My Ocracoke: Life Amidst 250 Years of Family History

(The following article is reprinted from the Outer Banks Magazine, Volume 4, 2016.)

Story by Philip Howard
Photographs by Daniel Pullen

At one time nearly every house on Ocracoke had a porch, or as islanders call it, a pizer (from the Italian piazza), where family and neighbors gathered in the evening to visit and share stories.

My grandparents’ 1865 “story and a jump” cottage with a pizer sits along a narrow, sandy lane in Ocracoke village. The modest front porch complements the house’s white clapboard siding and crimson trim. A traditional wooden porch swing hangs from the rafters. Hand-hewn “knees” salvaged from a wrecked sailing vessel hold the floor joists in place.

A distinctive feature of an island story and a jump house is the addition of small upstairs windows that open under the roof of the pizer. Many a summer evening, as a youngster, I would lie on the bedroom floor with my ear to those windows, listening as Grandmama Aliph hummed a tune while peeling shrimp, or eavesdropping on uncles and aunts as they related exciting stories about shipwrecks and hurricanes or laughed about making meal wine. If I was lucky I would hear a ghost story, maybe the one about Old Diver who haunts the George Howard cemetery, or the one about Mad Mag and the cat she cooked for dinner.

Today I am fortunate to live in this historic home, and it is a rare evening from spring through fall that I do not relax on the pizer, often with family and friends. Not far away are dozens of my family’s cemeteries, houses that belonged to a host of relatives, and the Methodist Church my grandfather helped build. Directly across the lane is where my Uncle Marvin and Aunt Leevella lived. Marvin Howard, who was born in my house in 1897, was the second child of Homer and Aliph O’Neal Howard. Like so many island men before him, he followed the sea for his living.

For generations, the sea was an important element in the lives of island natives. William Howard, the progenitor of our Ocracoke family, was born in coastal North Carolina in 1686. He went to sea as a young man, and by early 1717 he was associating with Benjamin Hornigold, an odious Bahamian pirate captain. Just a few months later Howard was sailing with Edward Teach, soon to go down in history as the notorious Blackbeard. After obtaining command of the Queen Anne’s Revenge and making it his flagship, Blackbeard assigned William Howard as his quartermaster, the senior officer and chief representative for the pirate captain and crew. Together they attacked many a ship and plundered cargoes of untold value.

In the summer of 1718, several months after receiving a royal pardon for acts of piracy, William Howard traveled to southeastern Virginia, where Gov. Alexander Spotswood had him jailed for violating his pardon by continuing “to Perpetrate his wicked and Pyratical designs at sundry times and places…with…Edwd Tach and other [of] their Confederates and associates.”

In October William Howard was sentenced to be hanged. But by an amazing stroke of luck, the king’s latest “Act of Grace” was delivered to HMS Pearl, the ship upon which William Howard was confined, just hours before his scheduled execution. He was released.

Little is known about William Howard’s life or whereabouts for the next few decades. However, in 1759 a William Howard purchased “Ye Island of Ocreecock,” containing 2,110 acres, for £105. He became the first Colonial owner of Ocracoke to make his home on the island and likely had already been serving as a ship’s pilot for a number of years. Most researchers believe that he and William Howard the pirate were one and the same person.

Despite this apparent piratical heritage, most of the Howards of Ocracoke Island have led exemplary lives and have been involved in the civic life of the community for more than 250 years. Many distinguished themselves as early inlet pilots, life-savers, ship captains, sailors and national military leaders. Others were merchants, carpenters, even professional musicians. Surprisingly, only a few were fishermen. The women tended to their children and managed large households.

As a young man, my Uncle Marvin Howard worked up north with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, eventually earning his captain’s license. In 1943, having been promoted to lieutenant colonel, he became the first Army officer designated commodore of a fleet of armed merchant vessels sent to Europe. An internal 1948 document described him as “the best dredge operator in America.” At retirement, Uncle Marvin returned to his beloved island home and organized Ocracoke Troop 290, the only mounted Boy Scout troop in the nation. The boys often stopped by his house just to spend time with their scoutmaster. He showed them how to tie square knots, sheet bends and bowlines. He showed them how to groom their ponies, and how to keep bridles and reins supple. He taught them fairness, honesty and courtesy.

And he told stories of far-away places, of war, of storms at sea, of people he’d met, of lessons he’d learned. Marvin Howard’s impact on the lives of his Scouts was summed up by former scout Wayne Teeter: “I learned more in Scouts than I ever did in school.”

