Job Wahab (nearly everyone called him Jobie) had the sea in his blood. Born on Ocracoke Island in 1802, he was, according to one legend, descended from a shipwrecked Arab sailor. More reliable information indicates that the Wahabs descended from a distinguished Scottish family with records extending back to the 14th century. In 1759 Job’s great-grandfather, John Williams, an early inlet pilot, had purchased one half of Ocracoke Island from William Howard, former quartermaster to Blackbeard the pirate. Jobie was married to William Howard’s great-granddaughter, Eliza Bradley Howard. They had fifteen children.

Job Wahab:

Eliza Bradley Howard Wahab:

Jobie Wahab, with help from his brother-in-law, George Washington Howard, and slave labor, built the Paragon, the first of several coastal schooners constructed on Ocracoke, at his house on the south side of Silver Lake.

The Paragon was 62 feet long on deck, 19 feet at the beam, and had a depth of five feet. Her frame was made from red cedar and live oak cut on Ocracoke. Her white oak planking came from along the Roanoke River. She was calked with oakum, rolled up tarry rope fibers, that was driven into the seams with a mallet.

The Paragon had one deck and two masts. She had a square stern, and on her prow Jobie mounted a billet-head, a fancy, carved piece of scrollwork. Fully loaded with cargo, she weighed more than 34 tons. The Paragon was launched in 1838. She slid into Pamlico Sound on skids greased with oil from boiled shark livers. Jobie Wahab, 36 years old, was her master.

Artist’s Sketch of the Paragon:

Jobie sailed the Paragon up and down the east coast, from the West Indies to New York. By 1851 his son, Robert Pike (Rob) Wahab, was owner and master. They carried whatever cargo was available, including wheat, lumber, tar, turpentine, rum, and shingles.

In about 1857 Jobie Wahab gave up the life of a sailor and moved to Durham, North Carolina, to work for W.T. Blackwell, whose company eventually succeeded J.R. Greene’s company, manufacturers of Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco (later known as Bull Durham). James Horatio Williams, Jobie’s second cousin, became half owner, and was made captain of the Paragon. Captain Horatio was 30 years old.

Capt. James Horatio Williams in 1887:

Four years after assuming command of the Paragon Captain Horatio Williams made a remarkable decision. It was at the outbreak of the Civil War. He deliberately sank his own ship. It is a story of determination, stubbornness, and bravery. And it is best told in this story which appeared in The News and Observer, Raleigh, N.C., February 13, 1949.:

“Capt. Horatio Williams of Ocracoke Island, of the schooner Paragon, was a long way from home and he was worried.

“He was in danger of losing his ship.

“He loved that ship, loved her almost as much as he did his wife whose way to his heart was by having a mess of chitterlings waiting for him when he came home from the sea.

“Horatio wasn’t ordinarily a cussin’ man, arguing that cussin’ was only biting a naked hook, but he cussed now. He spit a few salty words into the night, aimed them at both the Yankees and the Confederates.

“But his cussin’ didn’t make him feel any better. It didn’t ease his mind a smidgin.

The port authorities had told him in no uncertain terms the afternoon before that the Paragon couldn’t leave Charleston Harbor just then. A Yankee fleet was on the way to Charleston, they told him, and they might need the Paragon.

“’You’ll get her sunk,’ he shouted, ‘or captured by them damn Yankees! That’s what you’ll do. Let me get her out of here before it’s too late.’

“The port commander smiled. ‘You wouldn’t stand a chance of making a run for it,’ he said. ‘The Yankee fleet would be on top of you before your sails got filled. And then where would you be? Sunk or captured.’

“Horatio stalked off fuming.

“Now he stood on the Battery, looking out toward Fort Sumter. People jammed the wharves and the ships tied up alongside. They were waiting for the bombardment to begin, the bombardment that would plunge the South into war against the Union.

“A little group of men hurrying past jostled Horatio. He heard one say ‘Those Yankees won’t dare try to hold out. They’ll haul down their flag and up will go ours.’

“Above the clamor of mass-filled streets came a shout: ‘Blast ‘em out! Lincoln can’t insult us!’

“Somewhere along the battlements along the Battery stood old Edmund Ruffin, a frail little man with white hair hanging uncut below his shoulders, a violent advocate of Southern independence. He stood beside a cannon waiting for the word that would open up the bombardment. To him had been given the honor of firing the first shot into Sumter if the Yankee commander refused to evacuate the fort.

