Following is Part II of the gripping & dramatic story of a 19th century tragedy, one of the greatest sea disasters in the history of the North Carolina coast, as told by Walter Howard, Ocracoke native, in 1952.

The story is related in two parts.


by Walter Howard

Summary of Part One: (Old “Kade” Williams tells how, in October of 1837, a survivor of the wreck of the steamboat “Home,” relates the tragic tale of a violent storm at sea.  The “Home” springs a leak and all efforts to bail the water from the hold are ineffective.  The captain steers toward Ocracoke’s beach but runs aground on the outer breakers.  The most harrowing part of the tale commences as lifeboats are dashed to pieces when passengers and crew attempt to save themselves from the powerful waves.  The survivor, Mr. Hussy, continues his story.)

Part Two

Death Rode the Waves

“A slight agitation was, however, apparent in the general circle. Some few hurried from one part of the boat to another seeking a place of greater safety. Yet most, and particularly those who had the charge of wives and children, remained quiet and calm observers of the scene before them. The boat, at length strikes–it stops–and is as motionless as a bar of lead. A momentary pause follows as if the angel of death shrunk from so dreadful a work of slaughter. But soon the work of destruction commenced. A breaker with a deafening crash swept over the boat carrying its unfortunate victims into the deep. At the same time a simultaneous rush was made towards the bow of the boat. The forward deck was covered. Another breaker came with irresistible force and all within its sweep disappeared. Our number was now frightfully reduced. The roaring of the waters, together with the dreadful crash of breaking timbers, surpassed the power of description.

“Some of the remaining passengers sought shelter from the encroaching dangers by retreating to the passage on the lee side of the boat that led from the after to the forward decks, as if to be as far as possible from the grasp of death.

“The destruction of the boat and loss of life was doubtless much more rapid than it otherwise would have been from the circumstance of the boat keeling to windward and the deck, which was nearly level with the water, forming an inclined plane upon which the waves broke with their full force. A large portion of those who rushed into this passage were ladies and children with a few gentlemen who had charge of them. The crowd was so dense that many were in danger of being crushed by the irresistible pressure. This passage contained perhaps thirty or more persons consisting of men, women and children with no apparent possibility of escape. Enclosed within a narrow aperture over which was the deck, and both ends of which were completely closed by the fragments of the boat and the rushing of the waves. While thus shut up, death appeared inevitable.

“Already both decks were swept of everything that was on them. The dining cabin was entirely gone and everything belonging to the quarter deck was completely stripped away, leaving not even a stanchion or particle of the bulwarks. All this was the work of about five minutes.”

Paddlewheel House Quickly Demolished

“The starboard wheelhouse, and everything about it, were soon entirely demolished. As so much of the ceiling forward of the starboard wheel had fallen during the day from its place, the waves soon found their way through all that remained to oppose them and were a few minutes time forcing deluges into the last retreat of those who had taken shelter in the passage already mentioned. Every wave made a frightful encroachment on our narrow limits and seemed to threaten us with immediate death. Hopeless as the condition of those thus hemmed in, yet still no a shriek was heard from them. One lady begged earnestly for someone to save her. In time of such alarm it is not strange that a helpless female should plead with earnestness for assistance from those who were about her.

“Another scene witnessed at this trying hour was still more painful. A little boy, the son of Hardy B. Croom of New Bern, N.C., was pleading with his father to save him but the unhappy father was too deeply absorbed in the other charges that rested upon him even to notice the imploring child. For at that time, as near as I could see from the darkness of the place, his wife hung upon one arm and his daughter of seventeen upon the other. He had one daughter besides, near the age of this little boy, but whether she had been washed overboard at that time I am not certain.

“After remaining here some minutes the deck overhead was split open by the violence of the waves which allowed me an opportunity of climbing out. This I instantly did and assisted my wife through the same opening. As I had now left those below, I am unable to say how they were lost as that part of the boat was very soon completely destroyed.  Their further sufferings could not have been much more prolonged.”

