In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whales and “porpoises” (actually bottle-nose dolphins)* were hunted commercially by Outer Banks fishermen. Evidence of this industry on Ocracoke Island survives in the name of Try Yard Creek, located 6.1 miles northeast of the village of Ocracoke.

A “try yard” was a place where whales or porpoises were processed in order to “try out” or render the oil from blubber or fat.

Today, whales and dolphins are not only protected, but have become iconic symbols of ocean conservation. A number of organizations are dedicated specifically to the protection of marine mammals. Tour boats around the world take tourists and photographers on “Whale Watching Cruises” and “Dolphin Watching Cruises.” Some coastal communities offer opportunities to swim with captive dolphins, and the Internet contains thousands of images and videos of whales and dolphins taken by amateur and professional photographers.

A Whale Sighted off Ocracoke’s Beach:

It is easy to forget that life on the Outer Banks, even one hundred years ago, was much different than it is today. The residents of these wind-swept sandy banks were isolated, poor, and unsophisticated. They were also resourceful, creative, and self-sufficient. They did what they could to survive and feed their families, and that sometimes meant hunting whales and “porpoises.”

By the early 1700s the American whaling industry was centered in New England.

Engraving from Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), by W. Scoresby:

In 1666 Peter Cartaret, assistant governor of Albemarle (which later became North Carolina), granted a commercial whaling license to three New England mariners, granting them permission to take whales in the colony’s waters. There is no evidence that they took advantage of the license.

For almost two centuries, beginning in the mid-1600s, residents of coastal North Carolina engaged in shore-based whaling activities, while New England whalers eventually operated far out to sea in square-rigged ships specially outfitted for the task.

North Carolina whalers never pursued their prey in the open ocean. Initially, they relied exclusively on “drift whales,” cetaceans that became stranded in shallow water, or that died at sea and washed ashore. Later, pursuit of whales became more active as crews ventured just off-shore in small boats rowed by four men. In 1725 the governor of North Carolina issued a license to Samuel Chadwick of Carteret Precinct “to fish for Whale or Other Royall fish on ye Seay Coast of the Government and whatsoever you shall catch to convert to your own use paying to ye Hon. ye Governor one tenth parte of ye Oyls and bone Made by Vertue of this License.”

License Granted to Samuel Chadwick:

Most North Carolina whaling was based at Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks, although it extended throughout the region from Hatteras, southward. The season began in December, and continued into June. The peak months were February, March, and April.

Sperm whales, humpback whales, blackfish (short-finned pilot whales) and others were sometimes pursued, but the right whale (so named because it was the “right” whale to hunt) was the primary target. Right whales typically swam closer to shore, were more docile, and floated after being killed.

The typical Outer Banks whaleboat was 20-25 feet long, double-ended, high in the bow and stern, and constructed of lapped planks. It was designed to be rowed by four men. Another acted as steersman, while a sixth, often the captain, remained in the bow, ready to throw the harpoon.

The earliest harpoons employed in North Carolina were of the simple single-flue or two-flue variety. Later, “toggle-irons” (harpoons with a pivoting barbed head secured with a wooden shear pin) were used. After penetrating the whale’s muscle, tension on the harpoon line broke the shear pin, turning the barbed point at a right angle making it difficult to dislodge.

Outer Banks shore-whalers employed a drudge (also called a “drag,” a “drug,” or a “drogue”), a block of wood that was tied to the end of the 40- to 240-foot long harpoon line. Although the drudge acted somewhat as a sea anchor, slowing and tiring the whale, it was primarily intended as a buoy to help identify the harpooned whale’s position.

Unlike pelagic whalers, North Carolina whalers seldom maintained continuous contact with the harpooned whale. This may account for the fact that no Outer Banks whaler is known to have been killed in pursuit of a whale.

After the Civil War, shoulder guns were sometimes used to fire explosive “bomb lances” that penetrated and exploded deep within the whale’s body.

Dead whales were towed to shore, often requiring hours of hard rowing. A block-and-tackle was used to pull the carcass above the high tide line where it was butchered and tryed.