“It was long after midnight when Edmund Ruffin yanked the lanyard of the first gun in Charleston harbor sending the roundshot screaming upon Sumter.

“Other guns picked up the signal.

“Horatio stood there for a long time watching the flashes, listening to the boom of many guns, the pound of running feet, the rumble of wagons on the cobblestones, the shouts of jubilant men. His own tongue was stilled and there was no joy in his heart.

“Edmund Ruffin had yanked a lanyard of a gun and Horatio knew that the old man’s effortless gesture was destined to send the master of the Paragon into retirement for – well, he didn’t want to think for how long.

“Finally, Horatio turned from the Battery, shuffling off toward his room above the waterfront tavern where he could think things out. What with the worry that pricked at his heart and mind and the beat of the guns in his ears, a gray dawn was breaking over Charleston when he finally got to sleep.

“He slept most of the day. It was late afternoon when he came awake. Heavy rain clouds were forming. He dressed, not bothering to shave, and went below to seek food and drink and to think.

“When he had finished his meal, his mind was made up.

“He would take the Paragon out during the night. He would make a run for it up the coast. To Hell with the port authorities! To Hell with the Yankee fleet! He was going home to Ocracoke – or die trying.

“Horatio figured that maybe in the confusion of the cannonading that had been going on now for almost 18 hours he might have a chance of sneaking out of the harbor without being noticed.

“He began searching the crowded room for his two crew members. He knew they were there someplace. This was their favorite haunt, and when they were in Charleston they holed in here until he was ready to sail.

“Unable to spot either of them from his corner table, Horatio got up and began moving between the tables, looking here and there. Finally, he spotted Tom, who was just about to order a drink.

“Horatio moved over to the table, leaned down. ‘I say, Tom….’ A bearded face looked up. ‘Why, hello, captain. Sit down and join me.’

“The skipper of the Paragon slipped into a chair across from Tom. ‘There isn’t time,’ he whispered. ‘Now keep quiet and listen. Don’t raise your voice. I’ve decided we’ll make a run for it. Where’s Jeb?’

“Why, he was here a minute ago. He’s not gone far. He’ll be back.’ Tom looked across the room, then paused. ‘There he is, over there at the fire.’

“Get him and meet me outside.’ Horatio got up and made his way toward the door.

“A few minutes later the three had slipped aboard the Paragon. Sails were run up, the tow lines drawn in, and the anchor hauled up.

“Holding in close to the shore, the Paragon slipped through the harbor, seeming barely to move. Now and then there was a ‘b-o-o-m’ from the Battery, an answer from Sumter.

“The night was dark. There was a drizzle of rain. Fog swirled over the harbor. Horatio stood at the wheel, nursing the Paragon through the roadstead until the shoreline was no longer visible.

“Dawn came, gray and murky. The land had fallen away. He scanned the sea north and south, east and west. The Paragon was alone.

“’Tom!’ he yelled. ‘Tom!’ The bearded seaman, a good ten years Horatio’s senior, stuck his head out of the galley.

“’Take over,’ Horatio commanded. ‘The worst is behind, I’m thinking. Coffee’s what I crave.’

“Tom came up and took over the wheel. ‘Where’s we headin’?’ he asked.

“’Keep her running north. Past Ocracoke and Hatteras. Right to the Roanoke. We’ll go into Pamlico Sound at Ocracoke Inlet. Then up to Albemarle sound.’

“’But why the Albemarle? Why not run her home at Ocracoke?’

“Horatio grinned. ‘You’ll see, in time. We’re taking the Paragon where nobody’s going to lay hands on her. The damn Yankees will never get the Paragon.’ He turned and strode off toward the galley.

“Tom shook his head. He was puzzled. He wondered just what the captain had in mind. You never could tell about these young fellows.

“A week later Horatio ran the Paragon into Albemarle Sound. It was midmorning when he edged her past Bull Bay, keeping her headed due west toward the mouth of the Roanoke River.

“He was grinning. His gray eyes were sparkling. Jeb and Tom were puzzled. They talked among themselves. They didn’t have much to say to Horatio. When midafternoon came the Paragon was well up the Roanoke.

“’You can ease up on the sails,’ Horatio told them. ‘We’re just about at the end of our trip.’ The Paragon slowed down. On either side of the river there were oaks and cedar, thick underbrush.