A Scene of Terror

“We were now in a situation which, from the time the boat struck, we had considered as the most safe and had endeavored to attain. Here we resolved to await our uncertain fate. From this place we could see the encroachment of the devouring waves, everyone of which reduced our thinned numbers and swept with it parts of our crumbling boat. For several hours previous the gale had been sensibly abating. For a moment the pale moon broke through the dispersing clouds as if to witness this scene of terror and destruction and to show the horror-stricken victims the fate that awaited them.

“While the moon yet shone, three men were seen to rush from the middle to the stern of the boat. A wave came rushing on. It passed over the deck and only one of the three was left. He had barely time to reach a large timber to which he clung when this wave struck him–and he too was missing. As the wave passed away the head of two of these men were seen above the water but they appeared to make no effort to swim. The probability is that the violence with which they were hurled into the sea disabled them. They sank to rise no more.

“During this time, Mr. Lovegreen  of Charleston continued to ring the ship’s bell which added to the gloom. It sounded like a funeral knell over the departed dead. Never before perhaps was a bell tolled at such a funeral as this.”

The Wreck of the Steamboat Home:


Afloat on a Raft

“While in this situation and reflecting on the necessity of being always prepared for the realities of eternity, our attention was arrested by the appearance of a lady climbing up on the outside of the boat abaft the wheel near where we were. Her head was barely above the deck on which we stood and she was holding to it in a most perilous manner. She implored help. I ran to her aid but was unable to raise her to the deck. Mr. Woodburn of New York now came and with his assistance the lady was rescued. She was then lashed to a large piece of timber by the side of another lady. The former lady, Mrs. Shroeder, was washed ashore on this piece of wreckage beside me. I had previously relinquished my place on the piece of wreckage and was compelled to get on a larger piece of the boat that lay near. This was almost immediately driven from its place into the breakers which instantly swept me from it and plunged me deep into the water. With some difficulty I gained the raft and continued to cling to this fragment as well as I could but was repeatedly washed from it, sometimes plunging deep into the water and coming up under it. After encountering all the difficulties that seemed possible to be borne, I was, at length, thrown on shore in an exhausted condition.

“At the time I was driven from the boat there were but few left. Of these four washed ashore with me were Mrs. Shroeder and Mrs. Lovegreen of Charleston, Mr. Cohen of Columbia, S.C. and Mr. Vanderace of New York. On reaching the beach there was no appearance of inhabitants but after wandering some distance I saw your light and followed it. I left the four I have mentioned sitting on the beach while I came to look for help.”

And thus Mr. Hussy finished his story.

“While this man was telling his story”, Kade continued, “someone in my family sneaked out of the house and gave the alarm that a steamer was ashore. It wasn’t very long before everybody knew about it and the whole population of the Island (about 300 people) turned out.  Men began to run by with lanterns and torches, screaming ‘Wreck on the beach’ and ‘Vessel ashore’.

“All the men folk went down to the wreck that night. It happened about five miles up the beach at a spot called the ‘Hammock.’ As soon as the men arrived at the scene they started to pull the drowned from the water. My father said that the last thing he found was a drowned child, the same as he had seen in his dream that very night.

“The following day was a sad day for this Island as well as for the survivors. The menfolk had worked from four o’clock that morning until sundown. Every piece of canvas was used to sew up the dead in for burial, as well as all the bed quilts that were donated by the people here on the Island. Most of the dead could not be identified and were buried just as they had been washed ashore with their clothing and jewelry on. Their hands had swollen so it was impossible to get the rings and bracelets off. Diamonds, pearl necklaces and jewelry of all descriptions were buried with the bodies and still remain in the sand until this day.”

“These earrings,” Kade said, pointing with pride to her ears with the end of her toothbrush, “were taken from the body of one of the ladies who had washed up on the beach.  My mother had a complete outfit salvaged from an old trunk on the boat. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. The owner must have been a very wealthy lady. My mother never would wear it. She hung it upstairs where she could look at it now and then until it rotted away.”

Having now finished her story, Kade removed the toothbrush from her mouth, fired one parting shot at the spittoon, toddled over to the window, looked out into the darkness and said in a voice almost inaudible, “God help the sailors on a night like this.”


Following is the gripping & dramatic story of a 19th century tragedy, one of the greatest sea disasters in the history of the North Carolina coast, as told by Walter Howard, Ocracoke native, in 1952.