At times when I sit on my pizer and gaze down the sandy lane, I imagine I can see Uncle Marvin gallop by on his spirited Banker pony, Lady, and Grandpapa Homer, one of the island’s most accomplished horsemen, who they say could catch a wild pony with his bare hands.

Another Ocracoke Island native and equestrian was Cousin Ira Thomas Wyche. The son of Lorena Howard and the Rev. L.O. Wyche, Cousin Ira followed a military career and distinguished himself during World War II as commander of the 79th Division when he landed his troops on Utah Beach in Normandy. Gen. Wyche and his division, often in fierce combat, advanced across Europe, contributing to the defeat of Germany. During this time Gen. Wyche worked closely with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. He was fond of riding his thoroughbred horse in training areas while observing troops. At his retirement, in 1948, Ira Wyche held the rank of Major General.

My house is just a short distance from Howard Street, the lane where my father, Uncle Marvin, Cousin Ira and many others played as children. Howard Street is Ocracoke’s most historic unpaved road. Centuries-old cottages, ancient live oaks and five generations of Howard family cemeteries, most enclosed by moss-covered picket fences, line the street. My parents and grandparents are buried there, as are other ancestors, including my great-grandparents, James and Zilphia Howard, and eight of their children who died in infancy.

During the Colonial period, and into the mid-19th century, when as many as 1,400 ships passed through Ocracoke Inlet annually, most island men earned their living as pilots, sailors who knew the local waters and were enlisted to guide sailing vessels across the bar and through the narrow channels.

In 1846 a hurricane opened the more navigable Hatteras Inlet, and shipping soon moved there. A number of Ocracoke pilots followed, but many descendants of William Howard remained on Ocracoke. With dwindling opportunities for piloting, young islanders, including my great-grandfather, James Howard, shipped out on sailing vessels.

In 1883 the United States Life-Saving Service established a station at Hatteras Inlet on the north end of Ocracoke Island. James Howard was appointed keeper. Until he retired 20 years later, Capt. Jim and his six surfmen patrolled the beach, always ready to aid stranded sailors. One of my most treasured possessions is a bound volume of Capt. Jim’s original shipwreck reports, submitted between 1883 and 1894. His handwritten accounts employ unconventional spelling but are elegantly penned, easy to read and lovely to look at.

My grandfather, Homer Howard, followed in his father’s steps, first serving as a sailor on coastal schooners, later as a life-saver and finally as a U.S. Coast Guardsman.

When I walk through our family cemeteries I often stop by my ancestors’ markers to remember how they risked their lives in storms and hurricanes to rescue hundreds of sailors, most of whom hailed from distant cities or even other countries. Many were of different races and spoke foreign languages. My great-grandfather Capt. Jim and his crew went to their aid without hesitation. Capt. Jim was well regarded by his superiors, his neighbors and his family. On his tombstone are these words: “Tis hard to break the tender cord when love has bound the heart. Tis hard, so hard, to speak the words, ‘We must forever part.’”

Nearby is Edgar Howard’s grave. His tombstone is emblazoned with a banjo and the words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” a reference to the days he played the vaudeville circuit with Gene Autry, Milton Berle and Al Jolson. In retirement, Edgar delighted in performing at island functions, singing cowboy songs and local ditties, strumming his banjo and regaling his audience with stories.

Edgar’s life reminds me that the Howards of Ocracoke are multi-talented and also have a great sense of humor. Uncle Marvin, especially, loved to have fun and is remembered for many of his antics. My father, Lawton Howard, was known on the island for his impish humor, good nature and twinkle in his eye. In the 1960s he worked for the N.C. ferry division at Hatteras Inlet. One summer afternoon a young couple pulled into line moments after the ferry had departed. The man asked Lawton if there was anywhere he could get a glass of water for his wife, who was pregnant. Lawton invited the couple to follow him into the port captain’s office. He opened the refrigerator door. Two water jugs, one empty and the other full, rested on a shelf. Lawton took out the full jug. He left the door ajar, and the husband peered inside.

“Why do you keep an empty jug in your refrigerator?” he asked.

“That’s for them that don’t want no water,” was my father’s reply.

My father’s younger brother, Uncle Homer, was born in 1917. Named not for his father but for Homer Rodeheaver, popular song leader for the energetic and influential evangelist Billy Sunday, Uncle Homer is remembered by all who knew him as an eccentric representative of the 10 generations of Howards who have called Ocracoke home.