“’We’ll sink her here,’ Horatio told them. ‘Let the anchor go. Down with the sails.’ Tom and Jeb looked at him.

“Horatio laughed. ‘Sure we’re sinking her. Nobody’ll use the Paragon ’til the war’s over. Now step to it.’

“The sails were taken down, folded and placed in a dingy. Horatio went below, into the hold that so recently had carried corn and rice and fertilizer. When he again appeared on deck, water was rushing into the hold of the Paragon.

“He and Tom and Jeb got into the dingy, Tom and Jeb at the oars. When they reached the river bank, Horatio said: ‘We’ll bury the sails. They’ll come in handy when we raise her.’

“By the time the canvas had been buried in the woods the Paragon had settled until only the tops of her mast were above water.

“’I reckon,’ said Horatio, ‘the Paragon couldn’t be in a safer place. She’ll be waiting there when it’s safe for her to sail again.’

“He stepped into the dingy. ‘Let’s go, mates,’ he said. ‘We’ll head for Williamston and overland to Washington. I reckon we can get a fishing boat from there to Ocracoke. I’m getting hungry for a mess of chitterlings.’

“Tom and Jeb bent to the oars….

“Horatio Williams, Jr. ran his hand through his closely-cropped white hair. It was midnight in the lobby of the Wahab Hotel at Ocracoke. The radio was turned up and a commentator was saying Dewey was a sure bet to beat Truman. But the white-haired man, sun-bronzed and weather-beaten, wasn’t listening. His thoughts were far away in time.

“’That’s the way it was,’ he said. ‘That’s the way my father told it. That’s how he beat the Yankees and kept the Paragon from falling into their hands. Not by a long shot. No, sir!’

“He stretched his leg, ran his hand through his hair again, looked over toward the radio that seemed so out of place.

“’No, sir,’ he said, ‘that’s not the end of the story. The Paragon sailed again. That she did. And my father sailed her. She was some ship right up to the time she went down off Frying Pan Shoals in ’85….

“’Well, now, after my father sank the Paragon up the Roanoke River, he came back here to Ocracoke. He reckoned he would take a rest until the war was over. He didn’t have no grudge against anybody and he wasn’t going to do any fighting. He didn’t either. He fished a bit, had a little boat of his own. He always managed to be away from home when the officers came over to get fellows for the army.’

“Horatio the second leaned back in his chair. He seemed to be thinking. Except for his white hair he didn’t look a man of 75.

“’When the war was over,’ he continued, ‘my father didn’t make no move right away to go get the Paragon. Meanwhile, Jobie had died [in 1860] and Henry, that was Jobie’s son, was over on the mainland running a cotton gin and sawmill, at Germantown. Finally, my father went to see him and they talked about raising the Paragon. It was 18 months after the war was over that they raised her.

“’It was quite a job, too. They had to pontoon her with barrels until her decks were above water. They pumped the water out of her with hand pumps. She wasn’t damaged in the least. She had been in fresh water. You know, in the old days when they built ships they docked them before they was finished, that is, they let them lie in fresh water for a while. So the Paragon, wasn’t hurt none. And the heart of red cedar, of which she was built, won’t rot. So she was just about as good as ever. And that canvas my father buried was still in good condition, too.

“’They sailed the Paragon right down the Roanoke to Ocracoke and put her in the trade again.

“’When I was a boy, I sailed with my father several times on the Paragon. I used to go with him to Swan Quarter to load grain.

“’I remember that then the Paragon had a crew of six…three sailors, a mate, cook and captain. She could carry 85 ton in her hold and she drew eight feet of water.

“’I remember on the trips south my father would order the cabin doors shut after crossing the bar at Ocracoke Inlet and have them sealed up with turpentine soap until he reached Charleston. It was rough sailing and that was the only way to keep water out of the hold.

“’I remember my father as a soft-spoken man, except when he was in a bad humor, and then he could let ‘em fly. But he used to tell me that cussing was only biting a naked hook, meaning there was no bait on it.

“’He wasn’t a big man. He was only five-foot-seven and he weighed only 145 pounds. He had black hair and gray eyes.

“’He wasn’t a heavy drinking man, either. He wasn’t a drunkard. But, he liked his toddy. He had a toddy every morning. Once I remember he brought a gallon of some kind of whiskey home in a demijohn covered with grass. He said it came from the Indies.’

“Horatio looked at his watch.

“’Reckon I’ve talked too much,’ he said, ‘Bout time to turn in.’