The story is related in two parts.  Click on link at bottom of page to go to Part II.


by Walter Howard

Part One

When I was a small boy, I used to sit at night and listen to the older people tell of the shipwrecks along the coast of North Carolina, especially around Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Island were I was born. “God help the sailors on a night like this!” was, and is to this day, a household saying in our section of the country.

Old Arcadia Williams, who has been dead these many years, is responsible for the tale I’m about to tell. We will call her “Kade” as that was her nickname. Kade “slept out.”  What I mean by that is she didn’t sleep at home by herself, but always slept at some neighbor’s house. Kade’s people had been dead for years and she was all alone and afraid to sleep at home for fear, as she said, of being “taken with the miseries” and dying without anyone knowing about it.

Kade lived in an old house framed entirely from the beams of old shipwrecks. The rafters and sills still contained the bopper bolts and wooden pegs used in the original construction of some unfortunate derelict of the seas. The stairs were fashioned from a companionway which had been salvaged from a square rigger. The clock over the fireplace had been designed for some “Queen of the Seas”. There were wooden windows (as little glass was used in those days) and a wooden chimney which was always a source of wonder to me. I could never understand why it never caught on fire with so many sparks flying up its sooty exit, but it never did. Kade still did her cooking in the fireplace. The boys wanted to take up a collection to buy her a stove but she would have none of it. Her excuse was that old Ben Franklin was an infidel and that she would have none of his doings or inventions in her house, that the fireplace had been good enough for her folks and it would have to be good enough for her.

Kade could “cuss like a sailor” and woe be unto anyone who “ruffled” her feathers the wrong way, or should by any chance, be the recipient of her caustic, venomous tongue lashing. She is still remembered today for her biting wit and vitriolic sarcasm. Aside from those human weaknesses she was a good soul and didn’t have an enemy in the world. As a story teller her equal has never been found, by this writer at least.

It was my good fortune that Kade stayed at our house for five consecutive years. Although she could not read or tell the time by the clock, her arrival and departure didn’t vary thirty seconds. She also had the misfortune of being a cripple. She was a short, squat woman with a friendly, round face which boasted of countless fine wrinkles. She parted her hair in the center and drew it into a tight knot terminating in the nape of her neck where she fastened it with two wire nails whose protruding heads gave the appearance that a carpenter had been trying to nail her head fast to her body without any marked success.

In the Days of Red Flannels

She wore a suit of red flannel underwear, seven or eight underskirts and leg-of-mutton shirt waist buttoned down the front, a slat bonnet of a dark grayish material and a black dress whose hem always touched the ground. A cane made from a broom handle served the same purpose as a centerboard and at the same time accelerated locomotion.

A deep pocket was made on the inside of the outer dress for a snuff box which was a half-pound size baking powder can. Last but not least she wore a small checked apron with an additional pocket for her toothbrush. Not the kind of brush we use for scrubbing our teeth, as that art of hygiene and personal cleanliness was wholly unknown to her as it was to the rest of the Islanders. Kade’s toothbrush was a small branch or twig from the black gum tree about ten or twelve inches long (varying, of course, in length at the user’s discretion) of which the larger end was chewed for an indefinite period of time until a mop had been formed in the shape of a whisk broom. This was then opened in the manner of a shaving brush and dipped into the snuff box until the proper amount of snuff had accumulated with the aid of saliva. Then the so-called toothbrush would be inserted into the mouth, and “seated” in the jaw forming a lump about the size of a goose egg, and giving the alarming appearance to the casual observer that she had concealed an inflated balloon in her cheek, or was suffering from a large wen which had formed spontaneously on that side of her face. That filthy snuff dipping habit is still practiced today in this section of the island, although only by a few of the older people.

We were not allowed to speak during the time that this snuff dipping marathon was in progress, for fear we might upset the equilibrium of this pastime. Sometimes my grandmother would begin her dipping just about the time Kade had finished hers, thereby prolonging the suspense out of pure cussedness. Finally the snuff dipping came to an end and Kade settled back in her chair and commenced the following narrative.