After an honorable discharge from the Navy in 1948, Uncle Homer fell on hard times, often staying with relatives. He worked many unusual jobs on the mainland, at one time beating the drum for the dancing camel in a mid-20th-century circus act.

Among my most vivid early memories is the time Uncle Homer came to stay with us when my father was working on dredges and tugboats in Philadelphia. I was 10 years old and fascinated with Uncle Homer’s tattoos of ships, anchors and other nautical themes. With a conspiratorial smile, Uncle Homer once sat down on the sofa, rolled up his pants legs and showed me the naked ladies tattooed on his calves. I was delighted when he flexed his muscles and made the ladies dance for me.

My house sits on Lawton Lane, a narrow road named for my father. When I was a child the old kitchen still stood, along with the old water cistern, connected to the rear of the house by a wooden boardwalk. On Howard Street, several houses still have their cisterns and detached summer kitchens. Walking down the street brings back memories of fresh flounder frying on Grandmama’s wood stove, or visiting Uncle Stanley and dipping drinking water from his cistern with a whelk shell.

Everywhere on Ocracoke are reminders of my Howard family. On the beach at the north end are several pilings, all that remains of the 19th century life-saving station where my great-grandfather and his crew launched their surf boat. Elsewhere on the beach, wind and waves periodically uncover timbers from 19th century schooners, silent witness to tragedy at sea and daring rescues.

My children and grandchildren — the tenth generation of Ocracoke Howards — love to hear stories about their ancestors. They are proud to be part of a family that served their country honorably, braved storms to save the lives of numerous sailors, and helped make their island community a better place to live. They have also inherited the Howard sense of humor. They sometimes place an empty water pitcher on the dining room table and tell guests, “That’s for them that don’t want no water.” And when the weather is mild the younger ones often lie on my upstairs bedroom floor, by the low windows, and listen to the grown-ups on the pizer. They love to hear the stories, especially the story of Uncle Homer and his dancing ladies.

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The Ghosts of Springer’s Point
© Philip Howard, 2003

With 42 acres of maritime forest, Springer’s Point remains one of the last undeveloped treasures in Ocracoke village.  Although that will likely change somewhat with the construction of homesites on two large lots in the southwest corner of this tract, and the potential development of eight additional acres on the edge of existing development, the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust has succeeded in purchasing the core 31 acres of this remarkable area.

(Click here to learn how you can make a donation to help preserve Springer’s Point.)

Springer’s Point

The preservation of a substantial portion of Springer’s Point highlights the natural and historic significance of this area of Ocracoke village.  For some years, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the island was used chiefly by mainland colonists for raising cattle, sheep, and other livestock. In addition, a navigable, deep water channel passes close to the southwest shoreline, near Springer’s Point.

It was in this area that some of the first permanent residents built modest homes.  As early as 1715 the colonial assembly recognized the need for establishing pilots on Ocracoke Island.  The pilots were to be responsible for seeing that vessels bound for the mainland were guided through the narrow channels between the numerous shoals.  The assembly therefore passed an act for “settling and maintaining Pilots at.….Ocacock Inlett.”  The settlement was dubbed “Pilot Town” but there is no evidence that pilots actually settled there until sometime in the 1730’s.

Although much of the low-lying shoreline has succumbed to significant erosion over the years, today Springer’s Point is thickly covered with ancient, gnarled live oak trees, English Ivy, and numerous other trees and plants indigenous to Ocracoke and the Outer Banks.  Standing underneath the canopy of branches and year-round foliage, especially at daybreak or dusk, leaves one with a sense of quiet awe and timeless wonder.

Live Oaks at Springer’s Point

Following one of the narrow paths through a tunnel of thick growth leads onto a narrow, sandy beach where gentle waves from Pamlico Sound lap against the seaweed-strewn shoreline.  The sky is bright here, as one looks out towards the distant horizon. Just under the breaking waves lie numerous pieces of broken shell.

Tunnel Through the Woods at Springer’s

Sometimes a stroller is rewarded by spying a piece of broken crockery, or other man-made artifact. I once retrieved a small, primitive clay pipe bowl from the water along Springer’s Point.  Others have reported finding arrowheads left behind by Ocracoke’s earliest adventurers.  No evidence exists to indicate that Native Americans ever established a permanent settlement on Ocracoke Island.  However, they must have frequented the island, especially the area around Springer’s Point, gathering clams, oysters, crabs and fish, all of which are abundant in the nearby waters

Old Stone Pipe Bowl

Just offshore, hardly more than a clamshell’s throw away, is “Teach’s Hole.”  This channel connects the Atlantic Ocean and Ocracoke Inlet with the deeper waters of Pamlico Sound.  Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard the Pirate, frequented these waters during his brief career.  This was, in fact, Blackbeard’s favorite anchorage.  From one of the higher dunes, or from one of the trees on shore, it would have been possible to spy any ships approaching Ocracoke Inlet.