“He stood up. ‘If you’re ever over in Morehead City, come by to see me. I’ve been living over there for some time but I come back to Ocracoke now and then to look over the place. It does me good to come back now that I’m a landlubber. Revives a lot of pleasant memories.’ He started toward the stairs that led to his room, then turned and came back.

“’Just remembered something,’ he said. ‘Story my father told me. Had to do with cussin’. Seems back in the old days there was a preacher who’d never done any sailing but he’d been around a lot of sailors and he couldn’t understand why they were always cussing, particularly the captains.

“’Well, it seems this preacher was given a trip on a schooner one day. As the preacher came aboard, the captain was using some pretty strong language to his men.

“’You shouldn’t talk like that to your men,’ the preacher told the captain. ‘Cussin’ doesn’t do any good.’

“’The captain nodded. The preacher went below. The captain called his men to him. He told them, ‘I’ve got a little plan for when the preacher comes back. When I say to you, ‘My good men, take in the topsail.’ You sit still. Don’t pay any attention.’

“’Well, when the preacher appeared, the captain said in a calm voice, “My good men, take in the topsail.” The crew paid no attention. Three times he repeated the order in the same words. And three times he was ignored. Finally, he screamed. “Blast you —, take in the topsail!” The crew jumped to his order.

“’The preacher looked at the captain, shook his head and said, ‘Damn if I don’t believe a little cussin’ does help sometimes’”

Sometime around 1867 the Paragon, or at least Captain Horatio’s half interest, was sold to islander Tilmon Farrow. Horatio Williams then took command of the Annie Wahab, another schooner from Ocracoke. In 1873 Jobie Wahab’s son, Uriah Mason Wahab, was half owner of the Paragon with George Credle of Swan Quarter, North Carolina. By 1874 another son, Henry Wilson Wahab, owned the schooner with George Credle. Henry became sole owner and master a year later.

Several local seafarers served as master of the Paragon, including owners, Robert Pike Wahab, Uriah M. Wahab, and Henry W. Wahab, as well as Joseph O’Neal, George W. Wallace, and I.W. Silver. But the Paragon’s most colorful captain was without a doubt James Horatio Williams.

After sinking his schooner and returning home to Ocracoke, Horatio Williams supported his family by cultivating a small farm. He raised hogs, grew a few crops, and grazed several head of cattle. In addition to supplying islanders with pork, beef, and vegetables, he occasionally sent meat to the mainland.

For a time during the Civil War federal troops occupied Ocracoke Island. One day a Union officer approached Captain Williams and offered to buy a few head of cattle to feed his men. Horatio refused, saying he had no intention of selling anything to any “damn Yankees.” The officer explained that he was prepared to pay for the cattle, but that he was authorized to seize stock if Williams refused to sell. With that, the stubborn sea captain turned and walked away.

The officer then instructed his men to take whatever cattle they needed. As they were rounding up the livestock, Horatio’s wife, Martha, more practical than ideological, opened the door, and pointed to a ballast stone lying near the porch steps. She explained that the officer could just leave any money under the stone. The Union officer, a fair and honest man, left the banknotes for Martha.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century James Howard, first keeper of the US Life Saving Station at the north end of Ocracoke, circulated a petition to have free ranging livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, and horses) removed from the island in order to protect vegetation, and curtail erosion. Captain Horatio, never a supporter of Keeper Howard’s proposal, became incensed when Howard, a champion of horses and an accomplished equestrian, deleted horses from his petition before submitting it to authorities.

Zilphia & James Howard:

To make matters worse, Horatio’s eighteen year old daughter, Ann Mariah, fell in love with James Howard’s brother, Perry Coleman Howard. Perry Coleman, in his mid thirties, was a widower. His first wife, Elizabeth Williams, had died in childbirth, leaving him to care for their infant son. Horatio threatened to write his daughter out of his will if she married Perry Coleman, but Ann Mariah defied him. After she made her decision Horatio refused to speak to his daughter. Ann Mariah and Perry Coleman had twelve children.

Perry Coleman Howard:

Some time after the marriage Sue Howard, wife of James and Perry Coleman’s nephew Abner Bennet, approached Horatio about buying collards. He did not recognize her, and asked her who she was. When Sue explained that she was married to Bennett Howard, Horatio proclaimed “Not one damn collard!” and stomped away.