The trying process, which remained essentially unchanged for more than one hundred years, was graphically described by H. H. Brimley in his 1894 article, Whale Fishing in North Carolina: “The head is cut off and the whalebone cut out of the upper jaws in blocks and piled up like a shock of corn. The tongue is next cut out in pieces, being too large to handle whole…. The tools used in cutting up are known as spades. They are long and broad-bladed chisels, ground very sharp and fitted with a long wooden handle. The whole tool is some six or eight feet long, and the blade six or eight inches across. The blubber is cut in long strips with a pushing, jabbing motion of the spade and then crosswise so as to get it off in square blocks small enough for two men to handle. A hole is cut near one edge, a pole run through it and it is then carried across to the try kettles….”

Cutting up Whale Blubber on Shore:

Brimley continues, “The try kettles are large iron pots of about fifty gallons capacity…set in brick-work over one fire. The blubber, as it is cut from the carcass, is piled up near the try kettles. It is then ‘minced,’ either with a spade in a tub or on a bench with an old scythe blade, and is then thrown into the kettles. As the boiling is finished the oil is dipped out with a long-handled copper ladle and poured into the strainer, which consists of a wide-flaring trough with holes in the bottom, the holes being plugged loosely with bulrushes. The strained oil runs into a long dug-out trough with a partition across the center, the partition also having auger holes plugged with bulrushes. The secondary straining renders the oil perfectly clear, and from the lower end of the big trough it runs through a hole in the side into a small movable trough which connects with the bung-hole of the barrel. The barrel lies on its side in a hole in the ground and as soon as filled is lifted out and replaced by another. The crackling is dumped from the strainer in a pile and used as required, in conjunction with red cedar wood (the common growth on the banks), in keeping up the fire under the pot. On the leeward side of the kettles the steam from the boiling oil, combined with the thick smoke of the burning crackling, makes the smell one to be remembered.”

Trying Out the Oil:

In 1737 John Brickell, in The Natural History of North-Carolina, described an incident involving whaling and the Outer Banks:  “These Monsters [whales] are very numerous on the Coasts of North-Carolina, and the Bone and Oil would be a great Advantage to the Inhabitants that live on the Sand-Banks along the Ocean, if they were as dexterous and industrious in Fishing for them as they are Northwards; but as I observed before the People in these parts are not very much given to Industry, but wait upon Providence to throw those dead Monsters on Shoar, which frequently happens to their great advantage and Profit. For which reason abundance of Inhabitants dwell upon the Banks near the Sea for that Intent, and the benefit of Wrecks of Vessels which are sometimes driven in upon these Coasts. Not  many Years ago there were two Boats that came from the Northward to Ocacock Island, to fish, and carried away that Season Three Hundred and Forty Barrels of Oil, beside the Bone, but these Fishermen going away without paying the Tenths to the Governor, they never appeared to fish on these Coasts afterwards, or any other that I ever could hear of.”

Although shore-based whaling was always seasonal, and never amounted to more than a minor industry on the Outer Banks, whale oil was quite valuable as a lubricant and lamp fuel. Whale oil was especially prized for fuel in Outer Banks lighthouses. During the Proprietary period (prior to 1729), whale oil even became an official medium of currency.

With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, whaling in North Carolina was significantly curtailed. According to Marcus Simpson and Sallie Simpson in Whaling on the North Carolina Coast, “[t]he ensuing years of embargoes, seizures, war, destruction of ships, and port blockades decimated the American whaling enterprise. Just before the Revolution, the industry employed some 4,700 men and 360 vessels, with an annual production of 45,000 barrels of sperm oil, 8,500 barrels of whale oil, and 75,000 pounds of whalebone. By 1789 the fleet had been reduced to 130 vessels and the annual production of sperm oil to 10,000 barrels.”

In 1789, two North Carolina entrepreneurs and merchants, John Gray Blount and John Wallace, established a commercial entrepôt on a small oyster “rock” in Pamlico Sound between Ocracoke and Portsmouth. Dubbed Shell Castle, the island was home to more than forty people, including twenty-two slaves. Shell Castle had wharves and warehouses, a ship’s chandlery, and a tavern, as well as a wooden lighthouse and several dwellings for the owners, servants, and slaves.

Although Shell Castle was primarily used for “lightering” (transferring cargo from larger, sea-going ships to smaller, lighter vessels capable of negotiating shallower channels in Pamlico Sound), Blount and Wallace also engaged in mullet fishing, ship building, salvage operations, and storage services.