In October of 1718, in the vicinity of Springer’s Point, Captain Blackbeard hosted one of the largest gatherings of pirates ever to be held.  Teach, along with pirate captains Israel Hands, Charles Vane, Robert Deal, and John Rackham, partied for “some days,” along with their motley crews.  Rum flowed freely and hogs and cows were butchered and barbecued on the open beach.

It was also at Teach’s Hole channel, only one month later, on November 22, 1718, that Blackbeard met his fate in a fierce battle with Lt. Robert Maynard of the Royal Navy. The decks were running with blood and the air was thick with gunpowder smoke. Blackbeard, himself, was wounded twenty-five times.  Towards the end of the battle, Blackbeard nearly dispatched his adversary.  A mighty blow from Teach’s cutlass severed Maynard’s sword at the hilt.  As Maynard stepped back to regain some advantage, Blackbeard moved in for the kill.  At that fateful moment, one of Maynard’s sailors, a Scotsman, approached the villain from behind and, with a mighty slice of his sword, severed the buccaneer’s fearsome head from his powerful body.

Blackbeard’s disembodied head was tied to the bowsprit of Maynard’s sloop.  The gruesome trophy was carried to Williamsburg, Virginia, where it was stuck on a pole at the entrance to the harbor, a grim warning to Teach’s “Brethren of the Coast.”  Before departing from Pamlico Sound, however, Maynard and his men tossed Blackbeard’s body over the side of his boat.  Legend has it that Teach swam around the vessel seven times as an eerie reminder that he was bigger than life itself.

Even today, the spirit of Edward Teach lives on in the consciousness of those brave enough to visit the area near his watery grave, especially after dark. It is not uncommon for visitors to Springer’s Point to report seeing unusual lights on the water, or among the trees and bushes nearby.  Rustling of the tree limbs and other odd movements and unidentified sounds often seem to emanate from within the otherwise protected confines of Springer’s Point.  More than one person has reported feeling the presence of the ghost of Blackbeard, searching in vain for his head.

View of Teach’s Hole

The existence of a graveyard at Springer’s Point only adds to the uneasiness people feel there.  Although this area was quite busy during the early history of Ocracoke Island, today it holds mainly memories.  Other graves are likely located in the area, but only one stone marker remains from the early period, that of Daniel Tolson who died in 1879.  Located on a narrow ridge, the gravesite is extremely difficult to find.  After trudging through wet, marshy lowland and then pushing through thorns, briars and thick underbrush one is finally rewarded with the sight of a single, prominent marble headstone on the edge of a small grassy clearing.

Grave Marker for Daniel Tolson (1816-1879)

William Howard, Sr. purchased Ocracoke on July 30, 1759.  He was the last person to own the entire island, and the first of the colonial owners to make his residence there.  Less than two months later, on September 26, 1759, William Howard sold one half of the island to his friend, John Williams.

John Williams’ portion of Ocracoke included what is now known as Springer’s Point.  In June of 1787 John Williams sold a sizeable section of his holdings, including Springer’s Point, to his son, William Williams.  William Williams (born 1745/50) died in testate in 1799.  At the time of his death he owned land extending from the mouth of Cockle Creek (now known as the “Ditch”), around the western edge of the Creek (now known as Silver Lake), and from there, south, all the way to the ocean and back around the Sound shore to the Ditch.

During the period of Ocracoke’s colonial history the north shore of Ocracoke Inlet was much closer to the area referred to as the First Grass.  It was only later, after William Williams purchased the land from his father, that the South Point built out in the vicinity of the present-day inlet.

In 1801 William Williams’ holdings were divided among his heirs by court-appointees.  Six plats were designated, one each going to the following:

  • Comfort Williams, daughter (and her husband, George Dixon from Portsmouth Island)
  • Elizabeth Williams, daughter
  • William Williams, son
  • Delancy Williams, minor daughter
  • Thomas Wahab, guardian to Delancy Williams (Thomas Wahab was William Williams’ first cousin, the son of Job Wahab and Jane Williams, William Williams’ sister.)
  • Six and one half acres of Comfort Williams’ portion was conveyed for the use of the public pilots.  This was set aside to compensate for the loss of other land due to erosion..