Although Horatio had a reputation for a fiery temper, his long-time crew member, Tom Franks Gaskins, claimed that he never went to his captain with a question that he didn’t receive a civil answer.

Horatio had a large, raised water tank installed on his property. Eventually it began to leak, and he decided to make the repairs himself. In the process he slipped and fell into the tank. His wife Martha crawled between the straw mattress and the feather comforter so he wouldn’t hear her laughing.

When Horatio neared the end of his life Ann Mariah learned that her father’s will designated a bequest of just one dollar for her in order to prevent his will from being contested. Ann Mariah vowed to lay the dollar on his tombstone. As it happened, the old sea captain mellowed some with age. Ann Mariah’s children received a sizable parcel of land when her father died.

During his career as a sea captain Horatio Williams became a local legend. It was told that on his way home from the West Indies his ship was becalmed within sight of Ocracoke. After two days in the doldrums Captain Horatio cursed his fate, laid a paper dollar on one of the spars, and challenged God to blow the bill off. In short order the wind freshened, a squall materialized, and it blew a gale. His ship was almost dismasted. Later the captain confessed, “if I’d know it was going to blow that hard I’d only have asked for a quarter’s worth of wind.”

Captain Horatio was master of the Paragon in 1884, but no one knows who was in command when the schooner wrecked on Frying Pan Shoal, near Cape Fear, in 1885. The 47 year old vessel was a total loss.


It was December of 1899.  The U.S. Life Saving Station at Cedar Hammock, just a mile or so from Hatteras Inlet, on the north end of Ocracoke Island, had been in operation for sixteen years.  The station had been built to provide rescue services for mariners involved in shipping disasters along the coast.  For three hundred years numerous shipwrecks had occurred around Cape Hatteras, and over that time many a sailor died because those on shore had no equipment or training to attempt a rescue.

In 1883 a dramatic change was made on Ocracoke.  James Howard was appointed the first keeper (or captain) of the new Cedar Hammock station.  Six surfmen, all natives of the island, were hired, and training began.  Over the next sixteen years a number of schooners and other sailing vessels wrecked on Ocracoke’s beach in stormy weather and high seas.  But most of the skippers and crew of those ships were delivered from watery graves because of the bravery and courage of the well-trained life savers.

The Cedar Hammock LSS (Keeper Howard on right; family members on left), late 1800s:
Cedar Hammock LSS

Not far from their fully equipped station, Keeper Howard and some of his crew had built modest homes.  Forsaking the comforts, conveniences, and community of Ocracoke village, the keeper and his surfmen brought wives, children, and other family members to their remote end of the island during their months of service (typically September to March, the period of severest weather). Keeper Howard and his wife, Zilphia, even had their grandchildren with them after their daughter, Lorena, died unexpectedly in her mid-30s.  Their father, Rev. L.O. Wyche, was a traveling Methodist preacher and was unable to take his children with him on his circuit.

As Christmas approached in 1899, the small isolated community at Cedar Hammock, including more than a dozen children, looked forward to the holiday season. Native cedars and yaupons were cut and used to decorate windows and doors.  Red bows were tied on wreaths and trees.  Christmas songs were played on the Howards’ parlor organ.  Stockings were hung by the fireplace in great anticipation of the coming holiday.  The surfmen and their families chose to pool their resources for a community-wide Christmas day celebration.  They would all gather in the station at mid-day on December 25 to share a festive dinner of roast goose, potatoes, collards, and pumpkin pie.   Each family would provide a portion of the meal.  James Hatton Wahab’s wife, Martha Ann Howard Wahab, accepted the responsibility of baking the pies.

On December 23, late in the afternoon, Hatton walked into the kitchen and discovered every level surface covered with pumpkin pies.  Martha Ann had baked, not just three or four pies for the two dozen or so people at Cedar Hammock.  She had baked enough pies for more than twice that many people.  “Whatever are you doing?” Hatton asked her.  “We can’t possibly eat all those pies, Martha Ann!”

“Well, Hatton,” she replied, “you know I always like to be prepared.  I want to be sure to have enough pies in case any folks from over seas come to join us for Christmas dinner.”

Hatton just shrugged his shoulders and walked back outside.  He had been scanning the skies.  Dark, ominous storm clouds had been rolling in over the sound, and the wind was picking up.  He had come home to check on his family.  After his five children were safe inside he would help at the station.  The other families had the same concerns.