By 1793 the owners of Shell Castle had initiated a porpoise fishery, perhaps the earliest such operation, although others were established on the Outer Banks after the Civil War. Porpoises were prized for their oil, and for their skins, which produced a supple, waterproof leather suitable for boots. Porpoise meat was sometimes consumed locally, although its strong, oily flavor prevented it from being marketed commercially.

In a typical operation, fifteen to eighteen slaves in four small boats surrounded the marine mammals and contained them within heavy, large-mesh nets. Once trapped, thirty to forty porpoises at a time were surrounded by a smaller seine and hauled closer to shore. As David Cecelski writes in The Waterman’s Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, “The rest was a grisly business. Once they had trapped them in the surf, the slave boatmen waded into the water and knifed the dolphins that had not already drowned. Then they gaffed the animals and dragged them ashore. Cutting off the flippers and dorsal fins, the men stripped off the skin and blubber and rendered their oil by fire.”

Whereas a single right whale could yield more than 1,000 gallons of high quality oil for lamp fuel or lubricant, one dolphin might yield six to eight gallons of oil. However, a single large haul of one hundred or more dolphins could provide 750 gallons of oil, a more reliable source of income, obtained at less risk (especially for the slave owner).

In the early nineteenth century, porpoise fishing and whaling were an important commercial activity in Beaufort and Cape Lookout on the Carolina coast. In 1806 about 200 gallons of oil were processed there. The enterprises continued to expand until the outbreak of the Civil War when, as noted, the cost of boats, nets and other equipment stifled the industry until the mid-1880s, when three porpoise fisheries were again active in Cartaret County.

Fishermen set up tents and temporary huts (constructed of saplings, bull-rushes, and reeds) on Bogue Banks (west of Cape Lookout) and elsewhere along the Outer Banks, as base camps from which to pursue porpoises, whales, mullet and other fish.

Whaling on the North Carolina coast came to an end in March, 1916, when the last whale, a 57-foot right whale, was killed near Cape Lookout.

Porpoise fishing continued for another ten years. At least two porpoise factories were established at Hatteras in the late nineteenth century. In 1885, former Union officer Colonel Jonathan P. Wainwright commenced operation of his enterprise (Porpoise Oil and Leather Manufactury, Wainright and Co.) which continued until December, 1892. Hatteras native, John W. Rollinson, was captain and superintendant of one of two crews.

When porpoises were sighted, fishermen on the shore launched lapstrake dories (15-foot long lightweight double-ended rowing boats with high bows and sterns, constructed with overlapping hull planks). They set thousand-foot-long nets of extra heavy twine, and hauled the mammals onto the beach. In a procedure almost identical to the operation at Shell Castle one hundred years earlier, the porpoises were killed by stabbing them under the left fin.

The processing facility was located not on the beach, but on the sound side of Hatteras village, adjacent to a dock that extended into deep water. The facility consisted of large tanks positioned over furnaces where the jaw fat was “tryed” or rendered to produce high quality oil used for lubricants in watches, clocks, and other delicate instruments. Body blubber was tryed to produce a lesser grade oil for lamp fuel and other purposes. The hides were sold for manufacturing machinery belts.

A freight boat arrived periodically to transport the finished products to market.

Fishing for porpoises usually began in October or November, and lasted until the end of May. In the first season 1,295 porpoises were caught. By 1892, the porpoise fishery was moribund. Only 57 porpoises were harvested, all of them in December.

In 1887 a smaller porpoise fishery was begun by a man named Zimmerman. But already the industry was in decline. Cheaper kerosene was rapidly replacing whale and porpoise oil for lamp fuel. By 1890 low prices for porpoise hides added to the problem. It was simply too expensive to catch the animals, prepare the hides, and try out the oil.

There was a resurgence of porpoise fishing in the 1920s when Joseph K. Nye of New Bedford, Massachusetts, located a factory at Durant’s Island, on the sound side of Hatteras village. Nye’s operation ended in 1926. A local couple attempted to continue the enterprise, but that was short-lived, and porpoise fishing never recovered.

No sustained whale or porpoise fishery ever gained traction on Ocracoke Island. The name Try Yard Creek is the only surviving relic of a fascinating experiment that captured the attention of other Outer Bankers, but seems only to have been a very sporadic enterprise on Ocracoke.

*Dolphins and porpoises, though similar in appearance, are two distinct species of marine mammals. Dolphins, which migrate off-shore of the Outer Banks in pods, were typically called porpoises by local fishermen. For that reason, I frequently adopt the term “porpoise” to refer to the dolphins that frequent North Carolina waters.

