that on his arrival, Mr. Wyche found the charge “demoralized to a great extent.” Local tradition suggests that the “scattered fragments of a once happy church” welcomed their new preacher warmly. Whether the original church building was still standing, had been replaced, or had been abandoned is not known. Perhaps the local congregation had built a new church prior to Mr. Raven’s departure, or maybe a new building was begun after Mr. Wyche’s arrival.

Ocracoke Methodist Church, South, c. 1880


The Methodist Episcopal Church, South continued to meet for almost seventy years, with a succession of four dozen preachers, in three different buildings, the last of which, at least, was situated on Howard Street where Dicey Wells’ home sits today.

Ocracoke Methodist Church, South, c. 1930


On August 21, 1899, a fierce storm ravaged Ocracoke Island. Contemporary reports suggest that the wind velocity exceeded 100 miles per hour. Huge waves broke over the island and the tide rose up to five feet over much of the village. Thirty-three homes were severely damaged and a number of boats were sunk or dashed to pieces against the shore. As a consequence, the handsome Southern Methodist Church, with its arched, stained glass windows and decorative woodwork, sustained considerable damage. The church was soon rebuilt.

One of the last of the “Southern” preachers was the young and handsome, but naïve, Mr. W. A. Tew. Shortly before arriving at his Ocracoke charge he married an attractive young woman. He called on Homer Howard, one of the pillars of the Ocracoke church, for marital advice. Homer returned home with a wide grin on his face. “Aliph,” he told his wife, “Mr. Tew wanted to know ‘what to do!'”

Meanwhile, the Methodist Episcopal Church had sent a representative to Ocracoke in 1883. He conducted religious instruction in a schoolhouse that was located near the old Howard Cemetery (on present-day British Cemetery Road). As a result, a new congregation of the Methodist Episcopal Church was reestablished on the island. Many of the congregants came from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which had become divided. A church was constructed near “Big Ike” O’Neal’s home (on the present-day “Back Road”). Dedicated by the Rev. W.F. Parker, and named Wesley Chapel, it was built from lumber salvaged from a ship wrecked on a nearby reef. The Reverend John Carson was installed as the first pastor in February, 1885.

Wesley Chapel, c. 1930


The Atlantic Mission (later a part of the Blue Ridge Atlantic Conference) was organized on Ocracoke at Wesley Chapel.

Wesley Chapel was washed from its foundation in the 1899 hurricane, but was soon rebuilt. In 1908 an annex was added to accommodate the growing congregation. Other improvements were made a few years later.

Ocracokers have always been known for their quick wit and penchant for short pithy comments. Their observations are often irreverent, sometimes border on the melodramatic, and are frequently hyperbolic. No person, group, or institution, including the church and its representatives, is immune.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century Mr. Winslow Sanderson Bragg was a recognized pillar of the Northern Church. As is often the case, not everyone was overjoyed with Bragg’s leadership style. During an emotion-filled revival at Wesley Chapel one evening the evangelist thundered, “Let’s get together and throw the devil out of this church!” Without a moment’s hesitation one of the congregation stood up and fired back, “Let’s throw Sanderson Bragg out the winder first.”

In the late 1890’s Thaddeus W. Scarborough, Jr., who was stationed off-island in the U.S. Coast Guard, married Mary Wright Jackson, from Ernul, North Carolina. Mary, who was known as “Polly,” soon moved to the island with her new husband and attended the Northern Methodist Church. Polly had been reared in the Christian Church. In 1908, when her daughter, Elizabeth, was seven years old, Polly asked the preacher to baptize Elizabeth by immersion, according to the custom in the Christian Church.

Ocracokers had never participated in a baptism by immersion, but the preacher agreed. Church members and other island residents eagerly anticipated the ceremony. On the appointed Sunday they gathered near the U.S. Coast Guard Station at “The Ditch” (the entrance to Silver Lake Harbor), which at that time boasted an attractive sandy beach. Elizabeth’s baptism by immersion was such a novel and dramatic event for this isolated community that islanders talked about it for many years.

At about the same time, Miss Polly confided in her pastor and his wife that she had impishly divided the young eligible men of the community into three “classes” of desirability. The pastor’s wife let this news slip one day, and soon the entire island was abuzz with the ratings. For years, Clemmie Williams would laugh about how he was put into the “Third Class” while his brother, Dallas, was considered “First Class.”