As mentioned, many of the earliest permanent settlements in Ocracoke Village were situated there, on the southwest side of Cockle Creek (Silver Lake).  According to a legal petition and map from 1835 only one public road had by then been laid out on Ocracoke Island. It began at the Sound (near Springer’s Point), went by the lighthouse (built in 1823), then continued past where the present-day Methodist church and school are situated.  From there it passed the original Methodist Church (which was established in 1828, and was located near the present day firehouse), all the way north to Hatteras Inlet. The petition averred that this one road, from its establishment until 1835, had “served the purpose of all the inhabitants” of the village of Ocracoke.

The map below shows the approximate location of Ocracoke’s first road (in red).  Springer’s Point is shown on the left.  (The two present-day churches and the US Coast Guard Station are indicated for reference.)  The blue line shows the new road that was laid out in 1835.  This eventually was called the Main Road and included present-day Howard Street and that portion of Highway 12 that runs past the Community Store to the Cedar Island/Swan Quarter ferry landing.

According to the tax lists from 1802, 1805, 1806, and 1814, we know that William Howard, grandson of William Howard, Sr., and son of George Howard, owned 28 acres, 78 acres, 103 acres, and 183 acres, respectively.

William and Agnes Howard

It was not until after 1814, however, that he acquired any land in the area now referred to as Springer’s Point. On May 25, 1820 William Howard purchased a house on Ocracoke, situated in a part of the village known then simply as the “Point.”  He purchased this two-story dwelling house, along with a storehouse, from a Mary Cabarrus who acquired the buildings from her uncle, Augustus Cabarrus, one of the early pilots. These individuals owned only the structures, not the land, as this six and one half acres was an expansion of Pilot Town and was set aside for public use.

The Old House with Tower

Another deed from July 23, 1820 indicates that William Howard purchased one half of an additional store house and lot adjoining the public lands.

By 1832 William Howard was ready to sell part of his real estate to his son-in-law, Elisha Chase.  According to a deed dated May 13, 1832, William Howard sold to Elisha one half of an additional piece of land which he had purchased from Comfort Dixon on January 15, 1831.  Although the description of this parcel of land is somewhat unclear, it  includes the area of large live oak trees commonly known today as Springer’s Point. William Howard mentions several buildings on his property (including “two old kitchens,” a “smokehouse,” a “new kitchen” an “old stone house,” a “wharf,” a “new wharehouse,” a “store,” two other “houses,” a “blacksmith shop,” and even a “windmill,” as well as his own home, which he describes as “two dwellings attached together” ).  All of these, he says, “are now, and have long been the property of the said William Howard.”  Most of these structures, however, were built on the six and one half acres of Pilot Town, which was not private property.

Outer Banks Windmill Similar to the One at Springer’s Point

William Howard’s dwelling place was the two-story house purchased from Mary Cabarrus in 1820.  This house, as previously mentioned, was actually two houses joined together.  Constructed sometime before 1800, part of it may actually have been built John Williams or his immediate heirs.  Legend suggests that this building may have originally belonged to Edward Teach himself, although this is highly unlikely. The pirate captain probably had nothing more than a temporary campsite on Ocracoke Island.

For many years this large tract of land was called Williams’ Point, and later, Howard’s Point.  At William Howard’s death on August 30, 1851, his son, William Hatton Howard, inherited a sizeable portion of the property, including the “Point.”  Fours year later, in 1855, he sold his inheritance to Daniel Tolson, and moved to Florida where he died after being thrown from a runaway horse. The Howard family had owned the Point for only twenty-four years (1831-1855).

Daniel Tolson made his home on the Point.  He was married twice, first to Cynthia Williams, Thomas Wahab’s granddaughter, then to Sidney Ross (widow of Abner Bennett Howard, Sr.).

A prominent feature of the house at the Point was a distinctive observation tower that rose above the tops of the trees.  This tower was a later addition, possibly built by Daniel Tolson, and from there the occupants of the house had a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound.  Any ships approaching Ocracoke Island would have been easily spotted by a lookout in this tower. If pirates had ever inhabited this dwelling their spirits would have welcomed the addition of the tower.