Bibliography

The Outer Banks of North Carolina 1584-1958, by David Stick, UNC Press, 1958, pp. 184-187

The Waterman’s Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, by David S. Cecelski, UNC Press,
2001, p. 77

Paradise Lost, An Oral History of Portsmouth Island, by James E. White, III, Mount Truxton Publishing Company,
2012, pp. 185-191

Whaling on the North Carolina Coast, by Marcus B. Simpson, Jr., and Sallie W. Simpson, NC Division of Archives
and History, 1988

Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Interpretive
Themes of History and Heritage, November 2005

Whale Fishing in North Carolina, by Herbert Hutchinson Brimley, 1894

The Porpoise Fishery of Cape Hatteras, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, Vol. 14, Issue 1, 1885

http://www.nyelubricants.com/history.shtml

“The Porpoise in Captivity,” Zoological Society Bulletin, Vol. XVI, November, 1913

“Porpoise Fishery is Old,” The Day, October 31, 1917

A Historian’s Coast: Adventures Into the Tidewater Past, by David S. Cecelski, John f. Blair Publisher, 2000, Chapter 11, “Small Miracles”

History of Whaling In and Near North Carolina, US Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, by Randall R. Reeves and Edward Mitchell, March, 1988 (http://spo.nwr.noaa.gov/tr65opt.pdf)

“The Porpoise Factory” by Mary Helen Goodloe-Murphy, The Coastland Times, 2003 (http://www.outerbankscatch.com/news/2010/06/27/porpoise-factory)

Seasoned by Salt, A Historical Album of the Outer Banks, by Rodney Barfield, UNC Press, 1995, pp 56-65

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My father occasionally told me the story of the mid-nineteenth century Outer Banks “stovepipe hat” shipwreck. It allegedly happened at Rodanthe before my father’s time, so he did not know of it first-hand. But he had heard of the wreck from residents of Hatteras Island. The ship was carrying thousands of elegant beaver stovepipe hats, exactly the same headgear made popular by President Abraham Lincoln. When the ship broke apart, the hats washed up on the beach. In short order everyone on Hatteras Island was wearing stovepipe hats.

In recent years I became curious about the wreck. What was the name of the ship, I wondered. And in what year did it come ashore? Then I discovered a 1965 magazine advertisement put out by the North Carolina Tourism Bureau. It included a captivating image of a proud Outer Banks family, each one wearing a beaver hat and holding several more in their hands. It is titled “North Carolina’s Incredible Shipwreck.”

1965 North Carolina Tourism Image:

The text under the photo reads “After a heavy storm on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the native folk still search the shoreline near the rotting timbers of countless old shipwrecks for trinkets—and treasure.

“Beneath the famed gamefish waters of the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ rest more than 2,000 hapless vessels. Each of them has its own story.

“The most incredible tale of all, however, is told about the steamer Flambeau whose cargo of 10,000 stovepipe hats all washed ashore at once back in 1867, causing a ruckus that hasn’t been forgotten yet.

“Following the wreck of the Flambeau, there were more than 125 tall stovepipe hats for every man, woman and child on these banks. Easter that year was an elegant occasion.

“Those fine beaver toppers were on their way to becoming a prevailing fashion when the owners lodged complaint, and the Army came and seized the stylish headwear.

“Stovepipe hats are hard to find on the Outer Banks of North Carolina today. But the stories are as oft-told as ever, for these banks, where the first attempt was made to settle American, are the cradle of our history. And the ghosts of early colonists and pirates rustle easily here.”

I immediately did some research on the steamer Flambeau. David Stick’s 1952 book, Graveyard of the Atlantic, makes only one mention of the Flambeau, in a list of vessels totally lost, on page 248. The Flambeau is identified as a steamer that wrecked in March, 1867 at New Inlet. On a map of the coast of North Carolina, Stick shows New Inlet (since closed) just north of Rodanthe, on Hatteras Island. There is no mention of top hats in Graveyard of the Atlantic, nor in Stick’s 1958 book, The Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Ben Dixon McNeil, on the other hand, in his 1958 book, The Hatterasman, devotes two entertaining pages to the stovepipe hat wreck. Fred M. Mallison, author of The Civil War on the Outer Banks, tells the same story, which he learned from McNeil. According to McNeil, 10,000 silk hats were on board the Flambeau, en route to markets on the west coast of South America. When the vessel broke up “the beach was littered with hats, and it was not long before every man, woman, and child on this Island had one of his own.” He goes on to declare that “the beaver hat, and the taller the better, was very general Easter wear that spring.”