Before long the children were all accounted for.  Some had been in the sound in their sail skiffs.  Two had ridden their ponies down the beach.  Others were in the yard, or in the house, playing games or singing along with the organ.  But now they were all safe inside.

The wind was stronger now.  The surfmen struggled to haul boats out of the water, put their horses in the stable, tie down equipment, and close the shutters.  The surf was rough and the tide was already beginning to rise.

Inside, the children were fed their dinners and put to bed around eight o’clock.  The adults huddled around their fireplaces, trying to stay warm, and worrying about what the storm might bring.  Cold wind was whistling through cracks in the walls, around rattling windows, and under the doors.  They might lose some shingles from the roof, or maybe a banging shutter would blow off.  But they were most concerned about the rising tide.  If it came too high they would be forced to open the doors (and maybe even the windows) to let the cold Atlantic water inside before it could lift their houses off of their foundations and float them away.

As the night wore on and midnight approached the worried families at Cedar Hammock were unaware of the drama playing out a few miles south in the Atlantic Ocean.

The steel hulled, schooner-rigged, British steamship, Ariosto, with a crew of thirty, loaded with wheat, cotton, lumber, and cottonseed meal, was making its way north, intending to refuel in Norfolk before departing for Hamburg, Germany.  Peering through the mist, rain, and clouds, on a pitching and rolling vessel, the Ariosto’s navigator spied a lighthouse.  At midnight he reported to his captain, R.R. Baines from Antwerp, that they were abreast of the Cape Hatteras light.  Captain Baines gave orders: “Steam straight ahead.”  And then he retired to his cabin.  It was a fatal mistake.

The ship was not well out to sea, east of the dreaded shoals of Cape Hatteras, as the officers believed.  The navigator had actually seen the Ocracoke light, and the Ariosto was headed straight for the north end of Ocracoke.

About two in the morning of December 24, 1899 Captain Baines was rudely awakened by a sudden thud, a fearful shuddering of his entire vessel,  a precipitous list to starboard, and the ringing of the ship’s bell.   Rushing to the deck, he leaned over the rails and saw nothing but wild, churning white water.   Thick, heavy weather enveloped the Ariosto, preventing visibility for more than a dozen yards.  He was convinced that they had run hard aground on the outer Diamond Shoals. Captain Baines ordered distress flares to be launched, but he had no hope that life savers from Hatteras could reach them in a storm such as this.

Fearing that his boat would break apart (already the starboard life boats had been carried away), Captain Baines ordered all men in the remaining life boats.  The first boat touched the roiling waves and was immediately capsized.  All eleven men were thrown into the frigid December waters.  Fifteen sailors climbed into the second boat when a wave struck it and it broke apart. All fell into the Atlantic.  The captain and three others who had remained on the vessel were now stranded.  Two sailors from the overturned life boat managed to grab hold of some tackle thrown over the side of the boat, and were pulled back onto the deck.

Painting of the Wreck of the Ariosto by Charlie Ahmen:
The Wreck of the Ariosto
It was then that the crew from the Cedar Hammock station arrived on the scene.  Immediately keeper Howard raised the international signal, MK, “Remain on Your Ship!”  The Ariosto was several hundred yards off shore, only about two miles south of the station.  By now the ship was visible from shore, and the life savers were busy unloading their beach cart.  While designated surfmen set the crotch and buried the sand anchor others got the Lyle gun ready and released the line from the faking box.  As soon as possible Keeper Howard fired the first shot line to the stricken vessel.  It missed, but miraculously fell across a struggling sailor.  He wrapped the line around his arm before loosing consciousness.  The unconscious sailor was hauled up on the beach and given artificial respiration.  He revived.

Against all odds an exhausted sailor, seaman Elsing, managed to swim to shore.   Another struggling sailor was pulled out of the surf when the life savers made a human chain by clasping hands and wading into the numbingly cold, turbulent breakers.

Eventually a shot line reached the Ariosto and the hawser was attached to a mast.  The traveling block and breeches buoy were sent to the vessel.  By late in the afternoon the five sailors and the captain (carrying his pet dog “Belgium”) were brought safely ashore.   As Keeper Howard noted in his report, if all had remained on board all would have been saved.  As it was, twenty-one main drowned that Christmas Eve, 1899.

The survivors were carried back to the station, given dry clothes, warmed by the fire, and provided with food and hot coffee. The work of the life savers was not over, however.  Their equipment had to be gathered up and repacked in the beach cart, then taken back to the station where the ponies were cared for.