After Daniel Tolson’s death, Sidney Ross inherited the property and then married John Small McWilliams.  Before her death in 1883 from complications of childbirth, Sidney McWilliams sold her land and buildings to E. D. and Clara Springer, from South Creek, North Carolina. Although the Springers enjoyed spending time on Ocracoke they never made this their permanent home.
Old House with Tower

My father, Lawton Howard, was born in 1911.  As a young boy he remembers his parents taking him down to Springer’s Point to visit “old man Springer.”   In 1923 the elder Springers sold their property to their son, Wallace.  He was the last person to live in the house, but only for a short while longer.

Wallace, who never married, continued to stay on Ocracoke for some years.  Instead of remaining in the old house, he eventually moved in with Mr. Jamie Styron and other island friends. Wallace Springer died March 13, 1963.  My father left the island in 1927, but he remembers exploring the abandoned house with playmates, and hearing strange noises inside.

In 1941 Sam Jones purchased Springer’s Point.  By then little was left standing that was not badly in need of repair.  Ocracokers remember the dilapidated old house and a smaller structure (a smokehouse or jail) with barred windows, as well as a long-abandoned stable.

When I was a small boy, in the very early 1950’s, the house was nothing more than collapsed walls and piles of old lumber. Sam Jones contracted with Mr. Walter O’Neal to dismantle the old dwelling.  Mr. Walter used some of the lumber when building “Miss Dicey’s” house on Howard Street.  Other timbers were taken by Sam Jones for use as sills in “Berkley Castle” and a small house for Eleanor Gaskins. People familiar with the “Castle” claim that five ghosts — two women and three men — wander the halls and rooms there. Could they be the spirits of the Williamses, or the Howards, or the Tolsons, or even some of the pirate crews?

Sam Jones died September 27, 1977, and is buried at Springer’s Point, next to his favorite horse, Ikey D.

Sam Jones’ Grave

No remnant of any of the structures remains, with the exception of the base of an old brick cistern, now overgrown with ivy.  Few people visit this area of the village anymore.  Those who do often report strange phenomena there.

Old Cistern at Springer’s Point

Roy Parsons worked for Sam Jones for many years.  For a while after Sam’s death, Roy would visit his grave periodically to pay his respects.  Today, gesturing with his thumb and forefinger as if measuring a think stack of banknotes, he opines, “If someone offered me a pile of one hundred dollar bills this thick to go down there to Springer’s of an evening after dark, I’d tell him to keep his money.”

Roy remembers fishing from his skiff near Teach’s Hole one evening.  It was near sunset and the western sky was on fire.  “It was then that I noticed five men standing out in the water.  I wondered what they were up to.  They each had broom handles, buckets, and lanterns.  They seemed to be gigging for flounder, but they were acting mighty peculiar.  Then, without warning, they walked up onto the shore and headed straight through the woods towards the grave.  Í don’t know who they were, or what they were up to, but I didn’t want to stick around and find out,” Roy says.  “For all I know, they could have been ghosts!”

On another occasion Roy was visiting Sam’s grave just before daybreak.  He had run his skiff up onto the shore, and walked through the underbrush into the protective enclosure that is Springer’s Point. The sun was just beginning to lighten up the sky out on the water; under the canopy of trees Roy could barely see to find the path.  No sooner had his eyes adjusted when he noticed a figure standing near the grave site “He had on a white shirt,” Roy offers.  Then Roy runs his open palms along the sides of his head; his eyes open wide.  “His hair was all slicked back,” he adds.  “The oddest thing about him,” Roy continues, “is that there weren’t nothin’ to him below the waist!  I could see him fine from the waist up, but that was all.  I high-tailed it out of there, I did.”

Roy ran back to his skiff as fast as he could, tripping over roots and scraping his arms and legs against the thick undergrowth.  ”I jumped right into my skiff,” Roy explains.  “I never even tried to pull that string to start the motor.  There weren’t enough time.  I just pushed off with my oar.”  Once out into the safety of the channel Roy ventured a look back.  He was just in time to see the figure moving out onto the water.  “He just disappeared.  Went right on down like smoke,” Roy relates, obviously still spooked by his encounter.

Once more Roy ventured down to Springer’s.  This time it was dusk again.  He was approaching the abandoned cistern, not far from Sam Jones’ grave.  Like  before, Roy noticed another figure standing by the graveyard.  “It was a tall man,” Roy explains.  “He was wearing a black straw hat, a white shirt, a necktie, and sunglasses.  I turned around and started to walk back out.”  Roy felt a presence behind him, and he turned back to look.  The figure was walking toward him, not saying anything.  Roy turned around and began to walk faster.  The figure matched Roy’s pace.  “By that time I was running,” says Roy.  “But he was like a vapor.  I turned around again and he just faded out.  I never saw him again.”