McNeil quotes Captain John Allen Midgett who remembered Captain Bannister Midgett saying that “even the porpoises were wearing stove-pipe hats that spring.” According to the story, the rightful owners of the hats prevailed upon military authorities to send troops to Hatteras to seize the hats and deliver them to the Military Governor of North Carolina.

As for the ship itself, McNeil states that even today, “the upper part of her boiler…[is plainly marked, and] sits about fifty yards offshore.”

Eventually I discovered several contemporary newspaper accounts of the wreck of the Flambeau. They tell a different story.

According to a letter from Major A. Compton, of the United States Army, who was on board the Flambeau at the time of the disaster, and published in the New York Times, dated March 10, 1867, titled “The Loss of the Steamship Flambeau,” “[t]he ship left Alexandria on the evening of the 26th of February, with five companies of the Fortieth United States Infantry on board, numbering nine officers and four hundred and sixty-two men, and two ladies, destined for Fort Fisher, Fort Caswell and Smithville, N.C…. On the morning of [March 1] we entered New Inlet, N.C…. [Shortly after 3 pm] the ship struck [the bar], and was hard and fast….

“During the night of the 1st inst. the surf, which roiled heavily, forced the ship about two lengths further toward the shore, leaving her in about six or seven feet of water.

“On the morning of the 2nd it was deemed advisable to make an effort to remove the troops from the vessel to the shore, and through the assistance and by the combined efforts ably, willingly and cheerfully rendered by Capt. Everson, his officers and crew, about 400 men were safely landed in the ship’s boats.

“Before daylight on the morning of the 3d, the wind had changed to northeast, and the surf rolled entirely over the ship. At times the spray flew over the foretopsail-yard. Her boilers shifted during the night, and she made water to the depth of six or seven feet in the lower hold. The wind had increased to a gale, and through a tremendous sea the remainder of the troops were safely landed.” (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9907E2DD1731EF34BC4852DFB566838C679FDE).

There is no mention of top hats in Major Compton’s account. Furthermore, the inlet just south of Fort Fisher, called New Inlet, was in New Hanorver County. The New Inlet where the Flambeau wrecked was definitely not the Dare County inlet of the same name.

A March 13, 1867, article in the New Bern Journal of Commerce (http://www.newspapers.com/image/52611693/) and a March 28, 1867 article in the Washington Daily Dispatch (http://www.newspapers.com/image/56099860/), confirm Major Compton’s story.

Numerous attempts to verify the Outer Banks top hat story from Hatteras Island residents yielded only comments such as “I grew up hearing the story, although my mother’s memory is very selective now & she doesn’t remember lots of the stories she told me,” or “Regarding the Stovepipe hat wreck, … I was hoping to gather more information. .. [but] I have had no success” or “Had no luck and no one seemed to really have definite info on those hats. Hope that something will surface.”

Attempts to verify the story by professional researchers were equally unproductive. Bland Simpson, (UNC, Department of English & Comparative Literature, Chapel Hill), Jessica A. Bandel (Historical Research Office, N.C. Office of Archives and History), and Michael Hill (Supervisor, Historical Research, NC Office of Archives and History) could only uncover secondary sources (viz. McNeil and Mallison). After extensive searching they were unable to track down a single contemporary primary source for the story.

Interestingly, as mentioned above, McNeil states that “the upper part of [the “stovepipe wreck’s]  boiler…[is plainly marked, and] sits about fifty yards offshore [of Hatteras Island].”

According to the Outer Banks Free Press (http://www.outerbanksfreepress.com/atlanticgraveyard.html), this boiler belongs to a different vessel, the Oriental:

“The Oriental…was a Federal Transport ship. The boat sank on May 16, 1862. The ship was 210 feet long. It is also known as the Stovepipe Hat Wreck. The ship lies about 200 yards off the beach at Pea Island National Wildlife Headquarters, three miles south of the Oregon Inlet on Rt. 12…. [T]he boiler stack [is] sticking out of the water.”