After that the drowned were carried from the incoming tide and buried in unmarked graves in the dunes near where they had washed up on the beach.  Rev. Wyche, who was spending the holidays with his children, was called on to provide Christian burials for the hapless sailors.

That night eight sailors from the Ariosto were berthed in the station.  Captain Baines spent the night with Keeper and Mrs. Howard.

Zilphia & James W. Howard:
James & Zilphia Howard

The next day, of course, was Christmas.  The nine survivors from the wreck of the Ariosto were included in the Cedar Hammock Christmas dinner celebration.

When it came time for dessert, all were impressed that there was plenty of pie for everyone, for Martha Ann was prepared, and had anticipated having “folks from overseas” join them for Christmas dinner.

The Ariosto never broke apart.  Several days later, after the storm subsided, the captain and crew asked the surfmen to row them out to their ship in order to retrieve a few personal belongings.  Captain Baines insisted on bringing his caned platform rocking chair with him.  Once on shore he presented it to Keeper Howard as a token of gratitude for saving his life.

Captain Baine’s chair has been passed down in the family, and sits today in my living room, a silent reminder of the disaster of Christmas Eve, 1899.  And of the courage, bravery, and skill of the men of the U.S. Life Saving Service.

Captain Baines’ Platform Rocker:
Capt. Baines' Rocker

As Christmas approaches each year I decorate my home with a native cedar tree adorned with mini-lights.  I cut yaupon branches, thick with red berries, and decorate my table.  I put candles in the windows, and hang a cedar wreath (with bright red bow) on my front door.

In the evenings I like to sit in my recliner, next to a dancing fire in my cast iron stove, and read.  Not infrequently I’ll nod off for ten or fifteen minutes.  I sometimes wake with a start, still somewhat drowsy, and glance towards Captain Baine’s chair. That’s when I’m sure I see the chair gently rocking back and forth.  I force myself awake, and when I look carefully the chair is still.   Nevertheless, I wonder, could it be that Captain Baines returns every year at Christmas?  Maybe he stops to visit my great-grandfather this time of year.  If so, I wonder what they chat about?

Perhaps he returns to reminisce about the wreck of his ship, and his rescue….and to wish us all a very Happy Christmas!


Visitors to Ocracoke Island are often fascinated by the many family graveyards scattered throughout the village. In fact, at least 82 small cemeteries can be found on small tussocks, along winding footpaths, and in numerous back yards. As many readers of these newsletters know, nearly a dozen and a half family cemeteries line historic Howard Street. Many times the graves reveal more than birth dates and death dates, however.

Combined with local history, legend, and folklore they can be the beginnings of stories about sailing, shipwrecks, murders, military excellence, family tragedy, even geology. I have told some of these stories in past articles. Today I will share two more.

Directly across the lane from Village Craftsmen is the grave of Elnora Ballance. Born April 14, 1882, Miss Elnora died July 11, 1969. Her tomb (Ocracokers routinely use this term for a grave marker) is one that visitors often remark about because of the beautiful sentiment in the epitaph. It reads:

“She was as good as goodness is. Her acts and all her words were kind. And high above the memories I hold the beauty of her mind.”

Grave of Elnora Ballance:


Elnora was born Elnora O’Neal, and was a sister to my great-aunt Tressie O’Neal Howard. Village Craftsmen is built where Aunt Tressie’s garden was located. Elnora was married to William Dexter Ballance. William Dexter was the son of William Ballance, who in 1861 was involved in retribution for one of Ocracoke’s few murders.

In April of 1861 a sailor named Jim Devine found himself on Ocracoke Island when the brig he was sailing on, the “Black Squall,” wrecked on Ocracoke Beach. While he was stranded on the island Jim Devine got into a squabble with a young man, Bob Salter, “over a girl named Polly”. Jim Devine pulled a gun on Salter and shot and killed him.

At the time, Ocracoke was without law enforcement. William Ballance was among a group of men who retaliated by seizing Jim Devine and “riding him on a rail.” There is reason to suspect that they may also have tarred and feathered him. The next morning Jim Devine hid behind the large live oak tree on Howard Street that stands across from the present-day Irvin and Elsie Garrish home. He shot at William Ballance as he walked into his yard, but missed his target. Jim Devine ran away and hid as the island men formed a posse and searched for him. Eventually they learned that he had escaped by boarding a schooner that was anchored in Pamlico Sound. He was never apprehended.