Roy shakes his head from side to side, raises his eyebrows and looks me straight in the eye.  “I’m telling you,” he says, “there’s a difference between imagining something in your head and seeing it with your own eyes.  I saw these things I’m telling you about just as surely as I see you right now.”  Roy insists that he will never go back down to Springer’s Point again, especially after dark.  “And,” he continues, “you’d be wise to take my advice and stay away from there yourself.”

Ancient Live Oak at Springers

Special thanks to Ellen Marie Cloud; Earl O’Neal, Jr.; Mildred and John O’Neal; Roy Parsons; Ward Garrish; Blanche Howard Jolliff; Chester Lynn; and Julie Howard for sharing their research and recollections.


Donate Now to Help Preserve Springer’s Point!
As noted above, the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust  is purchasing 31 acres of Springer’s Point.  The area most beloved by residents and visitors, including most of the ancient live oak trees, the old brick cistern, two small graveyards, and much of the shoreline will now be protected from development.

Additional funds are needed to help pay for the purchase, to fulfill a financial obligation to Hyde County, and to manage the site for future educational and environmental purposes.

For more information about their work, you can read the Coastal Land Trust’s Campaign to protect Springer’s Point.

On-line donations can be made through “Network for Good.” For more information visit the NC Coastal Lant Trust site at  http://www.coastallandtrust.org.

Once on their site click on the “Join Us” link and then the “Donate Now Through Network for Good” button.  You can designate your donation specifically for Springer’s Point.

Donations can also be mailed to  North Carolina Coastal Land Trust
3806-B Park Ave
Wilmington, NC
28403

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Welcome back to another edition of our island newsletter!

Some of you may have heard about the fire scare we had last month.  A bottle rocket set off a blazing marsh fire just north of Jackson Dunes on June 8.  The wind was exceptionally strong and pushed the flames to the edge of a stand of tinder-dry cedar trees.  It was only by the quick action of local fishermen (who used their net stake pump to draw water from a nearby ditch), the Volunteer Fire Department (who responded immediately), and scores of worried citizens who struggled with hoses and shovels, that the fire was contained before it jumped the road and engulfed homes and more trees.

Everyone was concerned because the dry brush was fueling the fire and the gusty wind was driving it rapidly towards the village.  Residents and business owners were warned to gather valuables together in the event that the fire became an uncontrollable inferno.  And we all breathed a communal sigh of relief when the fire was finally reduced to smoke and charred vegetation.

Post-fire Marsh Scene:
Post Fire Marsh

One benefit of the conflagration was the passage of an island ordinance prohibiting fire crackers, bottle rockets, and other individual fireworks.  The ordinance calls for criminal and civil penalties so please remember to leave your fireworks at home from now on.  None of us can afford to let our beautiful village fall victim to reckless negligence.

The fire erupted late in the afternoon, during one of the final performances of the OcraFolk Music & Storytelling Festival.  In spite of the distraction the festival was a huge success.


For some time I have been chronicling local island history in these pages.  One of the most colorful characters to be associated with Ocracoke is Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard the Pirate.  I will recount some of his history and stories in a later newsletter, but right now I want to share some thoughts about Blackbeard’s quartermaster, William Howard.

As many of you know, William Howard was the fourth colonial owner of Ocracoke Island (and the first owner to make his home here).  Family legend suggests that William Howard of Ocracoke is the very same William Howard, quartermaster to Blackbeard.  At least that’s what some of the family think.  Others are not so sure.  Dora Adele Padgett, herself the great-great-great-great granddaughter of William, in her book, William Howard Last Colonial Owner of Ocracoke Island, discounts this theory.  She writes:

“And what of the old tales that William Howard, Blackbeard’s Quartermaster, was the same person as William Howard, who in 1759, 40 years later, purchased the Island of Ocracoke?  Evidence points to the fact that in 1718 William Howard Quartermaster, was an experienced ruffian, a seasoned villain and a seafaring man of wide experience.  He is described in the Virginia Court indictment against him as ‘a vagrant seaman, who did associate himself with wicked and dissolute persons.’  In 1718, William Howard who later lived on Ocracoke was a youth of about 18 years of age, hardly the seasoned villain of wide experience who had been Blackbeard’s quartermaster.”