The Oriental (the “Stovepipe Hat Wreck”):

(Above image by Wilton Wescott (obx_shooter), @ http://s137.photobucket.com/user/obx_shooter/media/DSC_0040-1-3.jpg.html)

After considerable research I have become convinced that the elaborate and fanciful story of the top hats was invented by Ben Dixon MacNeil in a co-mingling of the story of the wreck of the Oriental (wrecked 1862 on Bodie Island, near New Inlet in Dare County) whose boiler looks like a stovepipe hat, and is often described as the “stovepipe hat wreck,” and the 1867 wreck of the Flambeau at New Inlet (in New Hanover County, near Fort Fisher).

As McNeil writes in The Hatterasman, “This is not a history. I am not a historian….”

Subsequently, Fred Mallison, the North Carolina Tourism Bureau (with the help of a staged photograph), local Hatteras Island residents, and others repeated the story uncritically, and frequently enough, for it to become an oft-repeated, and believed, Outer Banks legend.

I am disappointed to discover that thousands of top hats probably never washed up on the shores of the Outer Banks, that islanders did not strut around their villages on Easter Sunday morning bedecked like President Lincoln, and that this colorful Hatteras Island legend is just that…a legend.  But a great legend it is! As someone once said to me, “it’s a damn poor piece of cloth that can’t take a little embroidery.”

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The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1920. The amendment reads, in part, “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.”

After nearly thirteen years, the 18th Amendment was repealed by the ratification of the 21st Amendment, on December 5, 1933.

Prohibition against the sale of alcoholic beverages resulted in widespread bootlegging and rum running. From the very beginning, all manner of vessels were employed for smuggling alcoholic beverages from the French islands in Newfoundland, Canada, the Bahamas, and Mexico to coastal cities and towns in the United States.

The Outer Banks, in a strategic position on the east coast, saw its share of rum running.

On August 13, 1921, lookouts at the Portsmouth Island and Ocracoke Coast Guard Stations spotted a two-masted British schooner, the Messenger of Peace, hailing from Nassau, ashore on the north side of Ocracoke inlet. Both stations sent boats to offer assistance.

The ship’s captain reported that he had been seeking a port where he could obtain fresh water. Coast Guard personnel brought three barrels of water, and, after one failed attempt to free the vessel, they were successful in refloating the schooner in the early morning hours of August 14.

Within 24 hours a heavy blow once again forced the Messenger of Peace ashore. She was refloated at 3 p.m. However, remarks by some of the crew led Coast Guard officers to suspect she had been engaged in smuggling liquor into the United States. A search revealed no contraband, or so it was reported, and the vessel was released.

Four months later, at 4 p.m. on December 30, 1921, the lookout in the Portsmouth Island Coast Guard Station reported that a schooner had run ashore on the south side of Ocracoke Inlet.

It was the Messenger of Peace. The vessel was again refloated and boarded. Using the same explanation that he had offered in August, the Captain claimed that he was seeking a port where he could obtain food, water, and fuel (the schooner had been fitted with a 45 hp engine).

It turned out that the schooner was loaded with more than 1,000 cases of illegal liquor worth $100,000. The schooner and her crew were seized, and officials of the state Prohibition Commissions in Raleigh and Wilmington were notified, but not before Portsmouth islanders had an opportunity to partake of her bounty.

The Messenger of Peace had a colorful history. According to Robert Carse in his book, Rum Row, “Even a member of the clergy felt the call to fortune. The Reverend Mr. Dunn, who had worked long years at the propagation of the gospel through the Out Islands [in the Bahamas], resigned to become the master of [the] rum runner, [Messenger of Peace].”

Official reports of the seizure of the rum runner at Ocracoke Inlet neglected to include Portsmouth islanders’ enthusiastic reception of the stranded vessel. According to James E. White, III, in his book, Paradise Lost, an Oral History of Portsmouth Island, the Messenger of Peace was “full of rum and whiskey. The people on Portsmouth got that booze and divided it up.”

Carse relates that when the Messenger of Peace arrived at Ocracoke Inlet the captain “slid two cases of whiskey soundlessly over the stern for the crew of the Coast Guard patrol boat that pulled his craft clear into the channel. The county sheriff, however, …arrested the captain….” When he was released, Carse notes, it was with “the best wishes of the sheriff and shouts to return soon from the citizens.”