A Vivid Dream of Death

“It was in the fall of the year,” she began, drawing the big cuspidor a little closer so as to get a better range for her spitting. “It was in October, a heavy Northeaster had been blowing for two days and getting worse by the hour. It never blew any harder nor rained any more since Noah’s Ark. It blew that big oak down, Clarissa,” she said, turning to my grandmother, “that stood to the eastward of our smokehouse, and those two red cedars that stood between our house and old Kit Neal’s place. Young’uns, I thought every gust of wind would be the last, as that old house of ours wasn’t any too strong. It kept up for eight solid hours. Along about two o’clock that night Father Jack who had lain down upstairs, had a nightmare. Young’uns, he almost scared all hands of us to death. Brother Wid [short for Dinwiddie] pulled him out of bed and sister Beck [short for Rebecca] threw a pitcher of water in his face. During all this time, mind you, the wind and rain was roaring so loud we could hardly hear each other talk. Finally we brought him out of his fit and he told us his dream. He said he had dreamed of going down to the sea and beholding a terrible disaster with hundreds of people washed upon the sand and that he had picked up an infant only to discover it was drowned. As he stood there on the beach holding the child in his arms, the sea had turned itself into a horrible monster and was reaching out with clutching hands trying to grasp him and pull him in with the rest of the drowned.

“While we were listening to this story,” continued Kade, “literally hair on end and mouth agape, there came a knocking at the door, and when brother Wid opened the door there stood as fine a figure of a drowned man as ever I laid eyes on. Before anyone had a chance to speak to him, he turned loose the door knob and pitched head foremost onto the floor, landing about two feet from where I was sitting on a stool in the corner of the fireplace. The men folk managed to get him over by the fire and thaw him out. It was fully a half hour before he was able to speak. He told us that he had just washed ashore from a steamer that had struck the beach about five miles away and he believed everybody aboard was drowned. Upon reaching the beach, he had seen a dim light in the distance and had walked toward it until reaching the woods where he lost sight of it. He had groped around in the dark until he spied the light in our window. He said the steamer had sprung a leak after rounding Cape Hatteras and the captain had run her ashore in a futile effort to save the passengers and crew. Her name was the ‘Steamboat Home’ bound from New York to Charleston with about 130 passengers aboard.

“After his clothes had dried and we had given him some hot coffee and a bite to eat, he told us the whole story. He introduced himself as Mr. Hussy and while we drew our chairs up close to him he told us his story.

The Voyage Begins

“We left New York Saturday,” said Mr. Hussy. “The weather was pleasant and all on board appeared to enjoy in anticipation a delightful and prosperous passage. On leaving the wharf, cheerfulness appeared to fill the hearts and enliven the countenances of our floating community. Already conjectures had been hazarded as to the time of our arrival at the destined port and high hopes were entertained of an expeditious and pleasant voyage. Before six o’clock a check to these delusive expectations was occasioned by the boat being run aground on the Roamer Reef Shoal near Sandy Hook [New Jersey]. It being ebb tide, it was found impossible to get off before the next flood; consequently the fires were allowed to burn out and the boat remained until the flood tide took her off, which was between ten and eleven o’clock at night, making the time of detention about four hours. As the weather was perfectly calm, it cannot reasonably be supposed that the boat could have received any material injury from this accident, for during the time that it remained aground it had no other motion than an occasional roll on the keel from side to side. The night continued pleasant.

“The next morning (Sunday) a moderate breeze prevailed from the northeast. The sails were spread before the wind, and the speed of the boat, already rapid, was much accelerated. All went on pleasantly till about noon when the wind had increased and the sea became rough. At sunset the wind blew heavily and continued to increase during the night. At daylight on Monday, it had become a gale.

“During the night much complaint was made that the water came into the berths, and before the usual time of rising, some of the passengers had abandoned them on that account.

“The sea raged frightfully from the violence of the gale, causing a general anxiety among the passengers. But still they appeared to rely on the skill and judgment of the captain and officers supposing that every exertion would be used on their part for the preservation of so many valuable lives entrusted to their care. Early on Monday land was discovered, nearly ahead, which, by many, was supposed to be False Cape on the Northern tip of Hatteras.”

