In our September, 2011 Ocracoke Newsletter, Slavery on Ocracoke (, I observed that “[s]laves on the Outer Banks, especially pilots and lighterers, were often in contact with sailors, both black and white, from northern cities. Life at sea routinely blurred racial boundaries, which led to looser relations between slaves and masters on the sandy banks. And maritime slaves (pilots, fishermen, oystermen, and sailors) were frequently allowed a degree of freedom and independence unheard of on plantations.”

Ocracoke native, Cecil S. Bragg, in his 1973 book, Ocracoke Island: Pearl of the Outer Banks, mentions a letter written in 1921 by a former slave, Harrison Williams, to Mrs. Martha Ann Howard Wahab of Ocracoke. This letter illustrates a level of interracial acceptance and friendship typical of Ocracoke.

Harrison Williams was born into slavery in 1838, although Bragg does not tell where he lived and labored. According to Bragg, Williams “ran away from his master and reached Boston.” Bragg also notes that, after the Civil War, Williams “spent some time on Ocracoke and was well liked.”

From Williams’ letter it is clear that he held fond memories of his time on the island [in the late 1800s], and of his friendship with Martha Ann Wahab, her husband James Hatton Wahab, and other Ocracokers.

Martha Ann Howard Wahab:

Bragg includes, on pages 139-140 in his book, a transcript of Harrison Williams’ letter, which he describes as “brown…[and] split with age.”  Below is the letter:

Boston, Mass. Jan, 1921

Mrs Martha Wahab
Ocracoke N.C.

Dear Mrs: Martha Wahab,

Your letter received.

I was sorry to hear that Mr, Haton Wahab, is dead.

I am very thankful to you for answring my letter, and giving me so much information.

Yes, I do remember father [probably Martha Ann’s father, Robert Howard (1845-1878), or Hatton’s father, William Howard Wahab (1830-1906)], and I remember a young man by the name of Ames Howard [Amon Howard, Jr. (1853-1892)];

And I do remember a family that did live right in back of Mr. Wahabs house, by the name of Williams;

The oldest brother was named Wid Williams [1840-ca.1895], He was a fiddler The other two brothers names was Lamb [Lambert (1836-ca.1885)], and Ambrust [Ambrose (1834-?)].

I remember a colored man by the name of Harkliss [Hercules], his wife was named Winnie, she had a little baby girl [Annie Laura].  I was converted while I was on the island, with Mr. Haton, When I came away I did join A baptist church.

I did get married when I was very young; we had five children, one died. All of them is grown up now;

My wif have been dead a long time; I wish I could see the old home on the island. if, I had found Mr. Haton Wahab, living I would have made it my business to come to the island because I would have found in him a friend.

Mrs Martha, Wahab I am not working now but I think I will get a job in the spring and if I dont, I would be glad if I could get you to get me a job with your son in Norfolk.

Do they have summer Hotels, on the island. and do the people hire colored help. I have worked in hotels. I have waiter in Hotels.

I can do most any kind of work. I am just about 6 feet high, 40 inches around the wast I way one hundard, and eath pounds.

Address Harrison Williams
17 Dartmouth St.
Boston, Mass; (cpo Mrs churchill

Yours truly

Harrison Williams


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!


Greetings from Ocracoke Island!

Ocracoke, like most isolated areas, has its share of supernatural stories.  The following was told to me by Larry Williams.  I include the historical and geographical details not only to make the story more understandable, but also to preserve a bit of island history.  I’m told this story is best read just before bedtime, when you are home alone and the waxing moon is casting unnatural shadows through your bedroom window.  Enjoy!

This is the story of Fannie Pearl MacWilliams Wahab,  born September 13, 1894 in the shadow of the Ocracoke lighthouse, and daughter of John & Elizabeth MacWilliams.

View of Ocracoke Lighthouse from John MacWilliams property:
Lighthouse from House

The Dream of Death

Modern-day visitors to Ocracoke Island are often surprised to learn that the village, and indeed the island itself, are in many ways very different from what they were not too many years ago.

Sometimes a newcomer to the island will hear a native talk about living “round creek”  or going “down point.”  The “creek side” of Ocracoke village comprises the area on the north side of the harbor that includes the Community Store, Howard Street, and the Methodist Church.  The “point side” takes in Albert Styron’s Store, the lighthouse and surrounding areas to the south.

The newcomer might even detect a little bit of good-natured competition between  “creekers” and “pointers.”  And it might take a while for him to understand the historical significance of the distinction.  After all, Ocracoke is a small village that even today has a population of fewer than 800 people.  What possible motivation could there be for identifying with one half of the village or the other?

Prior to World War II the harbor was called Cockle Creek (or often just “the Creek”).  Although a natural harbor, it was basically a wide, relatively shallow body that was joined to Pamlico Sound by a narrow inlet dubbed the “Ditch” by locals.  Most of the periphery of the harbor was low, marshy and wet, a perfect breeding ground for the ubiquitous Outer Banks mosquitoes.  On the east side, the Creek extended through the village by means of several “guts” that effectively divided Ocracoke into two distinct areas.