In 1969 Julian Gilgo recorded an interview with his grandmother, Mattie Gilgo (1885-1976). She was 36 years old when the rum runner ran ashore, and she remembered it with considerable amusement.

Speaking about the Messenger of Peace, Mattie Gilgo says, “Blessed Lord, she was nothing but whiskey, beer and wine. She come right on [chuckle] right on up almost to the [Life-Saving] Station dock [chuckle], that she did [chuckle]. Henry [Pigott] and Joe Roberts had it stacked up. He sold it. Henry, black Henry, were on his right legs [wasn’t drunk]. They made him a millionaire [chuckle] I mind [might] as well say. The money they paid him…God only knows.”

Mattie Gilgo’s son, Cecil (1912-1995), in a conversation with Ellen Cloud, recollected that Coast Guard officers became suspicious when they noticed the hatches on the Messenger of Peace were all sealed. When the captain and crew were taken ashore, three Coast Guardsmen were put on board. Cecil Gilgo explains that they opened the hatches. Soon, “word got out that it was whiskey,” and “they had a lot of visitors that night.”

When asked why the Messenger of Peace came into Portsmouth, Mattie Gilgo explains: “Why, Mac, Charlie Mac [Charles McWilliams], he got word to ‘em some way or the other, to bring it…bring some in. He and Wash [Washington Roberts] [chuckle],…when he got in there, the Captain went up to John Wallace’s, to have supper on the other end of the island [chuckle, chuckle]. The men went aboard and took charge of [chuckle] his whiskey [chuckle]. Lord, it was buried everywhere. It was buried in the hills, on the beach [chuckle], and I reckon there’s some there today. Some of it washed out by storms and tides, ‘cause some of it they couldn’t find. They had buried it [chuckle] but couldn’t find where they buried it. Abner, he had it buried in the wood house. He took the floor up and buried it under [chuckle] the house.”

Miss Gilgo continues with a degree of irony: “I reckon they all got drunk. There was Wash…now I don’t know ‘bout Captain Leonard [Williams]. I wouldn’t say if Mr. Leonard got drunk or not. There was Wash and Walter Yeomans [Officer in Charge, Portsmouth Coast Guard Station], you know he didn’t [chuckle] touch any of it, he’s a Harker’s Islander….”

Cecil Gigo echoes Mattie Gilgo’s recollections, saying “there were more drunks on Portsmouth then than there ever was at one place at one time.” In addition to native islanders, a group of hunters who were staying at Tom Bragg’s club house, learned of the illegal whiskey. By the time the revenuers arrived, “half the whiskey [was] gone.”

Mattie Gilgo laughs when she recollects those days: “Lord have mercy, why he [the ship’s Captain] stayed around Portsmouth. Walked around with his hands in his pockets…Let’s see now, what was his name? The boat’s name was the Message [Messenger] of Peace…that was the boat’s name….he [the captain] was a foreigner, he was not our nationality. I don’t remember what become of the crew.” According to Cecil Gilgo, the captain was eventually tried in New Bern, and sent to prison, but the Portsmouth islanders, thanks to the influence of the wealthy hunters, were released.

The 1920s were exciting times for Outer Bankers!

In 1923 another prohibition-era rum runner ran aground near Harker’s Island. The story of the misadventures of the Adventure is celebrated in the song “The Booze Yacht” (sung to the tune of “The Sidewalks of New York”), written by Ralph Sanders, and popularized by Ivey Scott. (The ”Beehive” was Cleveland Davis’ general store.) The song could have been written about the Messenger of Peace.

Down around the “Beehive,” Harker’s Island retreat,
Every night and morning the fishermen would meet.
One day there came a rounder; came running by the door,
Said, “Boys, let’s go to Cape Lookout;
There’s a Booze Yacht run ashore.”

This way, that way, to the Cape they’d run.
The coming of the Adventure, put the fishing on the bum.
Some lost their religion and back-slid by the score,
The “King Lock” stoppers they stood waist high
When the Booze Yacht run ashore.

Times have changed since those days.
When some were up in their “Gs”.
Others, they are down and out, but most feel just like me.
Some would give a hundred, and some a little bit more,
To see another time like that
When the Booze Yacht run ashore.

This way, that way, to the Cape they’d run.
The coming of the Adventure, put the fishing on the bum.
Some lost their religion and back-slid by the score,
The “King Lock” stoppers they stood waist high
When the Booze Yacht run ashore.

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