Wesley Chapel’s sixth pastor, Rev. W. E. West, was known to take a drink now and again. According to Elizabeth Howard, as recounted in Alton Ballance’s book, Ocracokers, “This preacher had a very good delivery. He’d get in the pulpit and be a little under the influence of intoxicating beverages. One woman said that she would much rather hear him preach drunk than hear some sober.”

An open air revival meeting was being held on Hatteras Island and Mr. Leolen Jackson, who had been off-island studying to be a preacher, was home visiting. Mr. West asked Mr. Jackson to take him to the meeting in his skiff. Jackson agreed on the condition that the preacher promise to refrain from strong drink, which he did.

Mr. West preached with enthusiasm and charisma during the revival, bringing many to the Lord. On the last night of the revival preacher West invited his friend, Mr. Jackson, to offer the final prayer. “May all the strong drink be poured into the River Jordan,” he prayed. With that cue, preacher West announced, “We will now stand and sing ‘Shall We Gather at the River.'”

Another of the early pastors of the reestablished Methodist Episcopal Church was Reverend W. H. Luther who hailed originally from New Jersey. When he left the Ocracoke charge Mr. Luther and his wife had two teenage sons. After graduating from high school up north, one of the boys became a police officer in Philadelphia.

Some years later, Ocracoke native Norman Garrish, as so many other islanders, moved to Philadelphia seeking work on dredges and tugboats on the Delaware River. Mr. Garrish approached officer Luther on busy Market Street, unaware of who he was, and asked for directions to the offices of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Recognizing Mr. Garrish from the days he had lived in the Ocracoke parsonage, officer Luther decided to have a little fun and replied, “I don’t think you’re looking for the Army Engineers. I think you must be looking for Mr. Piland’s store*.”

For fifty-four years (from 1883 to 1937) Ocracoke was served by two branches of the Methodist Church. Although the issue of slavery had been the catalyst that originally divided the two national bodies, it seems that the islanders’ differences were of another sort.

Ocracoke islanders in the 20th century rarely talked about the source of local church conflict, so much is speculation, but tradition indicates that the major reason for the division centered around the choir. According to Fannie Pearl Fulcher, who heard the story from her grandmother, “a young singing master” came to the island who “wanted to teach the choir to sing by note.” This was in the early 1880’s. Other islanders remember hearing that church leaders also wanted to replace the older hymn books (which included only the words to songs, not notes) with newer hymnals that included notes. Some members were attracted to singing classes and musical notes while others were not.

According to Fannie Pearl “one Sunday morning a member of the choir locked the church door” after the pro-notes group had assembled. She goes on to say that “those locked out decided to leave the church and organize one of their own. They sent a delegation to Marshallberg, [NC] where there was a Northern Methodist School, to persuade the headmaster, W.Q. A. Graham to come to the island and establish a church.”

Most Ocracokers agree that the two churches’ common local names reflect their geographical locations on the island much more than the larger theological and social issues of the national bodies. Economics also appears to have been a factor in the division, as some of the more well-to-do families could afford lessons to learn the new musical notes, while others could not.


September 15, 2003 – September 23, 2003 

Monday, September 15, 2003

Although no one can confidently predict the course of Hurricane Isabel at this time, the storm is on a track that may include landfall on the Outer Banks sometime on Thursday.

Emergency management personnel have called for an evacuation of Ocracoke Island beginning at 12:30 pm today.

No one on the island is dismissing Isabel, though some residents are choosing to remain in their homes, while others are planning to leave.  The hurricane is still hundreds of miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, and the wind velocity has decreased from 160 mph to 140 mph.

We will keep you informed of developments via this web page as long as power and telephone service are available.

Residents have been taking advantage of the beautiful weather during the last few days to make preparations for Isabel.  People are removing loose objects from their yards and porches, pulling small boats out of the water, and finding areas of higher ground to park their cars and trucks.