One gut lay more or less where Highway 12 now runs.  Another was situated farther south.  Both extended towards the bald beach .

Eventually simple foot bridges were built across the guts, and later on the Civilian Conservation Corps replaced these with more substantial structures, including handrails.  Even so, in the age before bicycles and automobiles, it could be a significant hike through soft sand paths from one side of the Creek to the other.  The walk was made even more difficult if you were carrying a small child, a laundry basket, or a mess of collards from the garden.

1939 view of Cockle Creek:

Click on photo for larger image.

Although horses and carts were often used to carry larger items the earliest bridges would not accommodate a vehicle so wide.  So the driver was forced to detour around the guts by taking his team all the way out to the beach and back up the other side of the village.

When the Navy established their base here during the second world war one of the first things they did was dredge Cockle Creek so they could dock their vessels within the protection of Ocracoke’s natural harbor.  Much of the dredged sand was pumped into the surrounding wetlands, including the guts which were completely filled in.  Although locals still refer to this body of water as the Creek it was rechristened Silver Lake as a tourist promotion.

Before Cockle Creek was dredged Mr. John MacWilliams owned and operated the “Department Store” on the south side of the harbor.  This was, by Ocracoke standards, a large conglomeration of buildings near the water that included retail stores and a dock.  He and his family lived nearby.

The John MacWilliams home:
MacWilliam's Home

John & Elizabeth’s daughter, Fannie Pearl, attended school in the Oddfellow’s Lodge (now used as the center section of the Island Inn).

Island native, Robert Stanley Wahab, was a teacher at the school and he and Fannie Pearl fell in love.  Soon Fannie Pearl left the island to finish her schooling in Marshalburg, NC.  The two lovers continued to see each other and were eventually married.  When Stanley was offered a teaching job in Norfolk, Virginia they moved to the city.  It wasn’t long before Fannie Pearl discovered that she was pregnant.  She was seventeen years old.

In 1912 pregnant women were expected to sequester themselves until their baby was born, so Fannie Pearl came back to Ocracoke to rest and wait. She stayed with Stanley’s mother Martha Ann Howard Wahab “round creek” in the house that Myra Wahab lives in to this day. Stanley remained in Norfolk, working, and regularly sent money home to his wife.

Martha Ann Howard Wahab home:
wahab home wayhab home

One morning Fannie Pearl awoke with a disquieting sense of melancholy.  She had had a disturbing dream during the night.

In her dream, she had died.  That was uncomfortable enough.  But, in the surreal realm of dreams, she was not only dead….she could see herself dressed in white, lying in a white casket sailing at night in a white sailboat.  The silvery-white full moon had recently risen above the horizon, casting its unearthly glow upon the dark water and reflecting from the white canvas sail.  Silently and somberly the sailboat of death glided across the smooth water.

Fannie Pearl found the dream so distressing that she felt compelled to share it with Martha Ann.  It haunted her throughout the day.

Tragically, that very night Fannie Pearl died.  Apparently her unborn child had died in utero and the now lifeless child within not only drained Fannie Pearl’s body of strength and vitality, but slowly poisoned her bloodstream.

In those days Ocracoke had no telephones.  Urgent messages were relayed by the Coast Guard via ship-to-shore radio. As soon as he received the terrible news Stanley sent his reply back.  Please, Stanley pleaded, do not do anything until I can return home.

Immediately Stanley made arrangements to find a way back home.  Before leaving Norfolk he purchased a beautiful casket.  Not that he disdained the homemade caskets the local island carpenters made for these occasions.  He just wanted the finest tribute he could for his young, deceased bride.

By the time the mailboat pulled up to the dock the next day with Stanley and the casket on board it was already afternoon.

Family and friends were beginning to worry.  They had respected Stanley’s wishes, but time was running out.  In those days there was no way to embalm a body on the island, so most burials were made within 24 hours of death.  By the time Stanley made it back home it was decided that no time could be wasted.  They must put Fannie Pearl in her new casket and inter her as soon as possible.

Of course Fannie Pearl had died “round creek” at Martha Ann’s home, but her family cemetery was “down point” near her father’s store.  By then it was dark.  It was a long way around the guts, out to the bald beach and back to the MacWilliam’s home place. The cart path was deep soft sand in many places, and the trek would have been difficult for many of the older folks.

The natural solution was to put the casket in a skiff and take her across the Creek for burial that night.  The boats were readied, the mourning party gathered at the shore, and soon they were off.

The freshly painted sailing skiff with the casket on board led the way.  Rowboats filled with family and friends followed behind.

Martha Ann was in the rowboat immediately behind the sailing skiff.  The funeral procession was hushed and somber.  Half way across the Creek Martha Ann had time to reflect on the last several days.  When she did she noticed the brand new white casket lying silently across the planks in the bright white sailboat with white canvas sails.  The water was slick as glass.  She looked up.  There rising above the horizon was the silvery white full moon illuminating the mournful procession.

Fannie Pearl MacWilliams Wahab gravesite:


Don’t forget the OcraFolk Festival & Howard Street Arts and Crafts Fair.  This will be all day, Saturday, June 9.  Hope to see you then.

Take care,

Philip and all the folks at Village Craftsmen