For a different view consider the following.  After my father’s death in March I was going through his papers and discovered a ten-page type-written document entitled “History of the Life of Frank Treat Fulcher.”  Frank Treat, as everyone on the island called him, was a colorful character.  He was a folk artist who carved a number of boat models, as well as the last supper scene that can be seen in the vestibule of the Methodist Church.  His rendition of the Coast Guard vessel EAGLE is on display in the Maritime Room in the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum.  He left the island as a youth and eventually landed a job in Norfolk as a policeman.  Later in life he became a Methodist minister, explaining this change in occupation with the memorable statement, “I figured if I couldn’t beat the Hell out of people, I’d try preaching the Hell out of ’em.”

Frank Treat Fulcher (1878-1971)
Frank Treat Fulcher

According to Frank Treat’s autobiography he was “born January 25, 1878, on Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.”  His father was in the Life Saving Service; his maternal grandfather was a merchant sea captain.  He writes, “At ten years of age my mother let me sail with a friend of hers, a Mrs. Rose, who was Captain….of the schooner EMILINE and I was seaman 3rd class.”  This was in 1888.  That is 170 years after Blackbeard was killed.  And boys were still leaving home to become sailors at ten years old!  Frank Treat “sailed to the various ports of Eastern Carolina” and rose to the rank of seaman first-class.  He recounts rescuing the first mate, who seems to have had a habit of falling overboard, more than once.  From the EMILINE he moved on to the schooner BESSIE where he learned both to cook and to “cuss a blue streak.”  He was not yet eleven years old.

Before Frank Treat turned thirteen years old he had sailed aboard the schooner ROBERT F. BRATTON which almost sank in the Atlantic Ocean on a trip from Charleston, SC to New Bern, NC.  In his own words, “Frank Treat is now twelve years old and is a salty old seaman.”  He met a Captain John Day and sailed on the CARRIE FARSON and then Captain John Beverage who convinced him to sail on board the “UNITY R. DYER, a two topmaster.”  Frank Treat reports “We were in several storms.  Once we were blown off the coast in a hurricane.  It took us fourteen days to sail back.  We lost our deck load and we came near sinking from open seams in the deck.  That was really the worst time I had ever seen.” In October of 1893 Frank Treat’s ship, the DAVIDSON “went ashore about three miles south of Cape Henry and was a total loss.”   ” I was pulled ashore through the breakers on a line,” he recounts.

After chronicling several more shipwrecks Frank Treat tells of his time aboard the Barkentine HENRY NORWELL, “the hardest ship of all.  The Captain was the toughest and the most ungodly man I had ever seen.”  Although Frank “fared much better than the rest of the crew, because I was a better wheel man and I could steer the ship better, by the wind…….we could not endure this hardship any longer, so we all jumped ship [in Brunswick, Georgia].”

After this adventure, Frank Treat signed up as mate on the Russian ship PAULINE bound for Hamburg, Germany.  He was seventeen years old, “in the possession of two good fists….and “could take care of myself.”  As he relates the story, “I helped shanghai the crew and when they discovered where they were, there was trouble in the air, but by this time I had become quite a man, so I talked them out of mutiny.  Fifty-seven days crossing the Atlantic.”  Others would recall that he ruled his crew with “fist, marlin spikes, and boot toes.”

From Hamburg, Frank Treat made a voyage on the “full-rigged ship ACHILLES” to Sydney, Australia.  It took them 120 days via Cape Good Hope, and 143 days to return (by way of Cape Horn) to Rotterdam, Holland.   Off the coast of New Zealand “a storm….carried us 69 degrees south of the Equator, down in the Antarctic ice drifts.  Man Alive!  It was below zero.”

In 1896, when Frank was 18 years old, he was quartermaster on the steamer, NEPTUNE, which left Rotterdam for Baltimore, Maryland.

Judith Levine, in her book, Harmful to Minors, in reference to the influential French historian Philippe Aries, points out that “Until the mid-1700’s….at seven, a person might be sent off to become a scullery maid or a shoemaker’s apprentice; by fourteen, he could be a soldier or a king, a spouse and a parent; by forty, more than likely, he’d be dead.”

No one can be sure at the present time if William Howard of Ocracoke was the same person as William Howard the pirate.  Family members are researching the archives for new clues.  But one thing is certain in my mind.  In 1718 a young man still in his teens was no doubt capable of the seafaring experience necessary for serving as quartermaster of any vessel, let alone a pirate ship.  If you have any doubt, just look at the record of Frank Treat Fulcher.

Until next time, all the best to you from the entire staff of Village Craftsmen.

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