Many docks are empty as boats are taken out of the water:

Cars are parked on higher ground whenever possible:

Boats are secured as well as they can be:



Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Island residents are relieved to hear that maximum sustained winds associated with hurricane Isabel are down to 105 mph.  Nevertheless we are bracing for what looks like a direct hit sometime on Thursday.  In the meanwhile the several hundred residents who have chosen to remain on the island have generally finished most or all of their hurricane preparations.

Following are a few more photos.

The ocean beach continues to show modest signs of the impending storm:

Businesses are boarding up their windows:

Rental bicycles stacked on the porch, away from high tides (we hope):



Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 8:30 am

Ocracoke village is very quiet.  About 200-300 residents have elected to remain on the island.  UPS and USPS services have been suspended.  Most businesses are closed.

A light to moderate breeze is blowing as Isabel approaches the coast.  NOAA has issued the following:

Statement as of 6:00 am EDT on September 17, 2003

…Hurricane Isabel Continues Moving Toward The North Carolina Coast…

… Storm information… at 5 am the center of Hurricane Isabel was located about 450 miles south southeast of Cape Hatteras. Isabel was moving north northwest near 9 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 110 mph with higher gusts… making Isabel a category two hurricane.

The center of Isabel is forecast to make landfall as a strong category two hurricane near Ocracoke Inlet around noon on Thursday.

… Wind information… winds along the coast are expected to begin increasing late tonight. By sunrise tomorrow winds could be as high as 50 mph on the immediate coast. The highest winds will be near the center of the Isabel. The center is expected to cross the coast around noon with winds of over 100 mph.

… Overwash on Highway 12… some beach erosion is likely today along the Outer Banks. Ocean overwash is likely on Highway 12 on the Outer Banks… especially around high tide which will occur shortly after noon.

Storm surges on the Outer Banks are expected to be around 6 to 8 feet on Thursday.

Additional information can be found on at




Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 4:00 pm

Winds are beginning to pick up this afternoon.  Gusts are probably as high as 25 mph, but 15 mph is more typical.  The village is very quiet.

Hurricane warning flags are flying:

The surf is now washing up to the dune line:

NOAA Statement as of 2:30 PM EDT on September 17, 2003

…Hurricane Isabel Beginning To Bear Down On Eastern North Carolina…

… Storm information… at 2 PM the center of Hurricane Isabel was located about 350 miles south southeast of Cape Hatteras. Isabel was moving north northwest near 11 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 105 mph with higher gusts… making Isabel a category two hurricane.

The center of Isabel is forecast to make landfall between Cape Lookout and Ocracoke early Thursday afternoon…

… Overwash on Highway 12… ocean overwash is likely on Highway 12 on the Outer Banks … Especially around high tide which will occur around 1 am tonight.

… Marine information… very rough surf conditions are already occurring. Seas were near 15 feet at Diamond Shoals… and near 25 feet further offshore. Ocean swells striking the beach are resulting in dangerous rip currents. People are urged to stay out of the water.


Thursday, September 18, 2003, 7:00 am

Winds have increased during the night to about 30 – 50 mph.  Rain not yet heavy.  No tidewater on Howard Street at least.

NOAA Statement as of 6:15 AM EDT on September 18, 2003
… Storm information… at 5 am the center of Hurricane Isabel was located near latitude 33.1 degrees north… longitude 74.7 degrees west… or about 155 miles south southeast of Cape Hatteras. Isabel was moving northwest near 14 mph. Maximum sustained winds were near 105 mph with higher gusts… making Isabel a category two hurricane.

… Wind information… winds across the area have been increasing… with gusts as high as 60 mph at Cape Lookout… 53 mph at Beaufort and 50 mph at Cape Hatteras and Kill Devil Hills. The potential for hurricane force winds will begin along the coast within a couple of hours after sunrise. The highest winds will approach the coast as the center makes landfall around midday.

… Overwash on Highway 12… major ocean overwash is expected across the Outer Banks near the time of high tide today… which occurs around 130 PM. Battering waves of 10 to 15 feet on top of the 6 to 8 feet of storm surge will result in major ocean overwash and beach erosion.

Storm surges on the Outer Banks are expected to be around 6 to 8 feet on Thursday.

Seas offshore were near 30 feet. Ocean swells striking the beach are resulting in dangerous rip currents.