The “Jim Devine” Tree on Howard Street:

jim devine tree

Elnora lived in her family home, now torn down, just on the left as you enter Howard Street from Highway 12. This house was also known as the Simon B. Howard and Eliza Gaskill home. The Westervelt family lives in a newer house situated there now.

Along with my Aunt Tressie and other island women Elnora Ballance often constructed beautiful hand-made quilts.

Quilting squares in the traditional Ocracoke “Cracker” Pattern:

Cracker Quilt Pattern

Elnora was not known to be very talkative, but she was a devoted mother and wife. She and William only had one daughter, and one granddaughter. Her granddaughter, Patsy, lives off the island. Islanders remember Elnora as a wonderful cook, and “a good person.”

I suppose the epitaph says it all.

Not far from Elnora Ballance’s grave site is the small family plot of James (March 26, 1839 – September 09, 1904) and Zilphia (February 08, 1841 – June 01, 1919) Howard, my great grandparents.

Zilphia & James Howard:

Zilphia & James Howard

Visitors often remark on the four small tombstones there, and the tragedy of losing so many children. Actually, my great grandparents had twelve children, eight of whom died between one month old and just over six years old.

Graves of 8 of Zilphia & James Howard’s Children:


If you look carefully on your next visit to the island you will notice that each small marker has inscriptions on both sides. Two smaller foot stones are situated between the pairs of graves. It is difficult to imagine the sorrow and pain of losing so many children to childhood diseases.  The eight children all died in a twenty year period between 1865 and 1885.

James and Zilphia’s twelve children (those who lived to adulthood are in bold font):

1 William M 03/26/1862 – 07/14/1868 6 yrs, 3 1/2 mths
2 Florence F 01/25/1864 – 09/10/1865 1 yr, 7 1/2 mths
3 Lorena F 03/02/1866 – 03/14/1897 31 yrs
4 Homer M 06/21/1868 – 05/15/1947 78 yrs, 10 1/2 mths
5 Sabra F 07/21/1870 – 11/27/1951 81 yrs, 4 mths
6 Edith F 10/30/1872 – 07/16/1875 2 yrs, 8 1/2 mths
7 Wheeler M 12/04/1874 – 11/02/1940 65 yrs, 1 month
8 Cordelia F 07/16/1876 – 08/16/1876 1 month
9 Stacy M 08/13/1877 – 12/18/1878 1 yr, 4 mths
10 Annie F 01/25/1879 – 12/22/1880 1 yr, 11 mths
11 Thomas M 01/18/1882 – 10/03/1882 8 1/2 mths
12 Elsie F 07/21/1883 – 12/25/1884 1 yr, 5 mths

In 1861, when my great grandparents were in their early 20’s, and as the threat of invasion by Union troops seemed imminent, the pastor of the Ocracoke Methodist Church, Rev. A.R. Raven, abandoned his island charge.  The parish was without clerical leadership for eight years.  In 1869 Rev. George E. Wyche was appointed to the Ocracoke church.

About fifteen years later the Rev. Lawrence O. Wyche, presumably Rev. George Wyche’s son, and a young man, was appointed to the Ocracoke Methodist Church.  He promptly fell in love with James and Zilphia’s daughter, Lorena Howard.  They married and continued to live on the island.

On October 16, 1887 Lorena H. and Lawrence O. Wyche had a son, Ira Thomas Wyche.  Ira, who was born and raised on Ocracoke, graduated from the West Point Military Academy in 1911.  He went on to serve in France during World War II, was eventually promoted to Major General, and held many important leadership positions, including Inspector General of the U.S. Army under President Harry S Truman.

Ira Wyche’s distinguished military career often put him in contact with leaders such as Field Marshall Montgomery, Winston Churchill, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Ira Wyche with Dwight D. Eisenhower:

Ira Wyche & Dwight Eisenhower

Ira Wyche’s Ocracoke ancestors are buried along Howard Street, across from the Village Craftsmen.

Graves of Zilphia Williams Howard, James W. Howard, Rev. L.O. Wyche, and Lorena Howard Wyche:

howard cemitary

Look for more tales and history in the months to come.  Ocracoke cemeteries can lead to so many interesting stories.

As I write Ocracoke is preparing for the annual OcraFolk festival of story and song, June 7 & 8.  We hope to see many of you on the island this weekend.

Until next time, all the best to you from your friends on Ocracoke Island!