Ship Springs Leak

“Soon after this discovery, the course of the boat was changed from southerly to southeasterly, which was the general course through the day, though with some occasional change. The condition of the boat now was truly alarming–it bent and twisted when struck by the wave as if the next one would rend it asunder, the panels of the ceiling were falling from their places and the hull, as if united by hinges, was bending against the feet of the braces. Throughout the day the rolling and pitching were so great that no cooking could be done on board.

“As I have already stated, the boat was, during the day, on a southeasterly course and consequently in what is called the trough of the sea, as the wind was from the northeast. Late in the afternoon the boat was reported to be in 23 fathoms of water when the course was changed to a southwesterly. Soon after this it was observed that the course was again changed to northwesterly, when the awful truth burst upon us, that the boat must be filling, for we could imagine no other cause for this sudden change. This was but a momentary suspense, for within a few minutes all the passengers were called on to bail in order to prevent the boat from sinking.

“Immediately all were employed, but with little effect, for notwithstanding the greatest exertions on the part of the passengers, including even many of the ladies, the water was rapidly increasing, and gave the most conclusive evidence that unless we reached the shore within a few hours, the boat must sink at sea, and probably not a soul left to communicate the heart-rending intelligence to bereaved and disconsolate friends.

“Soon after the boat was headed towards the land, the water had increased so much so as to reach the fire under the boilers and it was soon extinguished. Gloomy indeed was the prospect before us, with about 130 person in a sinking boat far out at sea on a dark and tempestuous night, with no other dependence for reaching the shore than a few small and tattered sails; our condition might be considered tragic. But with all these disheartening circumstances, hope, delusive hope, still supported us.”

Women Were Lashed to the Boats

“Although it was evident that we must soon sink, and our progress toward the land was slow, still we cherished the expectation that the boat would finally be run ashore and thus most of us be delivered from a watery grave.

“Early in the afternoon the ladies had been provided with strips of blanket that they might be lashed to such parts of the boat as could afford the greatest probability of safety.

“In this condition and with these expectations, we gradually, but with a motion nearly imperceptible, approached what to many of us was an untried and almost an unknown shore. At about eleven o’clock those that had been employed in bailing were compelled to leave the cabin as the boat had sunk until the deck was nearly level with the waters and it appeared too probable that all would soon be swallowed up by the foaming waves. The heaving of the lead indicated an approach to shore.

“Soon was the cheering intelligence of land — land announced by those on the lookout. This, for a moment, aroused the sinking energies of all when a general bustle ensued, in the hasty, but trifling preparations that could be made for safety as soon as the boat should strike. But what were the feelings of an anxious multitude, when instead of land, a range of angry breakers were visible just ahead, and land, if it could be seen at all, was but half perceptible in the distance far beyond.”

No One Would Listen to Reason

“As every particular is a matter of interest, it may not be improper to state that one individual urged the propriety of lowering the small boats and putting the ladies and children into them for safety with suitable persons to manage them before we struck the breakers. By this arrangement, had it been effected, it is believed that the boats might have ridden out the gale during the night and have been rescued in the morning by passing vessels and thus all, or nearly all, have been saved. But few supported this proposition and it could not be done without the prompt interference of those who had authority to command and who must be obeyed.

“Immediately before we struck, one or two passengers, aided by some of the seamen, attempted to seek safety in one of the boats at the quarter deck when a breaker struck it, swept it from the davits and carried with it a seaman who was instantly lost.

“A similar attempt was made to launch the long-boat from the upper deck by the chief mate, Mr. Matthews, and others. It was filled with several passengers and some of the crew but as we were already within the verge of the breakers, this boat shared the fate of the other, and all on board, about ten in number, perished.

“Now commenced the most heart-rending scene of all. Wives clinging to husbands, children to parents and women who were without protectors seeking aid from the arm of a stranger, all awaiting the results of the next moment, which might bring with it either life or death. Though an intense feeling of anxiety must, at this time, have filled every breast, yet not a shriek was heard nor was there any extraordinary exclamation of excitement or alarm.”


This past winter as I was walking along the beach with my hat pulled down over my ears and my collar turned up against the chilling wind I was surprised to spy a quantity of onions, apples, cabbages and assorted other fruits and vegetables scattered along the high tide line.  I never did find out exactly where this flotsam came from, though it probably was originally in a container that was washed off the deck of a passing freighter.  I gathered a few onions and as many apples as I could carry.  They were fresh and tasty.