Thursday, September 18, 2003, 9:45 am

Winds are estimated at 50-60 mph.  Trees are swaying as the wind increases.  Power is fluctuating periodically.  Soundside flooding is beginning.  Small waves are evident as the tide flows down School Rd.

View from Howard Street looking through church yard:

View from corner of Howard St. & School Rd. looking towards school:

Thursday, September 18, 2003, 1:15 pm

Hurricane force winds of 80 – 100 mph have been battering Ocracoke since about 10:30 am.  At the present time, the eye is passing close to Ocracoke village.  Winds have subsided and tides have fallen slightly.  However we are prepared for a resumption of strong winds as the eye passes.  At 11 am the water was 12″ deep on the School Road and 18″ deep near the Slushie Stand.  I have heard reports of water waist deep in some areas of the village.

Water across Highway 12 near the Slushie Stand:

Howard Street residence at high water:

Fallen trees block Howard Street:

Update, Friday, September 19, 2003, 3:15 pm

Ocracoke has been without power since about 10:15 am, yesterday.  The community generator was started moments ago.  Everything considered, Ocracoke faired well during hurricane Isabel.

According to reports, peak winds were recorded at 105 mph on the island.   The eye of the storm passed close to the village about 12:45 yesterday.  Winds abated, the rain ceased, and the sky lightened.

Not long afterwards the winds shifted and tidewater started flowing into the village from the ocean.  The water level at the Village Craftsmen was close to the level during hurricanes Gloria & Dennis.

Although there is noticeable damage in the village (primarily broken & downed trees and flood waters), homes, businesses, boats, and other structures weathered the storm well for the most part.  There have been no reports of any injuries on the island.

The ocean breached the dunes in several places, including the airport ramp and several places north of the pony pasture.  Sand covered parts of the airstrip.  Power lines are down on the north end of the island, the pony pen suffered major damage, and the horses are now free to roam.

Several people have reported major damage to Try Yard Creek, just south of the pony pasture.   According to witnesses, the roadway on both approaches to the bridge has washed away, making travel to the north end of Ocracoke impossible.

Many reports have filtered down to Ocracoke of extensive damage to homes, businesses, roadways, and the beach on Hatteras Island and the Nags Head area.  We have also heard of major flooding and damage at Swan Quarter and Cedar Island.

As of today, Friday, September 19, no ferry service is available to or from Ocracoke Island.  Residents should check with the NC Highway Department and the Ferry Division for latest updates about re-entry to the island.

Tidewater approaches the siding at Village Craftsmen:

Village Craftsmen parking area is flooded:

View from Village Craftsmen parking area toward highway 12:

Airport ramp is wide and level:

Flood waters have receded noticeably today and Ocracoke residents are busy cleaning up the damage.

Saturday, September 20, 2003, 8:00 pm

Ferry service to Ocracoke from both Swan Quarter and Cedar Island has been resumed.  At this time only residents are permitted to return to the island.

Electric power in Ocracoke village is being generated locally.  Most telephones on the island are working.  Municipal water has been available continually.  Internet access was restored just a short while ago.

Ocracoke islanders are feeling very fortunate.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

At this time Highway 12 is closed north of the airport ramp as NC Department of Transportation workers clear the highway of sand and broken pavement.  The bridge at Try Yard Creek has been repaired.

Reentry to Ocracoke is still limited to permanent residents.  Access by air and private boat is also restricted.

Approximately 48 power poles were knocked down at the north end of the island.  The local generator is providing power to islanders.

The water plant is operating normally, the school is in session, and garbage is being collected.

UPS has not yet resumed pickups and deliveries on the island, but the US Postal Service is adjusting to the new circumstances.

Following are a number of photos taken during and after hurricane Isabel by island resident, Shelby Wright:


More information and additional photos of Isabel and her aftermath can be seen by following these links suggested by Warner Passanisi, Ocracoke resident (these were active sites as of 09/23/2003, but may become inactive at any time):

Ocracoke intact

Charlotte Observer – work on the highway, plus photos of Hatteras Village

Washington Post – story on Ocracoke

More shots of Hatteras Village

Outer Banks Sentinel – photos of damage

Outer Banks Sentinel – more photos of damage

Storm rips through Hatteras Village

More Hatteras Village Coverage