In days gone by the unfortunate fate of sailing schooners that ventured too near our coast was also the cause for the occasional and unexpected delivery of  lumber, food, livestock and all manner of other goods to our island.

My father recalls a ship laden with bananas that wrecked on the beach when he was a small child.  By his account, everyone on the island had baskets, boxes and sacks filled with bananas, a fruit that normally was scarce in this isolated village.  He also recalls stories of the time a schooner loaded with silk top hats ran aground and broke up in the surf.  I can only imagine the scene–men, women and barefoot children traipsing around the narrow sand lanes from house to house showing off their new headwear.  Sunday morning church services were very likely a sight to behold.

Not all that many years ago, in the mid 1970’s, crates of shoes bound for Jim Jones’ ill-fated compound in Guyana washed ashore.  Frequently, in the days following, conversations along the road or in the Post Office were focused on trading shoes in the hopes of locating a complete pair that not only matched, but suited one’s tastes.

My great-grandfather, James Howard, was the keeper of the Life Saving Station at Hatteras Inlet at the turn of the twentieth century.

Keeper James Howard:
James Howard
Recently I discovered the following, unattributed account of the wreck of the “Pioneer.”  Although Keeper Howard features prominently in the story and the date is given as August, 1920, my great-grandfather died in 1904.  I am certain  this account actually refers to the wreck of the wooden steamer “Pioneer” hailing from Philadelphia which, according to official records, “wrecked on Ocracoke Beach, 15 miles SW of station, about 5 hundred yards from land.  Sunk –went all to pieces….all saved….Vessel total lost….about 5% of cargo saved.” This was on October 14, 1889.

The wreck of the Pioneer:

“It was like manna from heaven when the vessel ‘Pioneer,’ a heavily loaded wooden freight steamer, was wrecked off Ocracoke in a violent storm back in August, 1920 [actually, October 14, 1889].  Everything from Bibles to cabbages floated ashore.  Hams, bananas, barrels of flour, casks of alcohol, bladders filled with snuff and a great deal of canned food came into the Island, which was flooded by the tide, and everywhere folks were knee-deep in water sweeping up valuable debris as things washed by them.

One old fellow threw away his old shoes when he spied a new pair drifting toward him, only to find the new ones were both for the same foot.  One woman gathered up enough bladders of snuff to fill a barrel which she proudly kept upstairs in her house for all to marvel at.  She happily contemplated a future with a plenteous supply of snuff.

The entire crew of the ‘Pioneer’ was saved, and they joined the islanders in rescuing the cargo.  ‘Come on over to my house–there’s plenty to eat’ was the cry of the generous native to any stranger around, for the wrecked cargo had yielded more than enough to supply the island with a day’s rations.

The late Theodore S. Meekins, prominent Manteo real estate and insurance man, saw the wreck of the ‘Pioneer’ and remembered these incidents concerning it.  He believed the ‘Pioneer’ was the last wooden steam vessel seen in these parts, and when it hit it went into pieces and sank almost immediately.  The ship struck during the daytime and was plainly visible from the shore.  The observers on shore could see the boat break into pieces and disappear into a raging sea.

Mr. Meekins recalled the auction held in connection with that part of the cargo not taken by the natives during the storm.  There were only two magistrates on Ocracoke and both were fighting each other for the privilege of selling the cargo. A 50-gallon container of alcohol to be auctioned off had been considerably decreased by the frequent visits of natives down to take a little drink or two.

Finally, a few days before the auction, Captain Jim Howard stopped them by planting himself firmly on top of the barrel and guarding it with his life.  When the barrel was brought up for sale at the auction Captain Jim was astride it, and he was sold with the barrel.  He bought it himself for five dollars.

So keen was the auction that one barrel of flour brought six dollars.  And after the sale the strangers who had come down to Ocracoke for the auction were treated grandly by the natives before time to depart.”

Be sure to stop by Village Craftsmen and say hello next time you are visiting the island.  You can see Keeper Howard’s photo inside the shop along with a brief Howard family history.

Until next time, we wish you a fun and enjoyable summer vacation no matter where you spend it.

Philip and the entire staff at Village Craftsmen